Western Dressage Exercise – Shifting Circles with Poles

Exercise physiologists and physical therapists agree that the best—and often fastest– way to improve posture and body mechanics is through exercises that require frequent subtle adjustments of form rather than exercises with statically held positions. These kinds of exercises improve motor neuron recruitment and prevent the use of compensating muscle groups during static postures. They also help promote, through frequent subtle adjustments of balance, flexibility and looseness throughout the spinal joints and supporting musculature.

Riding circles is one of the simplest yet most effective means of improving the symmetry and balance of our equine athletes. However, many horses will begin to compromise their posture after riding once around a circle. Common mis-alignments include bulging or drifting outward through the outside shoulder, losing their inside bend, losing energy and impulsion, changing the geometry of the circle. Meanwhile, their riders commonly get either lazy or over-active with their bending cues for the circle, leading to lower quality of performance each revolution of the circle.

shifting-circlesOne of my favorite exercises to ensure that the horse utilizes and improves his balance and musculature from circles is below. It works so well because it helps the rider become more active and effective with her cues by guiding the horse through the shifting nature of the pattern. I have found riders always organize themselves better this way than when asked to remain on a constant bend/circle. The shifting pattern of circles in this exercise also allows for the horse to “refresh” his energy between each circle, rather than becoming sluggish going repetitively around a circle. The addition of ground poles serves dual purposes on this routine. For the rider, they give riders focal targets which produce more precise riding. For the horse, they create increased flexion of hind leg joints (hip, stifle, hock). Over time the recruited use of the hind limbs this way leads to a neural habit of moving this way, in addition to the looseness and balance to do so.

Shifting Circles with Poles:

  1. Place five ground poles in a straight line down the center of your arena, end to end, with 5 meters between each one.
  2. Beginning at the top of your line, at the pole marked #1 in the diagram.
  3. In a working jog, begin by riding a circle that crosses over the CENTER poles #1 and #3.
  4. Maintaining your rhythm, now shift your circle to cross over poles #2 and #4.
  5. Then cross poles #3 and #5. Now begin shifting your circles back to the top pole. Continue moving back and forth over the poles in this way.
  6. Once you’ve mastered this routine in jog, practice in the lope.


Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2013

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