Monday, April 11, 2011

Circles and Collection

Every reining pattern has six circles so my horse better know how to execute, not only a circle, but a correct, pretty circle. Also, circles are the backbone of a reining training program.

If my horse gives to my hands and gives to my legs, the theory is I can teach him to walk, jog, and run circles. If he gives to the right rein and gives to the left rein, I can direct his head; if he moves away from leg pressure, I can position his ribs and body; if he understands to move forward when I ask, I can ask for any gait I wish - in a circle. That’s the theory…

From the first rides to the finished reining horse, my program is to correct my horse when he leaves the circle and leave him alone when he is on the circle. That, to me, is fair and easily understandable to my horse. Also, that is the way to have a horse that will gallop circles with no rein contact – or even bridleless! In other words, if I am loping a circle to the left, my hand is low as long as he stays on the circle. If he drifts out of the circle, say to the right, I pick up my hand and leg yield him back on the path, then lower my hand again and leave him alone. If he drifts out again (or collapses in), I correct again, then leave him alone again.

Before I go any farther, I must talk about what a circle is. A circle is a figure bounded by a curved line that is everywhere an equal distance from the center – no more, no less.  A circle is round - not oval or lopsided - round! If you are having difficulty ascertaining whether you are on your circle, it might be a good idea to “chalk” one with lime in your arena. Practice walking and trotting this circle until you have the feel of keeping your horse in the correct frame to stay on the circle, and then try at a lope.

Hand in hand with circles is collection (although a horse needs to be collected to be able to perform all reining maneuvers). A “collected” horse is balanced between the rider’s hands and legs. As I drive my horse forward into my hands with my legs, he shortens his frame, rounds his back, and strides deeper behind. He cannot do this if he is not giving to the bridle. When he softens to rein pressure, he can then round his back; when he rounds his back, he can stride deeper with his hind legs. Collection starts with giving to the bridle and is completed when the horse gives to leg pressure. As always, if my horse is green, I expect less.

The Exercise
Walk your horse in a large circle and slowly apply pressure with both legs. Then slowly apply rein contact and hold (I tell my students to “lock their elbows”) for four or five strides, applying enough leg pressure to keep your horse moving forward. You should not keep pulling with your hands – stop your hands and drive with your legs. (Your reins should be at a length so that your hands are not behind the horn when you have taken the slack out of them with your horse giving vertically). The goal is for the horse to give his head to rein pressure and become lighter on the forehand as he places his hind feet farther under his body.
Repeat the exercise at a jog, a posting trot and lope as the horse understands. 

  • Apply legs before hands.
  • Apply more leg than hands.
  • Do not restrict more forward motion than you can create with your legs. In other words, if you have very strong legs, you can apply more pressure with your hands because you can overcome it with your legs. A child, on the other hand, with very little leg strength, needs to be very light on the reins.
This is what keeps your horse moving forward. If you apply more rein pressure than leg pressure, you are actually asking him to move backwards. We want to keep forward motion. At first, relax pressure for three or four strides before asking again but as your horse gets more trained or if he is already trained, you can release pressure for only one stride or even a half stride. The goal is for the horse to maintain the collected frame because he BELIEVES that you will always put him back in that frame. The following video demonstrates collection at a jog, trot and lope on a two-year-old.
I do a tremendous amount of schooling work on circles. After warming my horse up, I jog, then trot, then lope circles, collecting at every gait and, of course, reversing directions. Only after my horse is relaxed in a circle will I ride straight lines. I like to say he has to “earn” his way into straight lines. If he is chargy or not focused in the straight line, I go back to circles and collection in the circles.

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