Done correctly, circles have countless benefits. One of the most important perks is that they help you learn to guide your horse. However, riders have trouble executing flawless circles, and horses sometimes resist circle work. There’s the horse that pushes out against your leg, and the one that dramatically falls in on a circle. Perhaps you hate circles because your horse sticks his neck out like a giraffe when you ask him to bend anywhere but in the corner of an arena.
AQHA Professional Horseman Bennie Sargent has a unique perspective on circles that has proven to be very effective for both horses and riders.
“To be honest, I stress to my riders not to do circles,” says Sargent. “We do squares.”
Drawing a perfect circle is difficult to do, and so is riding one. When you ask your horse to complete a square rather than a circle, he will learn to stay straight between your legs and your reins, and you will learn to truly guide him.
Why Ride a Square?
You’ve probably seen a horse that’s learned to cheat and guide his rider. He might lean in or cut corners in an arena, or make a misshapen circle in the center of the ring. The horse knows what’s coming, so he’ll start guiding the rider in order to take a shorter path.
Riders have a hard time getting from point A back to point A in a circle, explains Sargent. Issues often include the horse dropping to the inside and not holding up his ribcage.
“If you practice squares, you have to guide your horse from point A to B to C to D and back to A,” says Sargent. “Once you know how to get back to point A, it’s not hard to round out the corners and make a circle. If you ride straight and then turn him, he’s not going to learn to stick his ribcage out and push his shoulder. He’ll learn to stay straight between your reins and legs.”
Sargent uses reiners as an example. When riding their large circles, they often run them as close to the wall as they can go, using the wall to guide their horse. The good riders are separated from the truly great riders when it comes to the slow small circles. A great rider will guide the horse, while the average rider’s hand is always trying to control the rate and speed after losing track of where the small circle is going.
Riding a Square
Riding a square teaches your horse to be guided and also requires you to guide your horse. “If you practice squares, then you’re guiding your horse, and he has to wait for you to tell him where to go,” says Sargent. “This makes you and your horse work together as a unit.”
Counting the steps on each side of the square is the key to making an even shape. Also focus on keeping your horse between your reins and legs. To make square corners, Sargent offers tips to guide your horse effectively: If you’re going to the right, slide your left leg forward a little to turn his shoulder and slide your right leg back a little to push his hip around. “It’s like a forehand turn and a haunches turn at the same time to make that perfect little 90-degree turn,” he explains.
While your seat and legs control your horse’s body, the reins control his head, neck and shoulders. “Support with the outside rein; don’t just open your hand and pull to the inside,” says Sargent. “If you open your hand and pull to the inside, your horse will take too many steps and you’re going to have to pull back to the outside to straighten him back up. It’s like driving a car that’s running off the road and overcorrecting and hitting the mailbox on the other side of the road. If you just keep your horse between your reins and support with the outside rein, you’re going to keep his shoulders upright and keep him in a straighter line.”
Bending to the outside too much in the turn is a common mistake riders make when guiding a horse in a square. According to Sargent, it’s all in the wrist.
“If you rotate your wrist away from your body, you’re going to turn your horse’s nose to the outside and it’s not going to be a square anymore,” he explains. He advises keeping your thumb rolled slightly to the inside for total control so that you won’t rotate your wrist and your horse’s head won’t push out to the opposite side.
Rein length also matters. “If you have too loose of a rein, your hand will be way out there and you won’t be guiding your horse,” says Sargent. “If you have too short of a rein and you don’t move your hand enough, your horse’s head is going to kick to the outside.”
Your horse will follow your eyes, so look up and where you want to go. When riding a circle, people tend to look to the inside the entire time. Sargent explains that if you look ahead and guide your horse from point to point on a square, he will be upright, balanced and more collected.
Once you can ride squares, it’s really simple to round out the corners and make a circle.
Bending and Balance
Even if you’re riding squares, you and your horse need to know how correct bending and balance feel.
“You have to be cautious with bending,” says Sargent. “To help get your horse soft in his withers and jaw, stand still and pull his nose to your left or right knee. You don’t want your hand to cross his neck or withers. If you take your hand across his neck, you’re moving his shoulder outward while pulling his nose to your knee. That’s a different maneuver geared more toward the shoulder-in/shoulder-out exercise. You just want your horse to be supple and ready for bending. Pull his nose to the right and then to the left. Then let him straighten out before you ask again.”
Sargent explains that many riders will bend a horse’s neck and then allow him to take a couple of steps to get balanced, because the horse isn’t used to the exercise or isn’t soft and ready to go. If you can pull your horse’s nose to your knee and all four of his feet stay in the same place, then he is soft, supple and ready to go to work.
If you want to work on your horse’s balance in straight lines, Sargent suggests using ground poles. Poles force you to keep your balance and learn to actively ride your horse.
Sargent sets up three or four poles, each 6 feet apart. This creates two-step jog poles and one-step lope poles for stock seat horses. By setting them 6 feet apart, you don’t have to get off your horse to adjust the poles in order to school both the jog and the lope. If you don’t have poles to work with, you can use 8-foot landscaping timbers.
When you guide your horse over the poles, remember to look up to where you want to go, and focus on guiding him between your reins and legs. You will use the same aids when you guide him through a square.
Benefits of Squares at All Gaits
When you are working with a green horse, squares will help you evaluate your progress. If you’re having difficulty guiding him at the lope, ask him to jog a square. If you and your horse can’t jog a square, you haven’t set up the right foundation.
“You can’t expect your horse to go at a faster pace if you can’t do it at an even pace,” says Sargent. “Start from the ground up. If you can’t do it at the walk or jog, don’t do it at the lope.”
While it’s important to work your way through the gaits, it may be easiest to practice squares at the jog rather than at the walk for a young horse who may need the extra impulsion to stay collected and soft.
However, remember to master squares at the walk and jog before moving on to the lope. The lope is a three-beat gait with a different balance point. The extra impulsion compared to the jog doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for the horse to learn to follow your guidance.
Spicing up Squares
If you feel like you and your horse need to do a different exercise to keep you both engaged during a schooling ride, you can change up the markers in the arena. Usually riders school with cones or poles, but anything that is safe can make an old exercise seem new.
Or instead of altering items in the arena, consider exercising your horse in a different location. If you’re on a trail ride, pick out four markers and make those the points in your square. Even if your goal is a relaxing trail ride, you’ll be reinforcing to your horse that you guide him, not the other way around.
Special thanks to Bennie Sargent for assistance with photos, and to Hayley McGuire riding BTS Lucky in Love and Miranda Richardson riding My Southern Breeze for demonstrating the exercises in the article.
Allison Griest is a freelance writer based in Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @allisongriest.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!