Is it a circle or an egg?  One of the hardest movements in a dressage test is the circle.

When it comes to the driven dressage tests one needs to learn circles from 40 meters at training level to 10 meters at FEI level, along with every size between.

When you start learning how to drive circles at training level you are starting with the 40 meter size. That size circle is in each of the four tests for training.

A lot of the preparation of being able to drive a circle, is first having the basic knowledge of geometry and how the size of your circle relates to the total size of the driven dressage arena.

For example:

  • The normal size of the arena is 40m x 80m so, if you are doing a 40 m circle it is basically half the size of the arena.
  • If you are doing a 30m circle it is 3/4 the width and 3/8 the length of the arena.
  • If you are doing a 20m circle it is 1/2 the width and 1/4 the length of the arena.

Once you get the basic geometry in your head, it becomes easier to drive the circle.  The easiest circles are those that start at the edge of the arena. These are also the easiest for the judge to see if you are making a circle or an egg. The barrier gives you a starting and ending point of your circle.  When the circle starts in the inside of the arena, it is harder to envision where you need to go.

If you, as the driver is not sure where you need to drive the circle to keep it round, can you imagine your horses frustration with the whole process!  My horse does not know geometry, so he is depending on me to help him get it drawn correctly!

The other thing I see drivers do, is they will do ten circles in a row with no relief for the horse. When the horse is first learning the proper bend, it is hard on their muscles, so ten circles in a row and your horse will become sore and bored. Each size of circle takes a different degree of bend in the horses body to make the correct size circle.  The 40 meter circle does not take much more than a slight bend of the nose and neck and the rest of the body flows right along.  Where as the 10 meter circle takes much more bend through the horses whole body to make a well driven circle.

The other thing that I see drivers do, is that they don’t follow the circle with their eyes.  You can not look straight ahead and drive a proper circle.  That is like looking straight ahead while driving your car and turning right at the same time.  You are going to run into something!

So, how do you drive a circle that does not look like an egg?

First, be sure that your horse is able physically to bend his body throughout his total spine.  If your horse is unable to do this, then he will not be able to make a proper circle.

For example, my Morgan gelding who has driven his whole life, suddenly had trouble bending his body to the right. It was as though his spine was stuck and no matter how hard he tried he could not do it.  I had some body work done on him over a six week period and we found that somehow he managed to dislocate his right shoulder which made it painful for him to bend to the right.

Next, as you are driving say a 40 meter circle, break it down into four quarters.  Find a focal point for each of the quarters, such as a cone, tree or a letter on your arena. If you are starting your circle at letter “A”, then your first focal point would be half way between the corner at letter “F” and letter “B”.  Your second focal point will be at Letter “X”, your third point will be half way between Letter “E” and the corner at “K”, with your last point being at letter “A”.

As you leave letter “A”, you will be turning your head slightly to the left looking at that first focal point, by doing this your left shoulder will drop slightly which will put a little pressure on your left rein. As you are driving this first quarter, keep a very steady outside rein (right rein) and every four to five steps do a slight pull on the inside rein.  This will keep your path of travel at the right arc.

Once you have reached that first focal point, you will then turn your focus to the second focal point letter “X”, continuing around in this same manner until you are back to the beginning letter “A”.

As you practice doing your circles this way, you will find that they become easier to drive.  If your circle starts to fall in then you are asking to often with your inside rein.  Try increasing the number of steps between the asking.  If you are traveling and your horse is moving out away from the arc of the circle, then you may have to decrease the strides between or ask with a bit more intensity.

Remember, that circles are easier to accomplish at a working trot than at a walk.  Do not over do your circle drawing so your horse does not get bored.  Put some straight lines or diagonals across the arena to keep the horse focused on you and what he is supposed to do.

Once you get the process down, and you can do it without thinking at the large circle, then you can start moving on to smaller circles.

Smaller circles require the horse to be more under himself and truly working from his rear-end. The smaller the circle, the more often you will need to tap on that inside rein.  The horses body will need to be on a more pronounced bend as the size of the circle goes down.

Now, I am sure you are wondering why there are circles in all dressage tests?  Everything you do in a dressage test will translate to both the cones course and the obstacles.  Being able to properly execute a circle will make those turns in the cones course easier to execute.  Cone courses are all about full circles or partial circles that take you from one set of cones to another.

Circles, properly executed, will be of great assistance when you are making your way through an obstacle that has tight turns that can slow you down.  A well executed circle can save time and energy, for the horse, in an obstacle.

So you see the execution of great circles is very important in all three phases of Combined Driving!

“Have fun and drive a circle”