The Confident Rider: Get Softness and Control

In the Problem Solvers section of the March 2012 issue, Tommy Garland answers a reader’s question about her horse not wanting to stop from an extended trot or lope. One of his recommendations was the figure-8-in-a-circle exercise that he detailed in January 2012’s The Confident Rider department. The exercise and its uses are detailed here.

The tight-quarters turning and flexing required by this exercise challenges you to achieve more with your horse than you thought was possible. | Photo by Dawn Garland

If you control your horse’s nose, you control his pace and direction. This gives you confidence plus boosts his suppleness and willingness.

What do I mean by controlling his nose? I mean you can flex your horse laterally while moving him actively forward. In response to minimal cues, your horse bends through his neck and body (while keeping his head/neck level), and willingly changes direction as you request.

My figure-8-in-a-circle exercise will develop all those skills and enable you to feel, Wow?I have so much more control now!

Get prepped. Create a 25-foot-diameter circle inside your arena. (Draw the circle in the dirt, or use cones or other markers.)

Outfit your horse in a snaffle or other mild bit (or bosal), so you can communicate clearly without stressing his mouth.

Warm him up thoroughly before attempting the exercise.

If your horse is inexperienced at lateral flexion, work from the ground and then mounted at a standstill to teach him how to give his nose around smoothly, without raising his head, in response to rein pressure.

Then try the figure-8 exercise, first at a walk, then advancing to a trot.

Here’s how. Enter the circle at a walk and guide your horse in a figure 8 within the circle, trying not to go beyond the limits of the circle as you do so. To create each half of the 8, take a firm enough feel on the rein to initiate the small circle. Flex your horse’s head around smoothly, lifting the rein up to draw his nose toward the point of his shoulder (see photo). At the same time, press your same-side leg at the cinch to help your horse create a bend through his body.

At the midpoint of the 8, in the middle of the circle, ask your horse to change his direction and his bend by reversing your cues. Release the pressure on the rein that created the first circle, while smoothly picking up pressure on the other rein. Change your leg pressure at the cinch (switching from one leg to the other) to help change the bend in his body.

Initially, at the point where your horse’s neck straightens out before bending the other way to start the new circle, he’ll want to lift his head. Don’t jerk or bump the rein; just keep the rein pressure steady until he softens in his jaw, then soften your pressure in return for an instant to tell him, “Yes! That’s what I want.” Eventually, he’ll figure it out and learn to keep his head at the same level throughout the exercise.

Success tips. Work on this exercise for about 30 minutes per day, allowing at least two weeks to really get the hang of it.

Don’t get discouraged if you go outside the limits of the circle on some of your turns in the beginning. your horse won’t be listening to your legs and bending as much as he needs to, and you won’t be cueing as effectively as you need to. Just keep at it; you and he both will improve.

Also, don’t bore yourself by staying at a walk for too long. As soon as you begin to figure it out, go ahead and move to the trot and continue to polish the exercise and your horse’s responses at that gait. You’ll get better as you go.

Tommy Garland
A popular clinician as well as a show trainer, Virginia-based Tommy Garland stresses “confidence, patience, and respect” via his CPR Horsemanship program. Learn more at

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