The perfect 20 meter circle. Does it exist?
How much time as dressage riders do we spend on a 20 meter circle in a lesson or riding alone or warming up at a show? It seems like an infinite amount of time. How many clinics or lessons have you watched even with top riders where they spend the majority of the ride on a 20 meter circle? A lot!
I have a good friend who when she bought a green youngster felt that she was not ready to pursue his training further until she perfected a 20 meter circle in all gaits left and right. Maybe that was a little extreme but the twenty meter circle helps to balance, supple and straighten our horses. However a 20 meter circle must be ridden with accuracy and precision to train a horse to be a symmetrical athlete.
Popular S judge and former FEI *** judge, Natalie Lamping posted on her own site several years ago, the following advice for riding 20 meter circles:
“Width of arena is 20m, so always tangent at 10m. This is always the easiest one. So, remember the distance between your letters. Corner letters ALWAYS 6m from corner. All other letters are 12m apart. So circles at A & C are 2m past center line letters, L & I. 20m circles anywhere else, you stay 2m inside of the letters on the center line. If circle is at B or E, then stay 2m inside of L & I.”
She also recommends:
“The inside rein has the horse looking to the inside within the limitations of the outside rein which helps you keep your line of travel. The horse bends around your inside leg, while the outside leg contains the haunches. If you use too much inside leg and too far back, you will make the horse cross the inside hind over the outside hind. I’ve seen this happen a lot in the FEI tests. WRONG! Don’t lean to the inside, sit centered because the horse will always try to go under the weight. Think of a busboy picking up a tray full of dishes. He will lean in to be able to lift the tray. Same goes for the corners. Do not pull the head and neck in, or push the inside shoulder out with the inside rein towards or over the withers. The hind legs must follow the same track as the front legs. ALWAYS finish the circle so the horse is STRAIGHT afterwards and ready for the next movement. The only time you wouldn’t is if travers follows the circle. Both legs on the horse. One leg is passive and one may be active, but never on or off. If one is off and you then put it on, the horse usually gets surprised and breaks. This also applies in the corners. The horse usually canters in the beginning of a lateral movement when trotting because the rider has startled the horse with the outside leg, which wasn’t there in the first place.”
Personally, I also like to look for the biomechanics of the bend on a circle which means that the forehand is in line with the hindquarters, there is a lack of resistance to turning aids and flexing aids and the horse stretches into outside rein without tilting the head.
To visualize the geometry of the 20 meter circles for Intro and Training Level, here is a You Tube link to a drawing of a dressage arena with the proper geometry as well as typical rider mistakes.
Many competition arena boards, are in 4 meter lengths between blocks, so if you can calculate your circle size using that as a guide you will always be accurate. When riding a 20 meter circle which starts at C for instance, going left, the letter H will be placed with a red marker in the middle of the second board from the corner. (red markers are required at each letter at licensed Dressage competitions) Cut the corner and touch the long side in the middle of the next or third board which will be at 10 meters. Curve away from that point and aim for 10 meters more to reach the next point on the centerline which will be two meters past the intersection of S and R which is I. When you reach the centerline, you will be looking at the block on the next long side which is right of R. The next point will be two meters before M which will be the middle of the board which is the third from the corner and parallel to the first “touch” on the other long side. From this middle board, cut the corner to end at C then go into the corner after.
When riding a circle which starts at E and going left, a rider can still hit the correct circle points with an eye on the blocks and boards. Starting at E, curve to touch the centerline two meters inside the intersection of V and P (L). You will be facing a block. Curve back to B then curve again to touch the centerline two meters inside the intersection of R and S (I) and again you will be facing a block. Lastly curve back to E and then go straight.
This is a little complicated but orange cones at the circle points do help in training your eye for accuracy.
When practicing 20 meter circles, you and/or your trainer should view your ride from C and E, especially if you have a goal to qualify for a USDF Regional Championship. You will have two judges there, one at C and one at E or B. The E or B judge will see the asymmetry or the oval shape better than the front judge. Don’t lose precious points from a misshaped circle!
For those of you who are visual learners, the USDF YouTube Channel and E-Trak page have wonderful short videos of many size circles and voltes with commentary from judges and trainers. Be sure to take advantage of these wonderful learning tools.