I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!
If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.
I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.
This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.
The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.
If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.
In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.
I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.
Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.
The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.
Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.