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Basic Riding Patterns

Riding patterns will greatly improve the communication between you and your horse. When you give the horse a specific job to do he will become focused rather than wandering aimlessly around the arena. Patterns are a very important part of training; which keep him listening to you while working on fine-tuning your riding skills.


Starting with the most basic figure first, you want to make sure your horse is bending and listening on all sizes of circles. Riding circles is the beginning of pattern work, as most every pattern is a combination of circles and straight lines.

This diagram shows the exact size of 10, 15, and 20 meter circles.

Aids for Riding a Circle to the Right:

  1. Look where you want to go, in this case to the right, make sure you’re looking up over your horse not down at him. Keep your body straight and centered in the saddle.
  2. Bring your left leg back, behind the girth a bit while your right leg stays at the girth. Squeeze gently with your right leg, getting your horse to bend around your inside leg.
  3. If he doesn’t respond to your leg pressure alone, keep the leg pressure on and pick up on your inside right rein, moving it out to the side a few inches just enough that he bends his neck and moves to the right. At the same time squeeze with your outside, left leg to help him move to the right.
  4. Once his front feet move in the correct direction release the rein pressure and leg cues while still looking where you want to go. The idea is to get your horse following where you are looking, and where your seat and body is positioned without having to use a lot of rein and leg aids.
  5. If at any time he veers off the circle, correct him by using your legs to push him back onto the circle first then using your reins. Reverse your aids for circling to the left.
  6. If the horse falls to the inside of the circle, turn him left and keep circling him to the left until he isn’t drifting to the right, and he’s thinking about the left circle.  Then start circling him to the right again. If at any time you feel him fall in on a circle, start circling him the opposite way until he isn’t thinking about going in that direction anymore.
  7. If the horse pushes to the outside of the circle, do the opposite of what he wants and turn him on an even smaller circle to the right. When he isn’t thinking about leaning to the left anymore, allow him to go back on your original path still on a right circle.

Once you can get your horse to circle both directions at all three gaits, start making circles of different sizes. Ride big circles first since they are easier for the horse because he doesn’t have to bend his body as much as on a small circle. Gradually work on riding small circles, making sure he is bent evenly from head to tail. To make sure he is correctly bent have someone watch you ride or video tape yourself. Using cones on each quarter and in the center of the circle will help you to guide him and make sure that your circles are equally round.

Figure Eights

The figure eight pattern.

Figure eights are a great exercise because they can be ridden differently in each gait, slowly getting more advanced as you speed up.

Aids for the Figure Eight Pattern

  1. Start by riding straight across the middle of your arena, from B to E in the dressage arena. Once you are in the middle, pick a direction, say to the left, and bend him in that direction using the aids described above.
  2. Look where you want to go, focusing on a point on the circle about ten feet away. When you are just about to arrive at that point, pick another point, and do this all the way around the circle. Focusing on points around your circle will help you to keep your circles round so they don’t turn into ovals.
  3. When you reach the middle of the arena, ride a few straight strides before again changing the horse’s bend and continuing on a circle to the right.

Other Exercises

  • Transition your horse into a posting trot; ride your first circle. Once you get to the middle, sit two beats of the trot to change your posting diagonal and then change directions.
  • When you are making round circles and changing your diagonals correctly, add poles on the figure eight to challenge yourself more. Ride over the poles both posting and in two-point.
  • At a canter, ask the horse for a simple change of lead through the walk in between the two circles. Ride a circle to the left, straighten the horse, ask him to transition to the walk, then bend him to the right and ask for the right lead.
  • Just like described above, once you can easily ride the figure of eight, stop the horse from anticipating by circling him in the opposite direction he thought you were going to go in. For example, you are tracking on a right circle, you straighten the horse in preparation of changing the bend for the left circle. The horse starts going to the left before you ask him. Instead of allowing him to go where he thinks you should go, turn him to the right and repeat the same circle. Each time you reach the center of the figure feel which way the horse is leaning then circle him the opposite way.

Figure eights are remarkably helpful for a number of different exercises. You can put jumps on the circles or make transitions at the center. They are also very good for teaching lead changes. Mix up your routine when working on figure eights and circles; be creative and the possibilities are endless.