Western Dressage Circles – How they benefit you and your horse in other Horse Show Events

Western Dressage Circles – How they benefit you and your horse in other Horse Show Events

by Dr. Mike Guerini, Ph.D. (www.dunmovinranch.com)

A few weeks back I wrote a blog on Western Dressage (WD) called “Western Dressage and the One Trick Pony.”  In that blog I commented on the need for Western Dressage to reach beyond the normal WD test and educate/reward/encourage/empower/celebrate how people can use WD to build a better horse that is able to excel in many different areas.

This blog begins the journey of sharing with you all how I think WD can help us build better horses that can compete in multiple events.  There are many key elements in WD, many of them come from lessons learned from Classical Horsemanship, and used in Classical and Competitive Dressage.

The first topic of discussion is the Circle. The circle comes in 20m, 15m, and 10m sizes.  There are also half circles that can be included in this category for now.  Okay, first lesson – the sizes in a measurement we use in our daily life.

20m = 65.62 feet diameter circle

15m = 49.21 feet diameter circle

10m = 32.81 feet diameter circle

Second lesson — The key to learning how to ride a perfectly sized and shaped circle is to look TWO POINTS AHEAD and “connect the dots.”

We need to realize that riding the perfectly shaped and sized circle helps the horse’s physical development (circles help develop lateral flexibility and engagement of the inside hind leg). On the mental side of things, riding accurate circles helps develop obedience.

What does the Circle in WD teach us as a rider and horse team that we can use in other horse show classes?

ARENA LOCATION/PRESENCE – This is all about knowing where you are in the horse show class. Are you near the rail, in the center, how far to the end of the arena – all this comes because you know where you are located with your horse at any time.

When you ride the 20m circle, and do it with the correct size and geometry, you learn to view the surrounding area where you are riding with much more clarity.  Centered Riding by Sally Swift has taught us to have soft eyes. With soft eyes, we are aware of our horse and the rest of the riding area with greater ease.  When we focus on a point, and our eyes are not soft, we get fixated and lose the ability to plan our ride and prepare for the next maneuver. When we do not know where we are in the arena and how to navigate the area, we are forced to make big changes that disrupt our horse and our rhythm.  Guess who always looks when we make those big changes – that is the exact moment in time the judge looks at us.

In which Horse show classes is arena location/presence important?  ALL OF THEM!  I need to know where I am so that I prepare for the next trail obstacle, I need to know where the other riders are located, I need to know where center is for reining, I need to know where the end (or side) of the arena is when I want to turn a cow.  We need to have nicely controlled circles for running barrels as well. For those who ride equitation – this is critical for you to know where you are in the arena — presentation matters.

Good quality Circles help us to achieve success by planning, preparing, and making small changes as needed.

BALANCE – This is about having your horse able to work out in space and not lean on the rail.  When we ride a 20m circle (or 15m or 10m), there is at least some part of the circle that does not have a rail to hold up our horse.  Horses and riders get to leaning on a rail and they rely on that for balance. An un-balanced horse and rider that depends on the arena fence/wall for success is one that is not as athletic as possible. With a well-balanced horse, the circle geometry is perfectly round.

In which Horse show classes is balance important?  ALL OF THEM!  Again – each class benefits when we ride a balanced horse that can show his/her athleticism. Ride the perfect 20m, 15m, or 10m circle without an arena fence and you will learn how to ride softly and with more feel. Reining (and reined cowhorse) especially benefit from balanced and well-rounded circles.

Once again — Good quality Circles help us to achieve success by planning, preparing, and making small changes as needed. When we ride these perfectly shaped and sized circles, we have our horse mentally and physically balanced and ready for whatever comes next. A horse that is balanced is responsive to the aids – it is NOT leaning on one leg or one rein.

FLEXIBILITY (Bending and Straightness) – One of the goals of riding a round 20m circle is to create flexibility. Flexibility refers to your ability to bend laterally through his side. The bend through your horse’s side should be equal from the poll to the tail. With a flexible horse you are developing one that is ambidextrous (that is he/she can bend just as easily on the right as on the left). Correctly ridden circles also teach the basic/beginning elements of engagement (bending of the joints of the hind legs) and circles also develop straightness. By definition, a straight horse is straight on lines and bent along the arc of a circle.

In which Horse show classes is Flexibility (Bending and Straightness) important?  ALL OF THEM!  A flexible horse is an athletic horse.  In my time I have had some horses come in for training that the rider described to me in these words “My horse is great.  She goes really straight but we are having trouble getting around the corner.”  I mentioned that likely half the time in any horse show class the horse was needing to be bent (turns, arena corners, etc). A few of these riders have looked at me and said they had never thought about that.

For every horse show class we will ever compete in we will need a horse that is flexible and can answer our call for action. Riding a perfect 20m circle will help you develop a horse that is ready to answer your request and help the two of you look good in the show arena.

RHYTHM – Rhythm of the gait of the horse is so important in WD circles. We want to establish a rhythm, timing, cadence to the gait and hold that the same throughout the circle.

In which Horse show classes is rhythm (timing & cadence) important?  ALL OF THEM!  IF we are in western pleasure, ranch versatility, reining, or trail, we need to maintain an even rhythm of the gait. We want our horse traveling at a gait that has consistency because when the horse is consistent, the presentation looks better, but more importantly, the horse is ready/prepared for the pre-signal and aid you will apply to make those changes necessary to show smoothness.  In Equitation classes, we want to have a nice rhythm because that is pleasing to the eye and accentuates your rider form and smoothness with the horse.

So far I have mostly concentrated on the benefit to the horse.  HOW ABOUT THE RIDER AND THE BENEFIT FROM RIDING THESE CIRCLES? Well the rider benefits greatly from learning those perfect circles. The rider improves his/her arena location knowledge as I said earlier.  But the rider also improves the use of his/her seat and legs, and balance and softness of the hands when riding these circles. By riding these perfect circles, he/she learns how to make small changes and it is these small changes that tell the horse you are competent and trusting.  Any time we make abrupt and physically reactive changes we tell the horse that we are not very trustworthy.  Soft and small changes keep that trust and harmony in your ride.

There are also a few life lessons in learning how to ride the perfect circle.  I still work each ride to make that perfect circle.  Some days I succeed and other days I  break a few circles….but each time I get better and the life lesson is that with patience, planning, calmness, and time – I  can be a better rider…better person…better equestrian and along the way I get the benefit of learning these lessons with a horse!

Hopefully this has expanded your awareness of why and how these circles in WD can help you build your all around horse and develop a better foundation of training. You do not need to ever take a WD test, although there is a great benefit and feedback that comes from taking one of these tests (you get a score and written remarks), but if you ride in a western saddle and you do not take the time to see how well you can ride that perfect circle – you are missing out on a learning opportunity for you and your horse and you might be keeping yourself out of the winners place in your western show events.

The circles we learn and ride in Western Dressage (tests, clinics, lessons, etc.) – or in the Cowboy Dressage world – help us to build a better western horse.

Thank you for Reading this blog.  Share this Blog and Share your Thoughts!

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (http://www.coachscorral.com/), an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (http://www.hydrot.com/).

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Four Letter Words in The Horse World (Humor)

Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com)

The other day I was speaking with a friend who had never spent much time around a horse barn. He asked me share the day-to-day routine around the barn. I was in one of my odd humor moods (as a scientist we have weird humor days) and told him…well it is not for the faint of heart – there are quite a few times we use four letter words around the barn. We even use these four letter words at the branding pen, in the arena, when we take horses from one place to another, when the farrier visits, and even when the vet comes around.

This friend looked at me in shock and said, “I never realized you all had such foul mouths.” He proceeded to give me a lecture on how sad and bad it was that we all used curse words and that we needed to have our mouths washed out with soap. He said, “I am not sure I can hang around you if that is how you all talk.”

Well at this point, I could not keep from laughing. He looked at me in horror and I decided it was time to tell him about our four letter words in the Horse world.

You see I told him. “We train all our horses to WALK, TROT, and LOPE so that they know each GAIT. We spend time training our horses to WORK a GATE and get used to a ROPE. We use a COMB to groom them and put on a leg WRAP most days. We HAUL to a SHOW, SORT cattle, JUMP in the arena and there is one class we call HUNT seat. When the veterinarian comes, we let him give a SHOT and talk about whether the horse might have a WORM. The farrier uses a NAIL to put a SHOE onto the HOOF.”

At this time he shook his head and said to me – I think that helmet on your head must be squeezing to hard cause if you think this way your brain is damaged.

I said – “This is not brain damage….it is my LIFE. I enjoy this lots and now I am off to RIDE my PONY next to the RAIL.”

I hope this gave you a quick laugh and helped you all realize how much fun we have around the BARN.  I sure wish I could STOP…no wait I want to HALTWHOA — time to get off this crazy fun writing and get back to the FARM.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and I hope it made you laugh.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (www.coachscorral.com), an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).

Riding in Competition – 3 Keys for dealing with mistakes

Riding in Competition – 3 Keys for dealing with mistakes

by Dr.Mike Guerini, Ph.D. (www.dunomvinranch.com)

One of the things that I encourage my students and those I coach to remember is that the class is never over until you leave the arena. All too often I see riders have something happen that they know is a deduction or a penalty and you can immediately see things further deteriorate in the ride. Sometimes it looks like the rider just gives up. In other situations the rider takes a really hard line with the horse and decides to school right there in the show pen without any thought as to how to fix the error…the rider simply begins to poke and pull and let that horse know it made a mistake.

So for all the students that allow me to be part of their coaching staff…and for those of you here who take the time to read my blogs, I would like to share my 3 keys to overcoming those mistakes.

1 – Let go of the mistake – be a resilient rider. This sounds easy but we all know it is a struggle. The mistake has happened and we cannot time travel backwards…we need to go forward. We must condition ourselves in the practice pen at home to ride through our mistakes. All too often at home or in the practice pen/arena we stop and begin analyzing. While analyzing is good, we need to learn to let go of the mistake at home and ride forward.

Another way of thinking about this is that while showing you must be resilient. Resilience is key to overcoming performance errors. When we are resilient, we keep our composure, work to be consistent, stay positive, and show confidence. Resilient riders let go of the error and get back to the next maneuver. When we are resilient, we become more consistent and in truth,…consistent riding helps us win.

2 – Practice how to correct mistakes at home – and be able to make corrections immediately in the show pen. I certainly make my share of mistakes at home when riding. So rather than stop and fuss about the mistake, I have taught myself and those I coach, to be able to feel the mistake and immediately make the correction. Maybe it is not exactly a mistake yet but you feel that the horse is slowing and going to break gait (YAY – you are feeling it about to happen), well do something before it happens. As a coach, 9 times out of 10, I can see what is going to happen before it happens and I know with practice at home…we can refine our feel and be ready to catch those issues and make a correction before it happens.

For example, if your horse picks up the wrong lead, be able to switch the horse back to the correct lead instantly. This gets easier when you build muscle memory at home by riding through the problem and getting it fixed. Another example is when your horse gets moving too fast…learn at home how you can slow your horse down without it becoming a pull fest on the reins (some suggestions include, moving the haunches a bit off the straight line, lowering your energy, relax your seat bones, etc.). Spend the time at home to have a toolbox of ideas and ways to correct the mistake.

3 – Keep Breathing – because you need your brain to be working. It has been said that “Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life” and we all know that breathing is a very powerful tool for riders. Your body needs oxygen to function properly. If you are not breathing, you are not getting oxygen to your muscles and nervous system (that which helps you feel) or other vital organs such as your brain and eyes. To overcome mistakes you need to be able to feel and see what is happening and most importantly think by using your brain. Remember all that practice work to learn to ride and feel your horse…well if you do not breathe, your brain does not think properly and if you hold your breath in frustration after a mistake…your ability to think is compromised.

Keep these three keys in mind as you practice and apply them at your next competition. I am quite certain that if you add these to your riding philosophy — you will see it pay off in the show/competition pen and arena.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and I thank you for sharing this blog with your friends and family.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (www.coachscorral.com), an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).