Sharpen your horse’s body control with this deceptively simple drill from World’s Greatest Horseman-winning trainer Ron Ralls.
By Ron Ralls with Abigail Boatwright
Teaching horses to walk in perfect circles with little assistance from my hands is a big part of my whole program—and not just for barrel racers. Many riders I work with, when I ask them to direct their horse into a circle, run into problems. The rider may have trouble asking correctly, or the horse doesn’t know how to walk a circle on its own. This drill teaches the rider how to teach the horse to shape its body into a slight arc while continuing to drive forward at a walk. When the horse masters this drill and moves to the barrels, the horse’s neck gets level, all four feet are driving forward evenly, the shoulders are not cutting into the barrel, the hips are not releasing to the outside and you will find your horse has a better grasp of the necessary footwork around the barrel.
My thought is, if your horse can’t walk a perfect circle, how can they trot or lope a perfect circle around a barrel, keeping their feet all where they belong? They need to have good footwork. It’s very basic, but it’s a huge part of my program.
This is a great drill to return to if you’re having problems with your horse going around the barrels and getting away from good footwork.
I do this drill every day. Depending on your horse, you may find it best to do a bit of long trotting and loping before you start the exercise. Other horses, you can step right on and walk partway around the arena and then go into the circle. But I like to do this move before I do anything more complicated, and it’s also the way I finish my session on the horse. Just walking nice, quiet, perfect circles.
I don’t set up a barrel to practice this exercise, because if there’s a big barrel sitting there, it makes it easy for the horse to go around it without your cues. But if you focus on a spot on the ground, such as a hoof print or rock, you can use that as the center of your circle. At first, the horse might be all over the place at the walk—they’re stepping out of your track or stepping in. But after a period of time, it only takes a circle or two before they find your hands and will shape properly and walk that circle driving forward with all four feet.
On young horses, I’ll use a regular snaffle bit—smooth mouth or a twisted-wire mouthpiece. On some older horses, I’ll use a gag bit—a banana gag—with a smooth-snaffle mouthpiece. On a tougher horse, it’ll soften up their heads.
Do this exercise first at a walk until your horse has mastered it before you introduce it at the trot and eventually the lope.
1. Drive forward. The first thing you want to do is make sure your horse is moving forward at the walk. Particularly on greener horses, don’t just take ahold of their head and start your circle. Walk them straight forward, applying pressure with your legs and make sure they’re listening to your hands by slightly bringing their nose to one side.
2. Start the arc. If you want to circle right, start lightly bumping with your right calf. Your left, or outside rein shouldn’t be tight—you might even have a little drape to it. Bring your right hand just over your thigh, about four inches above your knee, but not sitting on your leg. Be as light as you can with your hands. You don’t want to put too much bend in the horse, because that impedes forward motion if they don’t know how to do it—you want a nice arc through their body. The circle should to be 8–10 feet across at the walk.
3. Correct and shape. Use your inside leg if the horse tries to cut in. You can use a little outside rein, but try to leave your outside rein as quiet as you can. If the horse tries to set up and cut in with its shoulder, bump with your calf harder and faster to make the horse stand up and not cut in.
If the horse’s body starts drifting out, lighten up your inside leg, use the outside leg and tighten up the outside rein to stop the drifting. Once the horse steps back on the circle, lighten up the pressure and go back to using your inside leg and rein.
4. Straighten out. Once the horse has a good idea how to walk the circle and you have walked two or three circles perfectly—meaning you don’t have to overly cue your horse around the circle other than light, steady contact—slowly let it straighten out and walk out of the circle into a straight line, making sure your horse has forward motion and that you’ve got a little feel of the horse’s face with your hands, and then walk a circle the other direction.
When you move to working on circles at the trot, the circle should be slightly larger than a walking circle. Once you’re ready to lope, aim for a circle 10–12 feet in diameter—but don’t start out at that size. Begin by loping a large, easy circle—half the arena, for example. Keep your horse underneath you, balanced, nose to the inside, hip in, then gradually turn into a smaller circle. Don’t move to a smaller circle until your horse can perform each circle perfectly.
Fit Circles Into Your Program
This exercise doesn’t take much time. For a 2-year-old just starting to lope around with forward motion, I might work on this at a walk for five minutes one way, five minutes the other, and be done with it. Once the horse figures the circle drill out, further down the road you might make three circles each direction and be finished. Every horse is different, but don’t grind it out of them. When you’re teaching this and the horse gets significantly better, reward them by letting them walk out of the tighter circle before switching directions.
Try to make the right things easy with a reward and the wrong things create more—not pain or anything scary—but if the horse performs wrong, it creates a little more work.
If I have a horse that’s having trouble while I’m working on the pattern in practice—dropping into the barrel and bumping it or drifting away from the barrel, I won’t let it go on to the next barrel. I might make it trot around the barrel until it’s perfectly shaped, and when the horse gets it right, the reward is they get to go straight out of that tight circle.
Don’t “hinge” the horse with your inside rein on this maneuver. I think that’s the worst thing that can be done. When a horse tries to lean and you respond by taking your rein straight up their neck and across to the other side, it has an adverse effect on the horse. True, it’s the easiest way to bend the horse’s neck, but it does things it shouldn’t do to the horse’s shoulder. It restricts the motion of their front feet, puts the motion to the outside shoulder, and actually brings the horse’s nose toward the barrel, which causes the horse to cut in even more. Its hip will swing to the outside and hop around behind. “Hingeing” is something I personally don’t like to see. The clients I work with who break that habit are a lot happier with their horse’s performance when they don’t do it.
Place the nose where you want it, don’t use too much outside rein, and if your horse tries to cut in, widen your outside hand slightly while bumping with your inside leg. When the horse gets off course on a circle and doesn’t know where to go, a rider who chases the horse with the hands and constantly tries to ‘fix’ it will create a horse like a pinball machine.
Instead, leave your hands quiet and use your inside leg. If the horse steps off, stay with it, use your legs, and it’ll come back. Eventually the horse will get solid—you will achieve a perfect circle.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BHN.