Circles are such fantastic figures to ride. We start our youngsters on circles well before they go on straight lines on the longe line. When we first ride our babies, we begin in circles on the longe or in a round pen. Circles help teach bend, control and balance.
I ride circles each and every day on every horse I ride. After riding 6 or 7 horses, that's hundreds of circles every day. Luckily, they don't make me dizzy. With my young horses, I stick to 20 meter circles, but with Boo, Wheels and Junior, I tend to ride more 10 and 8 meter circles. With every circle I ride, be it a 20m circle or an 8m circle, I examine the quality and geometry of each and every one. If one is not correct, I repeat it. I make sure I begin and end my circle at the same exact place. If you ride with precision 100% of the time, competition is easy since riding point to point is second nature.
A few years ago, I had the honor and pleasure of riding with the great Karl Mikolka. His lessons were some of my most enlightening training moments. Something we focused on for a very long time was the riding of a proper 10m circle and corners. Essentially, a correct corner should take 3 strides counted as the set of diagonal pairs touching the ground. You can count them out loud as "1 and 2 and 3 and." Knowing the corner of your proper dressage arena is 25% of a proper 10m circle, a perfectly ridden 10m circle should take you 12 strides.
Begin by riding several good corners and count as you enter the corner with 1 and 2 and 3 and. Once you've established this understanding, ride a 10m circle in the corner and count every stride being careful to stop counting where you began in the beginning of your circle. How many strides did you count? if you counted less strides, maybe your horse is not collected enough for the circle and his strides are too long. Is he on his forehand? Try collecting him a bit and see if you can add the 1 or 2 strides you may have missed. Be sure you add energy to the hind leg and not slow down the tempo. On the other hand, maybe your circle was too small. Make sure you ride 4 equal sets of 3 strides beginning in the corner you enter and touch the center line.
What if you have too many strides? What is the quality of your horse's trot? Is he tight through the topline causing the trot to be tense and short? Try relaxation exercises to get the connection flowing through the entire body and come back to the circle exercise once he's relaxed. Is the circle too big? Be certain you are not crossing over the centerline when you make your circle.
These training sessions were several years ago, but I still ride Mr. Mikolka's exercises to this day. I found that by counting strides, it focuses my attention completely on my horse's back and my connection to his body. I've learned to feel and analyze each and every stride my horse takes and ensure the quality of each stride is the same as the last. I often have students say that their horses become very bored doing circles. I think it's the person who becomes bored riding circles and then they place their emotion onto the horse. By counting the strides and being diligent about riding proper geometry, you add a challenge to your routine that will abolish the "boredom." Try it!! It's fun!