Western Dressage – Suppling exercises for dressage riders – spiral in, leg yield out. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz
The spiralling circle is a wonderful exercise that can be done by any level of horse or rider. It is a very effective way to get a horse laterally supple and to teach a horse to leg yield. It will also help the horse learn to balance himself. The exercise can be done at any gait, but should be practiced at the walk first to establish correct bend, as well as to help your horse become connected to both the outside turning aids and the inside bending aids. You may use cones for this exercise to help your circle stay round.
The goal of this exercise is to be able to smoothly spiral in from a 20-metre circle to a 10-metre circle, then slowly yielding back out to the 20-metre circle. If your horse is quite young or green, you may only want to go from the 20-metre to a 15-metre in the beginning in order to maintain the balance and rhythm. As your horse’s training progresses and an improved connection, balance, and rhythm are established, you will be able to spiral in further. The spiral may also progress to a point where you can finish the inward spiral with a turn on the forehand or turn on the haunches before moving back out again. The turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches will both be subjects of future articles.
If you drew a circle on the ground, the horse’s ears, spine, and tail would be moving on the line with a nice bend through the rib cage. The alignment of your body will need to follow that line as well, with your eyes looking through the horse’s ears.
Begin the spiral in by turning your body slightly into the circle to take the horse onto an 18-metre circle. Aid the turn with the outside leg and reins; the outside rein will prevent overbending into the circle, thus controlling the circle size. Remember from our articles on Circles and How to Prevent Mistakes on Circles, if you give too much with the outside rein, the horse will “bulge out” through the outside shoulder. This will become even more evident during the leg yield out.
The inside leg and rein will maintain the flexion on the circle, without pulling with the inside rein. The inside rein will remain slightly off the horse’s neck with soft contact with the bit. Try to keep your rein cues as light as you can and ride the spiral more from seat and legs. Have the seat turning in as the horse’s barrel swings out of the circle and the outside leg pressing as the horse’s barrel swings into the circle. The inside leg will remain just behind the girth and will maintain the bend. Continue the spiral in to a 16-, 14-, 12-, and 10-metre circle. Establish each circle before spiralling to the next to give the horse a chance to maintain rhythm, relaxation and connection within each new bend. As the circle gets smaller, the horse’s bend will become greater and the rider’s body will need to turn more to help maintain the horse’s balance.
To begin the spiral back out to the 20-metre circle, the horse’s body must remain on the bend of each circle as it moves out laterally, so the legs begin to cross over in leg-yield steps. If the horse loses the bend he will then move out of the circle too quickly and no lateral steps will be felt. To ask the horse to leg yield over, the rider will maintain a slight flexion with the inside rein. The outside rein can either open slightly if the horse is a little slow to move over, or it will maintain a light connection with the neck and shoulder so the horse does not move out too quickly. The rider’s inside leg (positioned just behind the girth), will press as the horse’s barrel swings out of the circle and release when the horse’s barrel swings into the circle. When the horse’s barrel swings out of the circle, this is also when the inside front leg is leaving the ground and is in position to cross over the outside leg. In order to maintain impulsion while spiralling in and out, keep your seat following the movement and rhythm of the horse. Sometimes we can become so focused on what our legs and hands are doing that we forget to follow with the seat. This can create a loss of rhythm in the horse and the spiral will not flow as well. Spiralling out is the first step of leg yielding, as it is much easier to teach a horse to leg yield on a circle than on a straight line. The bend of the circle makes it easier to maintain suppleness, rhythm, and speed through the movement.
Once you and your horse have mastered the spiral exercise at the walk, increase the difficulty by doing the exercise at a working jog, and eventually at a lope. This exercise at the lope is considerably more difficult and should only be done once the horse is well balanced in the lope on a 20-metre and 15-metre circle and has worked on the leg yield exercise in the jog both on the circle and on a straight line. Once you develop these exercises with your horse you will begin to see how much more supple and connected he can be.
This article is the sixth one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.
Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com
Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, mentorship programs, as well as student programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.