The Perfect Circle

Being able to walk a perfect circle is no easy task. Brad Barkemeyer breaks down the basics of this exercise and how it’ll help your horse stay collected without losing any forward motion.

As easy as it sounds, walking a perfect circle can actually be quite difficult. Especially if you’re working with a green horse who has a different plan in mind. Regardless of a horse’s age or level of riding experience, I like to include this perfect-circle exercise into my daily warmup to ensure my horse is listening to my cues and has forward motion in his feet when I ask him to stay framed up and collected during a training session.

Here I’ll break down the steps I take so you can include this perfect-circle exercise to your daily warmup.


Find Your Circle

To begin this drill, I recommend riding your horse two-handed in a snaffle bit. As you advance this exercise, you can move up to a shank bit your horse is comfortable in, but when you do that, continue to ride two-handed to ensure you can get your horse framed up properly.

Adding this perfect-circle drill to your daily warm up will help your horse stay framed up and collected during the remainder of your training session.

Find a spot in the arena and walk in a 10-foot circle. If your horse doesn’t like working in the middle of the arena, I recommend walking there. If he likes to lean toward the gate to go back to the barn, practice this drill in front of it so he learns that he has to work when he’s near it.

If you struggle with distances, an easy way to help you stay on your circle is by riding in a freshly dragged arena. If you’re not able to drag the arena or aren’t riding in an area where you can see your tracks, place a barrel, cone, or anything you have sitting around as the center of your circle to help you better judge where the center of your circle is.

Ask for Collection

Once you’re on your circle and walking, lift the reins with both hands to ask for your horse to break at the poll and round his body, and use your inside rein to slightly bend your horse’s head to the inside. As you do this, you should just barely see his inside eye. The goal of this exercise is for your horse to stay in a natural gait as you ask him to collect. If you pull your horse’s head too far to the inside, he’ll become over-bent and trapped, and his body will have nowhere to go.


If your horse likes to lean toward the gate to go back to the barn, try practicing this drill in front of it, so he learns that he has to work when he’s near it.

When you use your hands to make contact with your horse to have him frame up, you must also use your feet to help maintain forward motion and keep him collected and traveling softly­­—whether you’re going forward, backward, or making lateral movements.

As you’re walking, keep your body relaxed. If you’re tense and constantly gripping the reins, you’re going to either make your horse nervous or frustrated. You need to have a release, so he knows when he’s correct. If you reward him by putting your hand down after you ask for collection, he’s going to be more willing in the future.

Check Yourself

Before you increase the difficulty, it’s important to check in with yourself to make sure that you’re staying correct in the saddle as far as horsemanship goes. Pay attention to how you sit as you’re walking in your circle. Are you leaning? Do you like to put more weight in one stirrup than the other? If you’re doing either of those things and are off balance in the saddle, chances are your horse isn’t wanting to stay on the circle because he’s too focused on trying to stay balanced underneath you.

Lift reins with both hands to ask your horse to break at the poll and round his body. Use your inside rein to slightly bend his head to the inside so you can just barely see his inside eye. As you do this use your feet to maintain forward motion.

Before moving on to the next step in this exercise, take time to correct your bad habit and work on staying in the middle of your saddle and in an athletic riding position at all times.

Use Your Feet

As you continue this drill, up the level of difficulty by not using as much hand to guide your horse. Instead use your feet and see how your horse reacts to your hand being down. It’s important to note that if your horse is new to you asking him to stay collected when you go to your hands and feet that it might take a little bit more time or even a few riding sessions before you move on to this step. He must be comfortable with the first couple of steps before you decide to increase the level of difficulty.

To begin, put both hands on your horse’s neck, so you have no contact with his face and use the energy in your feet to keep forward motion. See where he goes. If he starts to move off of the circle you’ve established, softly go to your hand and put him back on the circle. It’s important to stay soft in your hand because you don’t want to be abrupt and scare him. This shouldn’t be a punishment as it’ll only cause him to lose confidence in himself.

As you advance in this drill, try walking a circle with a drape rein using one hand. If your horse starts to veer off the circle, use your reins to guide him back on it and then go back to resting your hand on his neck.

Continue to walk on the circle and test how he guides when your hand is down. If he drifts, pick your hand up and put him back on the circle. You can even test this out by going to one hand.

Once you can go all the way around your circle, stop your horse, back a step or two up, and let him settle.


Back Up

By now you should have a nice path to follow. Ask your horse to do a 180-degree turn and back the same circle you were just walking on. Don’t try to rush the back; this doesn’t have to be one fluid movement. As you make connection with your hands, you’ll now have your horse’s head tilted slightly to the outside. Continue using your feet to keep momentum.

Once your horse willingly moves all four feet and is backing softly with his chin down and in frame, go ahead and stop. After a minute of rest, you can ask your horse to try backing the circle once again; breaking this circle up into quarters can help you better manage how much you’re backing.

If your horse doesn’t want to stay on the circle and is veering to the inside or outside of it, try to redirect his body. You can isolate those body parts to move his hindquarters or front end around to keep him back on the circle. Once your horse backs a circle in a relaxed manner, stop and let him rest.

Once you can complete a circle at the walk, do a 180-degree turn and try backing your circle. This time when you go to your hands, your horse’s head will be slightly to the outside of the circle.

Keep it Even

You want your horse to stay balanced when you’re riding him, and the only way to do that is to work both sides. While he might be better going one direction over the other (we all have a dominant side), it’s important to give yourself enough time to work both directions so you can ensure your horse is staying framed up and collected while he has forward motion, regardless of what you’re asking him to do.

Once you’ve worked both ways and are happy with the way your horse is responding, reward him by walking him to a different part of the arena and letting him rest for a minute before going on with the rest of your training session.