If you compete: Perfect pattern execution requires keeping circles symmetrical and well-shaped—though not necessarily perfectly round. Use this exercise to achieve optimal circle presentation.
If you don’t: Use this exercise to enhance your control and improve your horse’s guiding capabilities.
Circles are key components to pattern classes, from horsemanship and trail to reining. You can gain or lose big points, just based on your ability to guide your horse through a well-shaped circle. With practice of this exercise, you’ll keep yourself on the gaining side and be confident that you have control of your horse’s ability to guide and follow your cues.
Outfit your horse in working tack for practice, but if you show one-handed in a shanked bit, I recommend practicing that way. You can always take hold of the reins with both hands, but it’s best to start out riding one-handed.Setup four cones in a square for you to jog or lope a circle inside. Begin with the cones 30 feet apart; then advance to cones set 20 feet apart. You’ll probably be surprised to figure out that your horse does better in the smaller circle. A circle in the smaller space is a shorter distance, so there’s less time for the horse to make a mistake.
1. When executing the circle, make each “corner” round at the cone, so you complete a well-shaped circle, even though you have straight points on the “sides.” Circles in horsemanship, reining, and trail patterns tend to be more D-shaped than truly round, which is better for pattern flow.
2. Think about keeping your horse straight one stride before and after 12:00, 3:00 (my position in this photo), 6:00, and 9:00 with every circle you make. These quarter points are where things happen—places where the pattern calls for a lead change, stop and turn, or transition. Your horse must be straight to correctly perform these maneuvers, so it makes sense to keep him straight through this portion of the circle.
3. If you feel your horse drag on you or resist as you try to steer him through a round corner, increase the degree of difficulty by making him square the corners. He’ll realize that it’s easier to round the corner, following your guidance, than it is to make a sharp turn at the corner.
4. Maintain light contact on the bit. This degree of contact is required for pattern classes, so that you can guide your horse. Working with this level of contact at home will accustom your horse to it, and practicing in the same way you’ll show can only increase your level of success.
5. This drape of rein is inappropriate for horsemanship. Not only is it unsafe, because it’s impossible to control a horse on this drape, you need contact with the bit to guide your horse through any maneuver. No contact means you can’t rein your horse through a circle, which makes it impossible to keep him straight at the quarters and round in the corners, and keep his body in proper position.
6. Too-tight contact, as shown here, will cause your horse to brace against you. Here, my horse is swishing his tail and gaping his mouth to show his displeasure with my keeping such a tight hold on him.
7. When your horse follows your guide, keeps his shoulders straight up, and stays straight at the “quarters,” reward him by stopping and patting him.
CHAD EVANS Parker, Colorado. Chad trains Western all-around horses for open, amateur, and youth competition at Evans Performance Horses. He’s an American Quarter Horse Association judge and a member of the registry’s Professional Horsemen’s Association.