Have you been searching for an exercise to sharpen both your horse’s and your own focus and responsiveness in the arena? This variation of a figure-eight pattern exercise is designed to help refine advanced manoeuvres as well as identify and fix any problem areas.
The basics of this exercise include:
Step 1: Canter a circle that starts and ends at the centre of the arena. Any size will work, but I like to use half the arena.
Step 2: Stop your horse at the centre of the arena.
Step 3: Back your horse until he backs freely with his feet, and is soft in the bridle.
Step 4: Do a rollback in the same direction of the circle you just cantered.
Step 5: Canter in the same direction as the original circle, but at the other side of the centre point of the arena.
Repeat steps 1 through 5 until you feel your horse has made improvement. This normally takes between two and eight repetitions. Each horse is different so just focus on your horse’s individual needs. Note that you can start at a trot if you feel more comfortable, working up to a canter.
Very often, people get confused after doing a rollback in the centre and end up cantering the opposite direction. A good way to stay on track is to make sure you are on the same lead the whole time (until you are ready to start the exercise again on the other side). If you start your first circle to the left, you will stop in the centre, back your horse, do a rollback to the left, then canter another left-hand circle at the other end of the arena. Both the start and stop point for each circle will be in the centre of the arena. You can then switch the pattern the next time and do everything to the right. However, if you experience problems to the left, I recommend doing it in that direction only for couple of sessions before switching.
This pattern seems simple at first, but you may notice some glitches in your horse. The goal is to have your horse smooth and steady during the entire pattern and through every transition. You may find this does not happen right away. If you keep repeating the sequence though, working out those glitches, things will become much easier.
The areas that you will be focusing on:
The Lead Departure: Is your horse soft (not pulling on the bit) and patient? Does he pick up the correct lead? Does he lean in or out of the circle ?
The Circle: Does your horse travel at the proper speed, not rushing or slowing down without asking? Does he maintain the frame that you desire?
The Stop: Does your horse melt into the ground and accept the request from your seat, leg, rein and/or voice?
The Back Up: Does your horse step back with good cadence giving softly to the bit?
The Rollback: Does your horse swing freely over his hindquarters for 180 degrees? Does he respond to your leg and rein pressure (not dull or overly sensitive)?
Each time you run the pattern, pick just one thing to focus on – maybe improving your lead departure, or making sure your horse is backing freely before the rollback. Once you feel that you have made good progress on one of the manoeuvres, you can stop in the centre of the arena and end the session for that day. Then, pick another one to focus on the next time. This might take five minutes or 20 minutes, depending on your horse.
Eventually, as you repeat the pattern, your horse will become more comfortable with the transitions and begin to flow through the entire exercise. When this starts to happen, you will notice that your horse is accepting of most anything you ask of him, whether it is lead changes or better turns.
Once you have mastered this exercise at home, use it to warm your horse up at a horse show or even before a trail ride. It is a quick and easy way to check how focused you and your horse are and to assess if you are ready for whatever activity you have planned away from home. If you are able to run through the pattern a couple of times without any problems, then you will be headed for success that day.
NOTE: This exercise was originally developed by Horseman Doug Williamson and was shared to me
by a great horseman and friend, Jim Spence.