A rider should not have to keep a horse on a circle, according to reined cow horse professional Trevor Carter. A horse should take more responsibility for maintaining a consistent circle, but the rider has to teach him to find it.
“The difference between a good circle and a great circle is that your horse gets hooked to it,” Carter said. “When I think of a horse getting hooked to a circle, that means I can put my hand down, and they stay on that track. They’re looking to the inside, in the direction of the circle, and their body is arced. There’s a track I put them on that I want them to seek and find.
“When a horse gets mentally hooked to my circle, he’ll travel differently: his muscles relax, his flexion and arc in his body are good,” he continued. “When he’s got a better cadence, good posture, his head is level with his withers and he’s going at a good, comfortable speed — that’s what I’ve been waiting for.
“I want my horse to learn how to carry himself correctly so I can think of my next maneuver in the reining or the ranch riding. I’ve got other things I’ve got to be thinking of.”
Across the board, Carter has seen how working on great circles builds confidence and focus in green horses and riders, and how the exercise maintains good habits in seasoned competitors. The benefits come not in drilling a circle but in the rider making the circle a comfort zone for the horse.
“A lot of us want to keep the horse on the circle,” he said. “We tend to micromanage our horse on a circle to where the horse starts to think, ‘Every time I’m on a circle, I don’t get left alone.’ The horse then seeks somewhere else to go.
“Instead, we need to give our horse a chance to say, ‘Where is it you want me, and once I’m there, you leave me alone and all is good.’”
When a horse drifts off track, that’s when the pressure comes.
Carter makes the circle a comfort zone by allowing a horse to make mistakes — which he calls bubbles and dents — and then correcting them. If you picture your circle from overhead, fading away from the circle’s track creates a bubble on it, while cutting to the inside makes a dent in it.
“I’ll start by evaluating my horse and seeing what he thinks a circle is,” he explained. “I start at the walk or the trot on a circle, and then just put my hand down and see if he can stay on a circle. Most often, a horse will get pulled toward the barn or the gate, where he wants to go.”
Horses tend to either drift away from the circle or duck into it by dropping the inside shoulder, usually depending on where the barn or gate is in relation to the circle.
“Think of correcting those in terms of pressure and release,” Carter said. “When the horse is on the path I want to be on, I leave him alone. When he wants to fade away from my circle into a bubble, I pick up on my reins and ride strong to hurry him back onto the circle. When he wants to drift in and make a dent, I pick him up and use my inside leg to scoot him over [into a new] counter-arc circle.”
As you’re riding the circle, it’s important to stay “focused in your riding,” which Carter said means to use your body as you ride.
“When I say ‘focus,’ I’m using my body — I’m turning at the hip, opening my inside leg and turning with my outside leg. I’m looking where I’m going on the circle. And if I look that way, my body shapes that way. If I don’t focus and follow the circle with my body, he’ll go off course.”
The combination of a rider consistently correcting bubbles and dents, along with staying focused in their riding, teaches and reinforces the horse to find the right track through the feel in the rider’s body. That’s how it learns to get “hooked” to the circle, Carter said.
“I use my body before I use my reins. As I ride this exercise, I’m trying to gradually be able to use my reins less,” he added. “If my horse can feel the circle off my body, then I can use my reins for flexion. That comes in handy when you’re moving to one hand and a horse isn’t really reliable one-handed. I’ll pick up with two hands to steer and help at first.
“And, if my horse can feel [the circle] off of my body, then I can showcase to the judge that I don’t need to use my reins. My horse is hooked to my circle.”
Bubbles & Dents
The key to developing a horse who hunts for the circle is to not hold him on the circle and to give well-timed corrections. Carter sets the circle with direction in his reins and focus from his body, and then lowers his hand.
Correcting a bubble is straightforward for most riders.
“If I turn the horse loose and he starts to look away, his flexion goes away from my circle. I’m going to stay focused in my body and give him a chance [to get back on the circle],” Carter explained. “I’m not going to hold him on the circle. If I hold him, I’m actually putting pressure on the right idea, which would cause him to think going off the circle is where the release is.
“I’ll let him drift off the circle for two or three horse lengths, then I’ll ride strong and really hurry him back to my circle. I give him a direction with my reins, and then I hurry him with my feet. My outside leg is probably putting slightly more pressure on him.”
Once the horse is back on the circle, he leaves it alone. In the correction, it’s natural for the horse’s rhythm to speed up, Carter said. Just be sure to “give your horse time to relax again on the circle,” and find a release there. At whatever gait, he aims for consistent speed.
“It’s me saying, ‘Every time you go off that way it’s going to get harder, but if you stay on track, I’m going to leave you alone,’” he said.
If the horse cuts to the inside and makes a dent on the circle’s track, Carter counter-arcs a new circle to the outside that returns to the original track. If you imagine the Mickey Mouse emblem with a head and two ears, the counter-arc circle is like putting a Mickey Mouse ear on the original circle.
“When he cuts in going to the left, I’m going to keep his flexion for a left circle but use my inside leg to drive his left front foot to cross over his right front foot,” Carter explained. “We start riding a circle to the right, even though we look like we should still be riding to the left. I still need forward motion, all four feet moving forward as I move him around the counter-arc circle with my inside leg.
“My reins help my horse keep his original flexion, while my seat is saying go forward and my inside leg is saying pick the foot up and move it over. I don’t need his nose bent around to my leg. I just need enough flexion to keep him looking [to the inside of his arc] and get that foot over, which is what lifts the shoulder.”
It’s easy for riders to get confused in a counter-arc, he cautioned.
“You have to feel the difference between the shoulder moving off your inside leg, versus the shoulder standing still and the hip coming into you. If he pushes his hind end into you, increase your forward motion.”
If a horse really pushes against Carter’s inside leg, he might drive it through two counter-arc circles to increase the workload and the pressure, which helps the release be even more clear and meaningful. Again, once he’s back on track, Carter releases all pressure and leaves him alone.
“Pressure doesn’t mean ‘force,’ it means we do this more times,” he said. “I’m pushing his shoulder over, and then back on the circle for the release. When I put him back on my original circle, he’s in the correct shape for it. The dent is corrected, his inside shoulder is up, and now I can release him on the circle and on the pathway that I’ve been looking for.”
Carter often rides this exercise at the trot, but depending on the horse and rider, he might start it at the walk. As a horse progresses, he moves up to the lope.
The faster a horse goes, the more aware the rider has to be to make the correction sooner when they feel the horse go off track. To correct a bubble at the lope, Carter only lets the horse go one to two horse strides before hurrying him back to the circle.
To correct a dent at the lope, Carter breaks to the trot for the counter-arc, then lopes off again once he gets back to the original circle.
“If you feel it, correct it,” he said, stressing the importance of fixing the issue every time a bubble or a dent occurs, gauging the correction on how green the horse is or how severe the mistake.
Carter is purposeful as a rider, looking for the moment when the horse corrects himself.
“I’m letting my horse make mistakes, letting him try where he thinks he wants to go. When he gets off track, I’m applying pressure, increasing my energy; then I’m releasing him on the circle, with my energy still committed to riding the circle.
“We might be on lap five or six of him making an incorrect choice, and then he might change from just going away to drifting a little, and then coming back closer to the circle; he’s made an improvement. On the next lap, he might still want to look off, but his feet stay on track.”
That’s a good place to stop, Carter said.
“I don’t want to keep going to see if he’ll make another mistake. His mistakes were just telling me he’d rather be somewhere else. That meant I had to add more value to my circle. It’s my job to get him to think, ‘You know, where you put me is good.’”
He stressed the importance of riding quietly and focused on the circle.
“As a rider, you need to figure out what a good circle looks like, and more importantly, what a good circle feels like,” he said. “When my horse is on the circle, the inseams of my jeans are like a rail. I’m trying to ride my horse with my seat, my body is going where I’m looking and I’m positioned so my horse’s body is arced on the circle underneath me. He’s on track.
“And I’m riding; I’m not just sitting. If I just sit there, my energy tells him to slow down. But I want him to find his release at whatever gait, right there, on track, with no correction and no pressure.”
Carter works on this at home, where there are few distractions and both horse and rider are more relaxed than at a show or in the warm-up pen. Over time, he said, those circles will get better and better.
This article was originally published in the February 1, 2020, issue of QHN.