Here’s How

Practical Horseman - - Contents - JJ TATE

Make your cir­cles rounder; solve sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety

I’ve just started com­pet­ing in Train­ing Level dres­sage. In al­most all of my tests, the judge com­ments that my cir­cles are ei­ther too small or egg-shaped. Do you have any tricks for mak­ing round, cor­rectly-sized cir­cles?

On my first day of train­ing in Europe with Olympian Gyula Dal­los, he got out of his chair to show me on foot a true 20-me­ter cir­cle. I was com­pet­ing at In­ter­me­di­aire I at the time. Talk about em­bar­rass­ing! I learned that day that rid­ing cor­rectly shaped cir­cles is harder than most peo­ple re­al­ize. It takes a great deal of focus.

One of the best strate­gies is to choose four points on the cir­cle. Let’s say you’re mak­ing a cir­cle to the right at E. In a stan­dard-sized dres­sage arena, that means your four points will be at E, 2 me­ters in from I on the cen­ter­line, B, and 2 me­ters in from L on the cen­ter­line. Start the cir­cle at E when your seat passes the let­ter, then look up and find your next cir­cle point 2 me­ters in from I on the cen­ter­line. Since there’s no vis­ual ob­ject mark­ing this spot, you’ll need to look for S and R in your pe­riph­eral vi­sion. If you could draw a straight line be­tween S and R, I would be ex­actly

halfway be­tween them, right where that line in­ter­sects the cen­ter­line. Your cir­cle point will be 2 me­ters closer to X than that line in­ter­sec­tion. Aim to ride a nice, curved path to it.

As you ride over that cir­cle point, look to the next cir­cle point, B, and plan to ride an­other smooth, curved path to it. I al­ways tell my stu­dents to think of touch­ing a let­ter on the track like this in three strides, rather than just one. The first stride hap­pens as you ar­rive on the track; the sec­ond is the mo­ment you pass the let­ter; and the third oc­curs when you be­gin to leave the track. As you com­plete this third stride, look to­ward your next cir­cle point, on the cen­ter­line 2 me­ters in from L. This time, use P and V for ref­er­ence points, draw­ing an imag­i­nary line to find L in be­tween them, then plan­ning to ride your bend­ing line to a point on the cen­ter­line 2 me­ters closer to X.

The end is in sight now! But as you head to­ward E, be care­ful not to let your horse fall in or drift to the track early. Again, you are in charge of ar­riv­ing one stride be­fore the let­ter so that you com­plete the cir­cle just as your seat passes that let­ter. This is a skill that even my ad­vanced stu­dents have trou­ble with: end­ing the cir­cle ex­actly where you be­gan it. It sounds very sim­ple, but it’s not! It takes lots of prac­tice and focus to get it right.

To aid in your prac­tice at home, I am a big fan of cones. They’re es­pe­cially help­ful for find­ing those cir­cle points on the cen­ter­line, out in the gi­ant abyss of the arena. Hav­ing real vis­ual aids ex­actly where you want to ride is also em­pow­er­ing be­cause some­times what feels right can be wrong. I love the small, flat­ter, flex­i­ble, col­ored train­ing disks that soc­cer teams use for drills (avail­able in sport­ing goods stores). Use a mea­sur­ing tape to iden­tify your two cir­cle points on the cen­ter­line ex­actly 2 me­ters in­side I and L and then place the cones sev­eral inches in­side those two points. That way you’ll hit the right points when you pass just out­side them.

Most horses like to fall out with the right shoul­der, push against the right leg and over­bend their necks to the left. To coun­ter­act this—or the op­po­site prob­lem if your horse tends to over­bend the other way—you must make sure he ac­cepts your bend­ing and straight­en­ing aids equally. That way he’ll be con­nected cor­rectly and there­fore bal­anced. It is al­ways eas­ier to con­trol the shape of your cir­cle when your horse is bal­anced and on the aids.

One of our ma­jor goals in dres­sage is to make the horse am­bidex­trous— equal in both directions. No horse on the planet is born ab­so­lutely straight, so it only makes sense that your cir­cles to the right may ride to­tally dif­fer­ently than your cir­cles to the left. Some­times your horse’s natural crooked­ness can make a poorly shaped fig­ure feel de­cep­tively nor­mal. Keep in mind that noth­ing is ran­dom; horses never wake up and say, “To­day I will not turn for my owner.” Crooked­ness re­sults from a slow buildup of mus­cle mem­ory. To be­gin to cor­rect it, you first have to know ex­actly where you want to go and then rec­og­nize when your horse is fall­ing off that path to the in­side or out­side, turn­ing the fig­ure into a weird shape. By com­mit­ting with­out a doubt to the cor­rect shape, you’ll be­come aware of how he is strug­gling with his straight­ness and un­evenly load­ing his legs. Only then can you be­gin to cor­rect him and re­train that mus­cle mem­ory.

A great al­ter­na­tive to the cone ex­er­cise is to make flat marks in the sand with the back of a shovel on your two cen­ter­line cir­cle points. Just as you did with the cones, make the marks sev­eral inches in­side the cir­cle points so that you have to ride right out­side them. When you do, try not to make any hoof­prints on the flat­tened spots. This is a fun game that will give you ex­cel­lent feed­back on what’s re­ally go­ing on.

Us­ing these flat marks, cones or the train­ing disks to prac­tice rid­ing other fig­ures will help to im­prove your eye and pre­ci­sion even fur­ther. For ex­am­ple, you can place a sec­ond cone or flat­tened mark on the cen­ter­line a few feet away from each of the cir­cle points you marked for the pre­vi­ous ex­er­cise (so you’ll need four cones or flat marks al­to­gether). Then ride three­loop ser­pen­tines, us­ing the en­tire arena and mak­ing your­self go in be­tween each pair of cones when you cross the cen­ter­line. This is much harder than it sounds! Once you get the hang of it in the trot, try a three-loop can­ter ser­pen­tine, chang­ing your lead with a can­ter–trot–can­ter tran­si­tion each time you pass through a pair of disks.

Re­mem­ber, eyes up, plan your way and make it hap­pen!

Orig­i­nally from Wis­con­sin, dres­sage rider and trainer Jes­sica Jo “JJ” Tate made her FEI de­but more than 20 years ago, at the age of 16, while train­ing with her men­tor, U.S. Dres­sage Fed­er­a­tion Hall of Fame in­ductee Charles de Kunffy. Two years later, she re­lo­cated to Europe to train with Hun­gar­ian Olympian Gyula Dal­los for two and a half years. Since then, she has trained eight horses to the Grand Prix level, earned her USDF bronze, sil­ver and gold medals, and claimed many re­gional and na­tional ti­tles. In 2006, JJ was a World Cup fi­nal­ist, the FEI High Point Cham­pion at the Win­ter Eques­trian Fes­ti­val and long- listed for the World Eques­trian Games. The fol­low­ing year, she and Don­ner­muth fin­ished sev­enth in the Small Fi­nals at the World Breed­ing Cham­pi­onships for Young Dres­sage Horses in Ver­den, Ger­many.

Now based in Lan­drum, South Carolina, in the summer and Welling­ton, Florida, in the win­ter, JJ re­cently be­came an am­bas­sador for Brooke USA, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to al­le­vi­at­ing the suf­fer­ing of work­ing horses, don­keys and mules around the world. “What I most like about Brooke,” she says, “is that we don’t send far­ri­ers, vets or sup­plies over. We teach the own­ers how to take care of these an­i­mals them­selves and be­come self-sus­tain­able in the long run.” For more in­for­ma­tion about Brooke USA, go to

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