Back to Basics: The Elusive 20-Meter Circle

Such a simple shape in theory, but in practice…

Ah, yes. The 20-meter circle, something that seems like it should be so simple, but still winds up looking like amoeba with flailing pseudopodia. Is it because we all failed geometry in high school, or is it harder than it looks? I’m gonna go with the latter, if only to feel better about myself.

illustration by Joseph Leidy, 1879

Illustration by Joseph Leidy, 1879

So what is the purpose of riding a 20-m circle? First off, it is a simple test of geometric accuracy. Schooling figures helps to strengthen and supple the horse, but only if the figures are ridden accurately. Inaccurately-ridden figures can lead to incorrect alignment and asymmetrical muscle development, so being accurate matters even while schooling.

The most common geometrically-based mistake I see is caused by the unmistakable gravitational pull of the rail. Being away from the rail is scary, so people have a tendency to stick to it, and instead of riding circles they wind up riding squares with rounded corners. If you find yourself on the rail for more than one stride, you are not riding a circle. I repeat! You are not riding a circle!

This is not a circle:

Not a circle. Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

This IS a circle:

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Aside from testing our geometry skills, the 20-m circle requires us to create bend throughout our horse’s body with our inside seat bone and inside leg, while controlling the degree of bend with the outside rein. You know how people are always yelling “inside leg to outside rein!” That. You need to be able to do that.

Why, you ask? (P.S. you should always ask “why?”) First off, lateral flexion (bending side to side) supples the horse over the back allowing for increased flexibility. Secondly, a horse exhibiting a correct bend will be stepping diagonally under the belly by engaging the abdominal muscles, encouraging him to lift his back and become round. Check in with my previous article to learn about the importance of a round back.

Lastly, when the horse bends, you’ll notice his neck presses into the outside rein as shown in the figure below, creating increased pressure in your outside hand. You have two choices. You can either open your ring finger or release your outside hand forward to allow for bend, which you will want to do to a certain extent on a 20-m circle, or you can keep your outside hand static and use that pressure on the outside rein as a restraining aid. So seeing that the pressure in the outside rein comes from the bend in the horse’s body, and the bend in the horse’s body is coming from your inside leg, you are essentially creating pressure in the outside rein, which can be used to slow or rebalance the horse, with your inside leg. OMG! There’s that inside leg to outside rein thing again!

Illustration by Biz Stamm. (Don't worry, Morgane... you have plenty of job security as an illustrator/comic.)

Illustration by Biz Stamm. (Don’t worry, Morgane… you have plenty of job security as an illustrator/comic.)

Ok, so I know I started off this series telling you not to drill test movements, but the 20-meter circle is one worth drilling. You will be aligning, suppling and strengthening the horse by doing so. As I stated before, riding accurate figures is a key part of schooling, so I’m going to give you a few tips to ride an accurate 20-m circle.

Start off by asking your horse for the appropriate amount of bend for a 20-m circle. This will require some trial and error and/or someone helping you from the ground. Then just move forward while holding that bend and you should create a perfect circle. I like to imagine it like an ice skater carving a circle in the ice. Find your bend and carve that circle!

Go riding!

Biz is the author of Horse Nation’s “Back to Basics” series, which follow the journey of a “somewhat ordinary” horse and rider pair as they strive for greatness. Catch up on her past columns by clicking the #BACK TO BASICS at the top of the page.

Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full-time trainer/riding instructor specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 9-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 4-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

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