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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