Thoroughbred Logic: Habits on the Circle

“Circles are great for both identifying . . . underlying patterns and foundational holes and using that very same consistent turn to fix them. You just have to think ahead.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). Come along for the ride as she offers her logic on what can be accomplished on a circle. 

Horses are creatures of habit. Conveniently, so are humans. When I’m teaching, these two facts combine to make me sound like a broken record – praising the good things and asking the rider to correct the same things (both in themselves, and the horse) over and over. I suppose that addressing habits is the core of coaching anyway: you recognize patterns, identify ways to amend them and get riders to apply the new tactics. Without habit, it would all be mildly-terrifying scattershot.

Today, we’ll look at the green (so per last week, between neon and lime) horse habits that come out on the circle — applicable both on the lunge and under saddle – and how to harness those habits to productively train. Circles are great for both identifying these underlying patterns and foundational holes and using that very same consistent turn to fix them. You just have to think ahead.

Teaching Rebecca Ramsey and Mac (Big Tasty) on a circle at a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic here at Kivu. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Sure, each horse is as different under saddle as they are on the ground. That said, when these Thoroughbreds come off the track, they tend to follow some common patterns (which likely apply to other, non-track equines as well). Among other things:

  • They tend to be softer and more able to bend one way than another
  • One lead is commonly easier to attain
  • They are comfortable using speed to create balance
  • They don’t necessarily know how to move their ribs or shoulder laterally away from rider pressure

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) featured here a few months back, predictably leaning through his circle at the side closest to the double gates. Photo by Cora Williamson.

The lunge gives you an excellent vantage of the shape your horse makes as it travels in a circle… or an egg… or a many-pointed star… But whether on a lunge or under saddle, a truly round circle with a consistent bend (and soft feel on the line/rein) is the goal. That said, most will lean in at a particular point and bulge and lean out (drop a shoulder) at another. In combination with this, they will speed up as they lean in and slow down as they lean out. There is almost always is work to be done.

What I love about training work on a circle is that the habits – the change in tempo and the falling in/out – are consistent. They literally happen at the same point of the same circle Every. Single. Time. Now, if you move your circle to another part of the arena or field, they may change, sure, but keep it the same for a bit and you’ll give yourself a leg up. See, once you know their patterns, you can predict them and use them to your advantage.

With these greenies, I will put them on a 20-30m circle and aim to establish an even rhythm. Then, paying attention to where they do what, I will use their habits to help craft their training.

Hush (Out of the Silence) training her bend and consistency of rhythm on the circle. Photo by Kelly Robison.

It is easy to install a good “woah,” or reward successful half halts approaching areas where they are already slightly hesitant or naturally slow down. Similarly, with a sluggish or behind-the-leg horse, the portion of the circle where they lean in a bit and speed up to balance themselves can be made useful by applying more leg to encourage the idea of forward (and outside rein to help them stand up and balance). Then even better yet, these training moments can be drawn out to make the whole circle consistent. For instance, one can then try to keep that forward momentum through the “slow” side of the circle, or the slower tempo through the quick side.

Three-year-old Needles Highway is a bit behind the leg, so working on the circle, I used his “fast side” to get the pace I wanted him to hold as he approached the slower part of his turn. Next step: get his shoulder and ribs over. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

The biggest things with all of this is to avoid drilling and to praise them well when they try. The horse does not need to get it right off the bat. Sure they might – but more often than not, they are going to get it only sort-of right. But each time they try, it is helpful to clearly give, soften and reward the effort.

Additional common errors would be simply allowing the pattern to continue round and around without trying to get ahead of it, asking for a change, or improving it. Equally, it would be a shame to let that pattern continue to be something one reacts to each time after it has begun. Use the predictability of the circle to set them up for success in their “fast spot” or in the space they lean in before they get there. In all cases, when you carry on around the circle, make sure that your communication is as simple and clear as possible and then enjoy the rinse and repeat of the circle to help make your point.

Tuck (Louisiana Bling) getting a big reward as he works on the circle. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

For instance, identifying the “side” of the circle that they drop a shoulder out and get softer and rounder (even if not yet correct), is helpful to encourage them to travel more correctly off your inside leg to outside hand. They are more likely to understand what you are asking (use their core, lift their back and push from behind) when this is trained (and praised) in the part of the circle where they naturally slow down and push their ribs to the outside.

The opposite side of the circle, where they commonly fall in, is a great place to really start ask them to apply the learning from the “easy side.” There you get to ask them to hold their bend, sit down, accept contact with your outside rein and keep their shoulder up and out.

Hush holding her shoulders up and pushing from behind as she moves from the ‘easy’ side of the circle to the side where she falls more to the inside. Photo by Kelly Robison.

A great thing about circles and patterns is that after a few turns, you will literally know what is coming. You may even know five or 15 strides in advance. And because you can usually pinpoint the location of their habits (speed up/slow down lean in/lean out), you have the advantage. In other words, you have time to get ready and set them up to learn and succeed.

Overall, all of this predictability on a circle makes for “easy” training that usually translates beautifully to dressage, jumping, or everyday riding once you and your horse hop off the proverbial carousel. So kick on, balance up, and enjoy the ride, folks, just don’t get dizzy.