Horse Riding Exercises – Circles and Bends

Every horse riding exercise is based on the circle exercise. Circles help the horse to be able to bend equally in each direction, and this also helps the horse maintain straightness.

Circles are a very important part of any dressage test – a dressage test at all levels will include combinations of circles of varying sizes, at different paces and in different parts of the arena.

When a horse walks a circle he bends his body to match the curvature of the circle – this is called the correct degree of bend. It is important when asking for a circle that the rider imagines a circle drawn on the ground, and tries to follow it. The horse must not lean to the outside and make the circle too wide, or drift in, and make the circle smaller. By practicing these bends the horse becomes more supple.

Most horses find one direction of bend easier than the other. These horse riding exercises are a great way to even up the horses muscles.

The first circle exercise you will be asked to do is a 20m circle. This basically splits the 40m arena into 2, with the start of the circle at letter A or C, as below, and the mid point of the circle crossing through the imaginary letter X in the centre.

A 15m circle should take you five metres inside of X. It is a tighter circle, and will ask for more bend from your horse.

The smaller circle is the 10m, which will use up one quarter of the arena.

The circle exercises can be performed anywhere in the school – you may be asked for a 20m from A, C, E or B. 20m circles from B or E will take you from one side of the school to the other.

In beginner lessons riders will usually ride a circle as a group, or the instructor will tell you which letter to start from. In more advanced lessons riders may be working in open file, and the instructor will ask all riders to work a circle wherever they choose. In these lessons it is important to remember your school etiquette, and if you are going large (riding round the outside of the arena) you should ‘give way’ to the horse and rider completing a circle, and let them back onto the track in front of you.

In your first lessons you will walk or trot circle horse riding exercises. Later on you will perform canter circles. This is an excellent way of improving your balance.

Circles in the Dressage Test

At the Preliminary level of dressage (level 1) you will need to show 20m circles in trot and canter, and half 10m circles in walk. At the advanced level you will need to show an 8m circle in collected canter. For more information on the movements at each level visit the Dressage page at