The exercise we call “concentrated circles” is a critical foundation training exercise. This exercise teaches the horse to bend around you, which improves suppleness. It also provides important schooling of the go-forward cue. With a new or young horse, I normally do not begin training with concentrated circles. The horse is fairly close in this exercise and it is important to have already established respect and a forward cue to minimize the risk of being kicked or run over. Once I feel it is safe, I put the horse on a twelve-foot line and begin to lunge. I start with some basic change of direction work out at the end of the line. This gets the horse focused on going forward, stopping his feet and paying attention to what I am asking him to do. When the horse is fairly consistent in his response and is focused on me, I take the slack out of the line and move my hand up to the snap to begin the concentrated circles.
Before you begin this exercise, you should know that there are three parts to a horse that give you directional control: the nose, shoulder and hindquarters. The horse will follow its nose, then the shoulder, ending with the hips and hindquarters. Visualize your horse moving in a circle around you and how you control each of these parts.
For this exercise you may use a web or rope halter on your horse. A rope or “cowboy halter” as I call it, has more bite. You will also need a training stick or cane. To begin the exercise, hold the line at the snap. If your horse will be circling to the left, hold the line in your left hand. If your horse will be circling to the right, hold the line in your right hand. Keep your arm straight out in front of you and level. It is important to not let your elbow bend.
Stand across from your horse’s shoulder with the stick or cane at your side. Direct the horse forward with your basic verbal go-forward command and the hand holding the line at the snap. This is a pre-cue. If your horse does not go forward, you must follow through by adding pressure. The type of pressure you choose will depend on the personality and emotional level of your horse. To add pressure you can:
- Lift the training stick or cane from your side and point it at the horse’s hip.
- Whip the ground with the lash of the stick or cane to make a noise to add pressure.
- Take the stick or cane and tap the hip. Increase the strength of the tap as needed.
As the horse moves forward, turn in place so the horse will follow. Do not walk forward and around the horse. I try to keep my feet in place, moving off one heel so that the horse goes around me. At first, your horse will not move in a perfect circle around you and you will need to watch which parts need adjustment. The following tips will help you be successful with this exercise.
Stand in the center of the circle and do not move out or back. Pretend your feet or at least one, are glued to the center. Keep your elbow straight, your arm level and your hand steady while directing the horse’s nose. Imagine yourself in the middle of a wagon wheel. The horse should be yielding to you, bending around you and staying off the contact of the line.
If the horse pulls the line tight, maintain the contact until the horse gives. It is critical to release immediately when the horse gives. This follows the basic training principle of pressure/release. Continue to ask the horse to go forward until he is soft and yielding for at least several circles in one direction without stopping. When the horse is soft and consistent in one direction, switch hands and ask the horse to go the other way.
If the horse presses in toward you with its shoulder and/or its hip while it is circling, direct the horse outward. The horse should not be in your personal space. Check your arm position to make sure your arm is fully extended. The horse should be bending and circling you in an arc. If the shoulder or hip is in toward you, the horse is not in an arc and is not doing the exercise correctly. Additionally, this is a safety and respect issue. Correct this behavior immediately. Tap the should to drive the shoulder away and tap the hip to drive the hindquarters out. You must do this every time a part of the horse comes too close to you. It must be clear to the horse that this is not acceptable. Use only as much pressure as you need to immediately get the horse out of your space.
Watch out for kicking. It is common for a horse to kick when you tap it on the hip for the first time to make it go forward. There are several dynamics that may occur and cause this behavior. The reaction may be because the horse does not like the pressure on his hindquarters or you may be using too much pressure. The horse may not like being asked to go forward while you are holding the snap, or may not like being asked to work. The exercise is work for the horse, as he must move his feet laterally to make the arc around you. This may be a new movement for the horse. Kicking is never acceptable and must be corrected immediately. Tap the horse fairly hard on the lower portion of the leg that kicked. This is not a punishment. It is applying the right amount of corrective pressure to change the behavior. Think how an alpha horse would go after a new horse that kicked it—it would be very tough on the new horse. We need to be as adamant and to act immediately. If you don’t act immediately the horse will miss the cause and effect and there is no point making the correction.
When you have your horse moving around you and you are ready to stop, say whoa and pull the line up and back toward the horse’s hip. Take the slack out of the line and make contact until the horse stops his feet and faces you. This movement causes the hips to swing over and the horse to stop and line up facing you straight on. At this time it is good to ask the horse pause and then back up a few steps. Then you can start the exercise in the opposite direction.
Give your horse every chance to succeed. Always begin with a verbal pre-cue, a kiss or a cluck or whatever you use as your basic go-forward command. If the horse does not respond, increase the pressure. The worst thing you can do is to half-heartedly tap, tap, and tap while the horse ignores you. This teaches the horse to ignore you and become used to the pressure while failing to respond. This is how horses get heavier in response to commands, instead of lighter. Determine how much pressure your horse needs and be consistent about applying it.