Preparing for Horsemanship with Mark Sheridan

April 19th, 2018 3:11 PM | 2 Comments

mark 3Part 5: Riding a Perfectly Round Circle

Last month, AQHA Professional Horseman and Judge Mark Sheridan shared some of his pet peeves with riding your horsemanship pattern. He has been answering the question “How do I give my horsemanship patterns the polished look that can win, and what are the first things that catch your eye as a judge?” and teaming up with Show Horse Today to bring his tips to you! We have been covering everything from show clothes to position to patterns, and this month will be talking more about one of the hardest parts of any pattern:

Circles! This article can be a huge help to any and all pattern-doers, so be sure to read carefully!

“In the last few installments, we talked briefly about circles and riding them correctly and with symmetry. In this installment, I want to elaborate a bit more on being able to ride perfectly round circles. Almost every pattern today will consist of circles, multiple circles, circles in different directions, and also at different speeds. With everything else close to even with the exhibitors in a tight class, there is always something that separates one from another. Usually, that is how correctly they ride their circles. If you are riding an oval, teardrop, triangle or lopsided circle, you can plan on that part of the scoring to go way down. Making up with the rest of the ride may not be enough to bring your score back up to where it was or needs to be. This also includes riding your circle in the correct location in the arena. You might be able to get your round circles figured out, but they end up off to the right or left of center.

A9Rpuf2ss_g66m2v_8psAs a coach and trainer, I feel that circling is probably the biggest issue that riders face. They might be able to ride round circles at home due to the comfort and familiarity of their arena, but when they go to a different arena to compete, all the surroundings look different. It is very important to look at the arena, just walking around on your horse, and find waypoints for centering your circles, such as end gates, center markers, fence markings or beams on indoor arena walls. Take note of the size of the arena so that you will not be bouncing off the walls if the arena is very small. On the other hand, make sure not to ride your circle too big if you are in a huge arena. Look at the arena and get a game plan on where you are going to ride your circles. Where are they going to start, and where are they going to end? Always try to ride the pattern as close as possible to the description of the pattern provided.

Make sure that when starting a circle, you keep these two things in mind …

  1. Always position your horse to depart into the circle from a walk, or a jog, if asked for in the pattern description. Never try to ask for a lope departure from one step or a complete standstill. I tell my students to untrack their horses from a standstill at least a couple of walk steps or more, to straighten the horse’s body out, and to get a clean, responsive lope departure.
  2. Always lope a couple of strides straight and then gradually find your circle and enter it. If you start dramatically into your circle, your horse will start dropping his shoulders into the center of the circle and then you will not have any control on the size or symmetry. You will have to take what he gives you. If you have a very small first half or your circle, you will have to finish it that way as you have to keep both halves the same size.
Photo: Kurt Clark

Photo: Kurt Clark

The sizes of the circles are very important, and when a judge specifies in the pattern for a small circle followed by a larger circle, there must be a definite change in the overall diameter. Body control and steering will be necessary for riding really great circles. Speed usually goes along with this request on circles. If the judge wants a large fast circle followed by a slower small circle, that is how you must ride them if you want a big score. I would say the majority of the time, many riders trope, or lope their horses so slow in the small circles, that it is hard to tell if they are actually in a three beat lope. Then when they go to the large fast circle, they simply go to the regular nice lope. This may cause a very dramatic reduction of their score. This usually happens for a few reasons. First, their horse is not broke to do the faster circles, they are afraid they will lose their seat in the process. Second, they are just too uncomfortable riding the gallop, or third, maybe just because other people get away with doing it. I would suggest that you practice going fast at home and teaching your horse speed control. Start slow, increase to galloping a few large fast circles, and then back to the small slow circles. Remember that the Horsemanship class is the stepping stone to Reining.

Training your eye for the circles is something that, once you figure it out, will stay with you forever. Forward vision is the most important factor in riding great circles.  I always have my students visualize a clock. The north end of the arena is noon and the south end is six o’clock.  If they are riding right circles, when they approach twelve, their vision should be focused between three and four. Keep the vision with your location, so that when you are at six, your forward vision should be between nine and ten. This will give you a fix on where you want to be in your circle, and give you enough time to make corrections and adjustments to get there. Sometimes I will have my riders use four cones placed in a square about 100 feet apart and lope the circles inside the cones, then graduate to one cone in the center of their circle, then to no cones in the circles. Peripheral vision and feel should take care of most everything else with your horse. Be sure to get out of the habit of only looking down, or straight ahead a few feet, when riding. If you have a hard time with continually looking down, I have small goggles that I designed to not allow this. My students get to use them quite often, and it breaks bad habits real quick.”

Keep checking back week for more advanced tips and tricks! Show season is kicking off, and you want to be riding your best for the blue. Our next article features great exercises you can do at home to strengthen your riding. Feel the burn!

mark 3About Mark

A University of Findlay graduate, Mark Sheridan holds a Bachelor of Science in Equestrian Studies. Mark has over thirty years of experience producing winning all-around show horses. He has trained and coached multiple Quarter Horse Reserve World Champions in both English and Western divisions.

Mark has been an AQHA, AAAA ranked, and NSBA Category One ranked judge since 1993. He has judged the AQHA World Show four times, The AQHA Youth World Show twice, the All American Quar­ter Horse Congress four times, as well as the Australian, European, Canadian, Japan Championships, and NCAA and IHSA Collegiate Championships numerous times.

Mark is a Past President of the Arizona Quarter Horse Association, a member of the AQHA Professional Horseman’s Association, and was awarded Arizona’s Most Valuable Professional Horseman in 2008 and is recognized on the University of Findlay Wall of Fame. He is an author of articles for numerous Nationally Published Magazines, conducts clinics Nationally and Internationally, and has recently produced a three DVD series on achieving perfect lead changes which is available on his website

2 Responses to “Preparing for Horsemanship with Mark Sheridan”

  1. I missed Part 1-4 of the Horsemanship . How would I go about getting them so I can read them?


  2. Hi Chayo,

    You can read them here:
    Part One

    Part Two

    Part Three

    Part Four

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