Question: When on pattern at reining competitions, I have a lot of trouble making my circles the same size in both directions. I go along thinking I'm making them correctly, but when I watch video replays, one set is much larger than the other. How can I become more accurate?
Little Rock, Arkansas
Answer: To circle your horse correctly, you'll need to learn where you are in the arena at all times. A technique I've found helpful is to mentally divide the arena both crosswise and lengthwise.
For instance, say you're in a 100-foot by 200-foot pen. Before your run, mentally draw a line across the middle (the point on the pattern where you'll be performing your lead changes). Next, look for an object on each of the arena's long sides that you can use to visually mark that middle line. Use the judge, a dirt spot on the wall, a banner, a cone, or anything else you can easily spot for a center-line marker.
Then look lengthwise down the arena, to each of the arena's short sides, and find two objects that identify the sides' center points. These could be gates, roping boxes, bucking chutes, etc. You now have a visual map of the arena that will help you keep your circles round and even.
Before you ride, survey the arena and visualize riding to your circle markers. Say your pattern has you picking up the right lead to lope your first set of circles. Picture yourself coming around the circle and riding to your map sites.
For instance, if bucking chute number three marks the top of your first circle, you know that's your center point on the short side. As you come around to ride across the middle, visualize yourself watching for and riding to the "H" in the Horse & Rider banner, which marks that midpoint. After changing leads in the center, focus on your markers at the arena's opposite end to keep your second set of mental circles round and even.
When it's time for your run, concentrate on looking up and riding ahead to each marker, just as you did when you visualized your pattern. (Tip: Avoid the temptation to look down after the lead change to be sure your horse has changed correctly. By the time you look up again, you'll have launched yourself on an inaccurate set of second circles.) As a bonus, you'll find that when you have an object to ride toward, you'll subliminally guide your horse in that direction, making your circles appear more effortless than when you ride without a focus point.
You can also practice this at home. Walk, jog, and lope figure-eights, using cones, dirt clods, or any other such objects as your circle markers.
Concentrate on riding to your markers by looking up and ahead. Your horse's hoofprints will enable you to grade your progress on each circle. With time and practice, riding accurate circles will become second nature.
Bob Avila is a top reining horse trainer has won junior and senior reining titles at the AQHA World Show, and captured the NRHA Futurity's $100,000 first-place check in 1994. He's based in Yamhill, Oregon.
This article first appeared in the August 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine