The Fantastic Gymnastic Feat of Circling

The above video shows a horse moving on the circle with his bones outlined. Unfortunately for my purposes, the video mostly shows the outside of the circling horse, not the inside, but it will give you a reference point for how the horse moves once they have things figured out.

However, take notice that it usually doesn’t start out looking so easy. As horses rarely run in circles of their own accord, their first response to people asking them to circle either loose in the round pen or on the longe line is confusion. Then they try various ways of compensating for the physical demands it makes by:

  • Speeding up
  • Slowing down
  • Leaning over
  • Pointing their nose up
  • Pointing their nose out
  • dropping their inside shoulder
  • Stopping
  • and more

Eventually they figure out that in order to move in a circle their  inside legs have to take smaller steps than the outside legs. Sounds easy enough, except that the horse not only has four legs, they are hardwired to move in pairs. A horse that is hardwired to move diagonal pairs of legs or trot* is then faced with taking a shorter step with the inside hind leg and a longer step with the outside front leg  at the same time and vis-versa. How do they do this?

  • With the same fine-tuning (or proprioreception) that allows them to compensate for moving over uneven ground

Here is a wonderful computer animation of  horse anatomy showing some of the main muscles in movement:

I am not going to discuss these because they are going to keep on repeating the same movements as the horse circles. In a previous post (click here) I compared a horse circling to a person patting their head and rubbing their belly at the same time.  This video illustrates the rubbing the belly part of the equation. I am going to talk about the patting the head part. That means you need to know a few of the muscles in the front end that make these fine adjustments. Those I have not found specific animated visuals for so you will have to bear with me. They are the:

which are the multitudinous tiny muscles between each and every rib and vertebrae.

  • the serratus ventrales attaches to the inside of the shoulder-blade and fans down and  out to attach to the end of the ribs
  • the rhomboidus attaches the inside of the shoulder-blade and fans up and out to attach to the withers
  • the trapezius attaches to the outside spine of the shoulder-blade and fans up and out to attach to the withers.

All together these three fan shaped muscles reach from the second cervical to the tenth thoracic vertebra and rib or most of the horse’s neck and back. As they strengthen the horse’s chest will appear wider from the front, his back broader under the saddle, he may increase in height at the withers, his neck will become full and deep,and any dip in front of the withers will fill in.

When a horse is circling the intercostal and intersegmental muscles:

  • must contract and shorten on the inside
  • must relax and lengthen on the outside

This allows the horse to bend as much as their rather rigid spine can. But how can we communicate to our novice circler that this would be helpful  as they speed erratically about?

The first thing to do is slow down.  That means you. If you walk slowly, calmly, and consciously the horse will mirror you. And until the horse can walk calmly around with you, you can’t communicate with them.  To make sure the horse understands what you want, keep your sessions short and praise effusively. What you do NOT want to do is work the horse until his muscles are sore. Then he will just learn to dread working with you. If you end your mirroring sessions by walking out and having a bit of grass together, you will be communicating to your horse that all is well with the herd.

When you can start your sessions by mirroring each other, then you can take the next step.  And that is a literal step. Make sure that the horse is trotting and you are:

  • walking WITH the horse, your steps synchronized with his
  • positioned with your shoulders even with his hindquarters

Then take one and only one  large step forward with your inside leg, and immediately return to your normal stride. If your horse is paying attention, he will also take a bigger step with his inside hind leg. This will precipitate a cascade of movement throughout his body:

  • His pelvis will swing slightly forward on the inside
  • the intercostal muscles on the inside will contract starting from the rearmost
  • the intercostal muscles on the outside will stretch starting from the rearmost

The serratus ventrales, the trapezius and the rhomboidus all react as the ribs move.  If you think of the attachment to the shoulder-blade as the wrist and the fanlike connections to each rib and spinal process as the fingers, their response is not to make a fist, but to ripple like fingers playing scales on the piano.  This is the first step of recognition for the horse and it is clearest and most easily grasped at the trot where both diagonal pair of legs are moving in the same pattern.

Make sure that you have both returned to your normal calm stride, and then switch to the other direction and repeat. One small effort each direction is plenty for the first time.  The change from a normal stride to a long stride and back again is three changes in a row and this gets noted in the kinesthethetic memory. Proprioreception is something the conscious mind takes for granted until we try to learn a new skill and then what the brain responds to is change.

As you and the horse get stronger and more at ease, then you can play with longer and shorter steps.  Keep in mind that it is the changes and the readiness for change that achieves our goal of strengthening specific muscles.  You can easily incorporate a hundred transitions in a 15 minute session if you change the length of your stride every ten steps or so. If you also change gaits and directions half a dozen times, your horse will be curious, attentive, and responsive.

When the horse responds to your move by stepping under with the inside hind leg, lifting his forehand, arching his neck, dropping his nose,  and turning slightly towards you, his entire body is ready for any miniscule change in movement. That means that the serratus ventrales, the trapezius and the rhomboidus are all flexing their fingers. This is hard work, so don’t forget to give the horse a rest and just stand still on occasion, and remember that  he will appreciate several short varied successful sessions much more than one long fruitless repetitious and exhausting workout.

It is vital to keep the calmness because there is another very sensitive muscle that attaches inside of the shoulder-blade:

  • the omo-hyoideus muscles run from the fascia between the shoulder-blade and the ribs up along both sides of the windpipe under the neck and to the hyoid bone in the horse’s larynx.

When a horse is frightened and takes off, the whole neck and jaw tighten up. When the horse is watching where they are going over uneven ground they will relax their neck and jaw so they can be aware of and respond to the slightest shift. The omo-hyoideus muscles are major players in the proprioreceptive circuitry that sends those miniscule changes in the fascia directly  to the head. When his innate alertness and responsiveness are focused on you as much as on the ground, that is the beginning of that elusive and longed for quality known by a variety of terms:

  • suppleness,
  • or throughness
  • or self-carriage,
  • or lightness,
  • or engagement
  • or collection
  • or…

Around this point the horse may offer you a canter when you step forward.  Instead of a diagonal run that eventually falls into a canter this will be a bouncy leap into the gait from the hindquarters. This happens because even though the canter is basically a diagonal gait, one pair of legs works simultaneously while the other pair work independently. When  the horse has the strength and coordination to trot in a circle, the difference in stride length of the inside legs and outside legs spontaneously brings about the conscious independent action of legs normally  moving automatically in diagonal pairs. The freely offered canter is a sign that your work is developing the correct muscles, so it is well worth waiting for.

Here is a March 4th Klaus Hempfling video that illustrates these moves beautifully with before and after shots showing the difference in the horse’s self-carriage shown at  3:40-3:45:

When the horse decides he can either trot or canter  then add those transitions to your sessions. Practice walk/trot and trot/canter at first. Eventually you can ask for walk/canter transitions and then transitions from a halt into each of the three gaits. How long this takes and the exact cues you use to differentiate will develop between you and your horse. When the horse not only offers the canter but can maintain it in both directions, then you can consider getting on. They not only have the strength and the stamina to pick themselves up and carry their own weight, they know how to carry themselves. When you add your weight to their back, they can figure out what they need to do to carry you as well and are able to compensate for any shifting you may do while on top.

This work may take months, especially with a horse that has grown up in a stall, has been injured, or one that has been badly started. Any trainer that offers you a 30 day special or worse a weekend colt-starting clinic and claims that they can have a horse ready to ride in no time has no understanding of the physiology of the horse and no concern for their long-term soundness. It takes time and consistent work, and a lot of it, for the horse’s muscles, tendons and bones to develop the strength and resiliency to carry a rider (click here).

*A pacer is a horse hardwired to move parallel pairs of legs. They make great ‘caballos del camino’, trail, park, and pleasure horses, as they usually compensate for the weight of a rider by any of a wide variety of ‘single-footing’  gaits that allow them to balance themselves and their rider by always keeping at least one foot on the ground.  Circles and lateral movements are challenging for them, and they are rarely seen in fields such as dressage, jumping, reining, or bullfighting.

click for the beginning or more or for the hindquarters


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