Loping a correct, smooth circle may seem like an obvious element of horsemanship, but for many youth, and even more advanced riders, reinforcing control in this area is worth the time spent.
Kids have limited attention spans—that’s a fundamental element of working with most youth. So the limited time you spend in the arena working has to be efficient and it has to be fun. There’s so much work and precision that goes into every discipline, but if you harp on kids too much, they won’t have fun and they’ll lose interest. So that’s why we work on circles—it’s an exercise you can do to hit plenty of areas of horsemanship all at once to shorten up the lessons.
While this article focuses on loping a circle, you’ve got to remember both horse and rider need a solid warm-up first. A good warm-up is a solid 10 to 15 minutes of walking and trotting before loping, hopefully eliminating freshness, and warming up soft tissue.
First, loping a circle teaches kids to manage where they are in the arena. I’ll stand in the middle of the arena, and I’ll ask my students to lope an even circle around me. I’ll tell them to pay attention to how far they are from each fence. Ultimately, they should be able to stay the same distance from the fence on each side. Judging their spacing using the fence makes it very easy to tell how balanced they’re riding.
Keeping that even spacing requires the rider to use their seat, hands, and feet properly. Any over- or under-correction will make the circle uneven, and—using the fence as a guide—will be obvious.
Shoulder, Hip, and Rib Control
While loping, I ask my students to tip their horse’s nose in toward the center of the circle, lightly applying pressure on the bridle reins up and in, and applying inside lower leg to the rib cage. This lifts the horse’s shoulders to the inside, allowing the rider to feel the full-body control. I’ll also ask them to tip their nose to the outside and apply outside leg pressure, counter-arching the horse while loping a circle. If a young rider can master this sort of control in a comfortable circle, they’ll be ready for any variety of more complex maneuvers.
I see kids (and adults) in so many disciplines missing leads and not realizing it. While there’s feel that goes into knowing which lead your horse is in, loping circles is the best way to gain that feel. Hint: If it feels like you’re riding a bicycle with a square tire, you’re probably in the wrong lead.