Develop Responsibility with the Circling Game
Are You Longeing or Circling?
-by Linda Parelli
I will always remember the first Pat Parelli clinic I went to in 1989, especially the look on my face when Pat said, “I don’t longe my horses. Chasing the horse in circles exercises the body, but it doesn’t engage them mentally.”
No wonder things weren’t getting better with my horse back then. I would longe my horse, Regalo, for about 30 minutes before every ride because I thought that was the only way to get him calmer, but after a month, 30 minutes was not enough. He just got fitter, but not any calmer!
In that clinic with Pat, I learned about what he called the “Circling Game,” and how different it is from longeing. Yes, your horse still circles around you but he has to THINK. Why? Because he has to maintain gait and maintain direction without any reminding or coaxing from you. In fact, you have to stand still, relax and pass the rope around your back, staying completely neutral.
Now, of course, things can go wrong – your horse changes gait, may even change direction or stop, but the key is to not do anything until that happens. Assigning your horse the responsibility of maintaining gait and direction is what keeps him thinking and connected to you.
When longeing, you have to keep your horse moving forwards, preventing him from slowing down or turning, which involves a degree of micromanagement because it assigns no trust or responsibility to the horse. That’s why most horses mentally tune out when longeing, and BEWARE… you could make this happen in the Circling Game too!
How to make sure you are not longeing!
When warming your horse up on the ground, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of micromanaging him. It’s kind of easy and automatic to send your horse off in a circle to burn off pent-up energy and have it easily turn into mindless circling! Here are some tips on how to make sure you are playing the Circling Game and not longeing your horse:
1. Keep your feet still, rather than walking in circles with your horse.
If you are walking circles with your horse, this acts more as a Driving Game (applying rhythmic pressure) because it’s likely that when you stop, your horse will stop too. This means your movement is stimulating, causing or supporting your horse’s continued movement. It’s your horse’s responsibility to maintain gait without coaxing from you.
2. Keep your hand in neutral.
Rather than holding your hand and arm up stiffly and leading or pulling your horse forward on the circle, let your arm hang down and ‘rest’ while holding the end of the rope. This will also put some elasticity in the feel because your arm will lift and drop as your horse moves in and out on the circle, and pretty soon he will learn to be more consistent, leaving your hand hanging down in neutral.
3. Have some fun!
Playing on the ground is a warm-up, and so you need to let your horse express himself and then progressively give him things to think about, rather than get too concerned about the shape of his body and how he’s carrying himself right off the bat. In fact, when you make circling more interesting, he’ll naturally start to use himself better. If you are too particular too soon, that’s more like training (vs. warm-up) and can result in your horse getting tense, dull, disinterested or disconnected. Think about how you can make the Circling Game more interesting, yet still achieve the benefits of it; things like…
4. Make it a game!
When your horse doesn’t do what you want, it’s common to get frustrated or mad. But as you develop your skills as a horseman, you know that getting emotionally reactive only makes the horse worse. We need to learn how to have it be fun rather than frustrating, so here is something for you to consider:
Stand in the center, relaxed, and dare your horse to break gait or change directions! That’s quite a different feeling: “I can’t wait for my horse to break gait,” as opposed to, “Gosh dang it, stop breaking gait!” When your horse breaks gait, do something about it; not before he does it, but after. Now, that doesn’t mean you attack him; it means you take the appropriate action:
I’m going to emphasize this again: don’t do anything unless your horse actually changes gait. That means if he gets faster or slower but stays in the same gait, do nothing or you’ll find yourself micromanaging rather than teaching him to uphold his responsibilities to maintain gait, maintain direction.
In both cases, making it a game keeps the smile on your face and helps the horse maintain a positive attitude rather than getting scared or resentful. Think of it from your horse’s point of view: “How can I keep my human quiet and relaxed there in the center?”
Longeing engages horses physically, whereas the Circling Game engages them mentally and emotionally as well. This is because it can easily be modified to become more calming or stimulating, to get your horse fit for riding, or to develop his skills and teach him to be calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic. Let’s make circles more fun and meaningful!
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