Everything you are about to read is a bit of a rant on my part. I apologize upfront. I remember attending a Ray Hunt clinic many years ago and I was shocked how insensitive he was to the audience when he said, "I'm not here for you, I'm here for your horse. If you get anything out of it fine. Just remember, I'm here for your horse." I thought I would never say that kind of thing. And yet, here I am, a decade later, saying nearly the same thing. This blog is a rant for the horse set against the dangerous, mountainous topic of circles.
Beware the circle game for without proper understanding your horse will go lame. Ask any experienced trainer who's been to the top levels of training and riding. Ask them why there is such a high attrition rate in horses within programs like Parelli or dressage training programs that require excessive ground lunging. You can guess the answer... too many circles. Especially unbalanced circles. If you get anything out of it, that's a bonus for sure.
So how much is too much when it comes to circles? And are there ways to use circles in a productive and safe manner?
Every horse is different so don't assume I know how much is too much for your horse. I can, however, after decades of working with thousands of horses begin to make generalizations. Horses can do a lot more than you think, if... they have a rest between training.
Just like us, we need recovery windows when we are unfit. We need more recovery time when we are unfit than when we are fit. So when answering the question of how much is too much, in a general sense. Four circles of canter, on a twenty-two foot line is too much... if done all in one go. Straight lines are different, you can go for longer. Unless that horse is fit, four circles of cantering or more will risk injury to his or her joints. If you don't believe me, go demand four circles from your pasture horse right now without any breaks. Make them hold the circle, don't let them break gait. And within a week, your horse, if he's unfit, will start to show signs of lameness. The irony is that people forget this simple fact when they start circling. They can often demand too much because when the horse breaks gait, they get annoyed and ask them to maintain it. Even when they haven't supported the horse in any canter related fitness program.
The point is, ten or twenty or even fifty circles is not too much, if... breaking gait is allowed, if resting is allowed, if the effort is encouraged with rewards, if no more than three to four circles at a time, and per direction are forced. The point is... you can do a lot, but don't force it all at once. Programs that tell you breaking gait is bad and the horse should know better, are harmful to your horse's health. Think about how your body progressively grows strength and endurance. If you hired a personal trainer you wouldn't expect them to say. "The human body can run a marathon, so you should too, and if you don't I'll beat you with this stick." Your body would break down. But if you slowly build up that endurance, you could do more and more every day.
Here's where it can get confusing: Four circles is no marathon, so why is four circles of canter so hard for a horse? Horses canter all the time right?
Answer: NO. Horses don't canter all the time. Only top level, fit horses canter all the time, and usually on a straight line. If you have the luxury of having your horses in your back yard, you know how rarely they canter on their own. Maybe a couple times per day and in short straight lines. So asking them to hold that gait for too long in the beginning, especially on a circle, will destroy their joints. Please don't do that. Can they do it? Yes. Should they? No!
You can ask for a canter, but don't ask them to hold the canter for long. Build their endurance slowly, don't expect it to just be there naturally. Don't disregard the physical aspect of circles. When they break gait, in the beginning, allow it and don't get frustrated. Don't play circles to demand mental submission. Play them to slowly build their endurance. Play them to slowly encourage balance. Play them to slowly encourage more sensitivity to your signals and transitions. Play them to gain more trust in your partnership and ride-ability.
But don't play them because your bored and think it would be fun for your horse. Don't play with circles because your instructor said so. Don't play with circles because your horse is anxious and just needs to run around for a while. It's okay to use circles to burn off steam, but be sure to change directions and ask for transitions often to encourage more mental and psychical connection to reality. Don't play with circles without a clear plan to enhance your relationship and preserve their body and mind. And never play the "don't break gait" game without first knowing how long is too long for your horse's body type and current fitness.
On the subject of "don't break gait," I suggest generally, avoiding that game. If your horse breaks gait, it's because he doesn't want to keep going. But why doesn't he want to keep going? Is it because he's sore? Is it because he's unfit? Is it because he's being rude and not holding his responsibility to do what you believe he should? Be careful here. Breaking gait is a great thing. I love it when a horse asks me if he can transition from a canter to a trot or walk. It tells me he needs a shift in his balance. It tells me he might need a break mentally or physically. I don't always allow it because I am also trying to improve my horse's endurance, but I do always love that he wants to communicate with me. I don't want a robotic horse. I want a thinking and sensitive horse. One that I can ask to stay in the gait for just a few steps more to grow that muscle strength and mental fitness, or one that I can ask to stop, because stopping is a great idea too.
Okay, hopefully, I'm done ranting. Let's clear all this up.
Too many circles, generally, unless your horse is fit and trained for it, is four circles of canter all in one go without transitions or breaks. In the beginning, one circle of canter is too much for some horses. Be cautious when playing with circles.
When it comes to trotting, depending on your horse, 4-6 circles is too much.
When it comes to walking, depending on your horse, 4-6 is too much again, mostly because it's boring for a horse, without transitions, or breaks in gait, or breaks in general. It's easy to see how horses suffer from too many circles.
One last thing. I like to break circle games into two categories. One is transition training. Where I don't care how long the horse holds a gait, all I care about in this stage is how easy it is to access all gaits, up and down. Does my horse respond with an A+ response to my signals? The second type is not transitions but quality of gait instead. Does my horse look balanced? Can my horse grow his endurance? Does my horse look ride-able? I choose one topic. Not both! When I play with that kind of clarity, my horse loves me even more. And yours will too.
Be there for your horse. Be playful, creative, encouraging, smart, and observant. Don't listen to me, listen to your horse, and grow in your goals together. And if you're clever, in no time at all, you and your horse could be cantering along at liberty, or riding, or long lining, or even performing flying lead changes in perfect harmony and balance without the frustration of all the problems that arise when dealing with circles.
Thanks for reading or listening. Be sure to share this with someone you believe might be doing too many circles and don't forget to subscribe for more if you haven't already. Feel free to comment below.
PS. Here's a road map to developing circles that I use with every new horse or every spring re-start.
Ground in prep for riding: walk one circle each way, trot two each way, canter one each way. I slowly build to this, allowing confusion and breaking gait to occur naturally in the beginning. In other words... not getting frustrated by the process to this goal.
Ground in prep for performing arts: walk one each way, trot two each way, canter two each way. Again, I slowly build, stride by stride to canter fitness and balance.
Riding: walk two each way, trot two each way, canter one each way. Again, slowly building to this control stage of riding. Most of my riding is in bigger spaces, allowing more straight line work.
Riding in prep for performing arts: consists of better transition control and speeds within each gait. Then lateral control (meaning sensitivity to hands and legs moving the hind end, front end, and head independently) in each gait. Eventually I can canter on a small circle (pirouette or spin), or jump a course dictating speed and striding, or canter half-pass, and flying changes.
PPS: Some people believe you need to make a horse circle for long periods of time to develop rhythm and balance. They aren't completely wrong, just unaware of the hazards, and unaware of other, better methods of training rhythm and balance.
The idea is the same, always. Slow, thoughtful progression to bigger goals. Good luck out there.