There may be a set number of school movements that you can ride, but the ways of combining them and patterns ridden within them are almost endless. Some riders seem to get stuck in the ‘go large and ride 20m circles’ routine—no wonder they think dressage is boring! Dressage begins and ends with the 20m circle. It is the easiest and most the difficult figure to ride correctly!
Let’s begin by looking at that most basic shape: the 20m metre circle(fig.1). Or perhaps I should say the half 20m circle as this is where young and green (in the sense of older, stiffer re-trainee) horses start their bending in the dressage arena. For these horses, each of the two short sides of the 20m x 40m or 20m x 60m arena consist of a half 20m circle (fig.2). Unfortunately, many horses then spend the rest of their career riding the short sides as half 20m circles, instead of progressing down to corners ridden with 3 steps of the inside hind leg, which effectively makes these advanced corners a quarter of a 6m volte (fig.3). The 6m volte is the smallest circle a horse can describe without deviating from the line with his shoulders or haunches.
fig.3 20m circle, 10m circle and 6m volte.
It’s worth noting here that a half 20 metre circle is not the way to negotiate a corner. It is specific movement for a dressage test. Even in the Introductory Tests, a horse needs to be able to perform a half 10m circle in trot down the centreline to finish (fig.4). But as the horse strengths and develops collection, corners should be taken as an arc of a 6m volte.
fig.4 Half 10m circle right
A 5m loop out of a corner ridden as though it were an arc of a 10m circle (fig 5), but ideally you need to be able to get deeper into the corner to set the horse up correctly for the loop, which means taking the corner with three steps of the inside hind leg. This use of the corner to ‘set up a movement’ becomes automatic over time, but the horse needs to get deeper into the corner here otherwise he will leave the track too late and find himself quickly running out of room to make the changes of bend smoothly and evenly.
The apex of the loop is a at point 5m from E (or B) on the quarter line. On the right rein, as the horse leaves the track at K you have to slowly and smoothly change the flexion and bend to the left, so that the horse is bent to the left as he passes E. Then as you head back to the track you once again slowly and smoothly return to the right flexion and bend and continue around the corner in the correct form.
Although this is a relatively simple exercise do not be tempted to force the flexion and bend with your hands. Changing your seat bones, together with the position of your legs, and shoulders fluidly through the movement will allow your hands to keep and even contact on the reins and encourage the horse to continue to seek the bit.
This exercise is beneficial when introducing counter counter. Pick up the correct lead, then ride the horse off the track into the shallow loop maintaining the ‘correct’ lead (i.e the horse is now in counter-canter) before riding back to the track in the correct lead again.
fig.1 20m circle
fig.2 20m half circle
fig. 5 5m loop
It is possible to take serpentines further by including a complete circle within each loop or by riding them as a series of 5m or 10m loops either side of the centreline. In training you may turn them into a series of egg-timer shapes (aka Arabesques) by adding more and more loops to the set, but bear in mind for competition purposes the Serpentines are ridden as half circles and straight lines.
The most basic Serpentine, beginning at A or C, is the 2-loop or 2 half 20m circles in the small arena (fig. 2). These only require a smooth change of flexion, bend and diagonal (if rising trot is ridden) over the centreline. However, when more loops are added the way of riding them changes also. In the small arena a three loop Serpentine is ridden as 3 half circles connected by straight lines (fig 6.)
fig. 6 3 loop serpentine
If, every time you ride, you insist on the horse making the correct arena patterns, you will be well on the way to training your horse, without riding any movements, because in order to ride a straight line, a round circle, and a good corner, your horse has to be straight and on the aids. You will gain a head start on suppleness and durchlässigkeit (throughness) with this attention to accuracy.
There are many ways to change the rein; from the simple, down the centreline or across the short side from B to E (or vice versa). Alternatives include: the long and short diagonals (fig 7).
fig.7 Long and short diagonal
The half volte and return (aka teardrop) (fig. 8) would be ridden on the right rein, performing the half volte and returning to the track on the left rein. In the reverse half volte, the horse starting on the right rein) comes off the track at ‘B’, heading for the centreline and performs the half volte, returning to the track on the left rein.
The half volte is useful for introducing later work such as, leg yield and half pass as the horse only has a short distance to travel back to the wall. It is also another useful way to introduce counter-canter, picking up the correct—in this case right—lead into the volte and returning to the track maintaining right canter for a few strides, returning to trot before the corner.
fig.8 Half volte and return or reverse half volte and return
fig.9 Change of rein through the circle
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Classical Dressage Notebook