The Figures that School Us

Too often, after revolving around and around, riders forget why or how they ended up on a circle in the first place. Same goes for their meanderings through serpentines and squares. Was this figure supposed to bend the horse? Or was it for another purpose altogether?

Admittedly, it’s easy to be a victim of random circles or absent-minded loops and turns. To the uninitiated, arena figures might seem like a grab-bag where riders cruise through whichever shapes pop into their heads. However, arena figures exist for specific purposes, not the least of which is to help the horse organize his body. This helps explain why all the different figures exist at all, even though initially their purposes might not be self-evident.

In dressage, we use the progressive advancement of figures to improve a horse’s balance and strength. We use different shapes—circle, half-turn, square, etc.—at particular  times to ask the horse to organize his body. If you keep this in mind, you begin to see how arena patterns are themselves aids. Just like half-halts, flexions, or leg cues, figures serve the purpose of changing the horse’s equilibrium, activating his hindquarters, and loosening his back, among other resulting postural changes. The trick for amateurs is to know which shape to ride when. Learning to choose from your toolbox of patterns is one secret to becoming a highly effective rider, rather than just riding around aimlessly.

To simplify things when learning dressage, think of the influence that any available figure might have on these three areas with your horse: adjusting his speed, organizing his spine, developing symmetry in his body.

When you ride a shape– square, circle, loop, or anything else—ask yourself if and how it targets one of these areas. Notice, for example, that riding a circle helps your young horse’s rushing trot slow down and become more balanced.  As soon as he organizes himself this way by adjusting his speed, it’s time to leave the circle rather than repeating it to the point of dulling or losing what you just accomplished. In this way, the circle joins your seat, voice, and reins as an additional aid to help the horse perform better.

The same thing applies for youngsters on a shallow serpentine or loop. Ridden with purpose, these arcs ask the horse to switch his inside weight-bearing leg and to change direction of his spinal flexion, all without losing his rhythm or altering his longitudinal balance. In other words, they develop symmetry between both sides of his body. Some riders may have been riding shallow serpentines for months without realizing that is what they are actually asking the horse to accomplish.

As a general rule, tighter turns like squares and multiple quick changes of direction require more collection and advanced balance from the horse, so they are saved for higher levels of training. If you find yourself unclear, though, about WHY an instructor might be telling you to ride a particular figure, don’t be afraid to ask. It is perfectly acceptable to say: “Remind me what this figure accomplishes for my horse.” This way, training and riding—especially taking instruction—will seem much less like a random set of directives. It will make you a more effective rider to understand how to use figures as an additional set of aids, rather than resorting to exaggerated seat or rein cues. Remember that the shapes and patterns we ride have evolved over a long period of history. There is indeed logic behind them!