Circles are for connection. Horses innately come out of the box with a defensive mindset, always looking for things that might be trying to eat them, which sets them up for a counterbent posture. That is, if you ask an untrained horse to move out on a circle, their instincts lend well to putting their nose to the outside (away from the human in the middle of the circle) and rib cage bent to the inside.
Asking a horse to move out on a circle is not just about getting them to run around an exercise, it’s about building a connection. How a horse offers its owner a circle is very telling of the owner’s horsemanship and/or the level of connection that they have with their horse.
Let's dig deep into the Three Circle Game! This activity is not to be confused with just simply lunging, it is something different entirely! It’s all about finding connection and encouraging the horse to be relaxed, moving in a relaxed way while keeping their focus on the human.
To set up the three circle game, you want to have a lead rope and some kind of stick to act as an extension of your arm. A stick with a short string or a flag works well. Start by asking your horse to walk out on a circle normally, say about 8-10 feet away from you. Let’s suppose the horse is circling to the left (so the horse is looking at you through the left eye, and the rope is in your left hand). Notice your horse’s posture from here. Are they counterbent and looking to the outside for danger? Are they traveling with a nice bend in their body toward you, showing relaxation and connection? Are they mostly straight, only bending as much as they need to make the turn?
Now, shorten your rope so that it’s about the same length as your stick. Hold your left hand at your hip. This is important for two reasons:
If you hold your arm extended out, then you’re able to instinctively pull and release, applying pressure to the halter to keep them in the correct position. This is a common pitfall with this exercise! We want the horse moving and circling because of their connection to you, and not because the pressure on the halter is telling them to. Keeping the rope at your hip will ensure that the maximum distance from the human to the horse is always the same, which gives the horse responsibility to find slack in the rope.
If your horse were to pull away, you would be in a much more stable position to keep them from running off. With your arm out and extended, it’s easier to pull you off balance.
From here, lift your stick out and to the right, behind the horse’s hip. If you haven’t already, teach the horse that this is a que to go forward, meaning start moving if they are stopped, or speed up if they are already moving.
Once your horse understands all of that, we’re ready to ask the horse to bend out through their rib cage. Adjust your grip on the stick so that it’s more like a “ski poll,” as shown. Using small motions at first, move it up and out toward the horse’s belly to ask them to bend away from it.
Unlike with lunging, the human should be traveling backwards along a small circle in the center. As the horse bends the ribcage away from you, the hind feet should start to make a larger circle than the front feet, and the horse should be looking in at you. This is how this exercise gets its name. You and your horse are traveling in three different circles:
The human walks backwards in the center
The horse’s front feet make a larger circle than the human
The horse’s hind feet make a larger circle than the front feet
Sometimes, when you ask a horse to bend the ribcage out, they will think this means go faster. If this happens, take a big step out, tap them on the belly if you need to, and tilt your head and body toward their hindquarters. This should be a signal to the horse to move their hindquarters away from you to turn and face you. Allow the horse to stand there and find relief facing you. This will encourage the horse to face in on the circle rather than speeding up. Give the horse a moment to process this before asking them to move out again. Remember, moving the stick out laterally means go forward, and holding it in the “ski pole” position and raising it toward their belly should mean bend away.
The bend in the head and neck will likely come first as this is easier for the horse. Look for the inside hind leg to step up and under them. Also look for slack in the rope. Hopefully, the horse will start to relax, blow out a sigh, and drop their head. If your horse is new to this exercise, this is a good time to let them stop. Again, tilt your head and body toward their hindquarters to ask them to stop and turn to face you (reel in the rope if this doesn’t work). Let them have a rest while both eyes are on you.
Try this exercise at both a walk and a trot, in both directions! The goal isn’t to complete as many circles as you can, but to see if you can get just a few quality circles, in which your horse is relaxed and connected to you. As they get better at this, you can start to put more slack in the lead rope and they will start to hold a better quality position on the circle.
To watch a video on this topic go to our YouTube Channel.