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14 Issue 3 2013
Learn about an exercise that can be used to prepare your
horse for any discipline.
This circle-backaround drill is a multiple-part drill that
really works on one thing a horse's flexibility, one side at a
It's all about making perfect circles, going forward and
back, teaching a horse how to arc his body. I use it as a warm-
up drill, a way to get that horse round and broke at the poll and
comfortable. It has a lot to do with helping a horse's overall
form and balance.
It's not event-specific. It can help a horse in the
turnarounds in reining or working cow horse. It helps teach a
cutting horse to stay in form while bending his neck and looking
at the cow, and then be able to load up on his hocks to get
ready to spring out of that turn to catch the cow. I used to use it
on western pleasure horses, to get them soft and flexible, and
on trail horses, for backing and turning.
It helps you focus, too, as a rider. It is a drill that works on
one side of the horse at a time. Often, trainers don't go slowly
enough and concentrate on one side. They go from one side to
the other quickly turn to the right, turn to the left, go forward,
stop, back, etc. and the horse gets confused. This drill helps
you really focus on one side.
The BASic Drill
Before you can do this drill, you and your horse have to
be able to walk and trot a perfect circle going forward. And your horse needs
to want to back up.
Start out trotting or walking a good, perfect circle to the left, 12 to 14
feet in diameter. To ride a proper, perfectly round circle is difficult. It means
that the horse's head, shoulders, ribs, hips, everything, is in line and on the
line of the circle. The withers are standing up and are not shouldering into
the circle or leaning out of the circle. The whole body is on that circle, the
whole way around.
Then stop on that circle and maintain a left arc as you stop. Don't take
the horse's body off the arc of the circle.
Make a left half-turn to the inside of the circle, maintaining the left arc
in the horse's body. When you finish the half-turn, the horse will be counter-
arced to the circle. His head is to the outside of the circle but you keep his
hips on the circle.
Now back around the circle in the same direction you were going, still
maintaining the left arc in the horse's body.
When you want to finish the drill, simply rotate the horse another half-
turn to the left, back onto the circle, and continue going forward on the circle,
still with that left arc in the horse's body.
When you finish, you've walked, trotted, half-turned, backed up and
then turned forward again, all with the same arc in the horse's body. By that
time, that horse is giving in and being soft, and the exercise has given you a
real focal point to work on that horse on one side.
Take a short transition period and then work the opposite direction in
the same training session.
You have to build up your horse's ability to do this don't expect him to
be able to back a full circle the first time. On a green or less flexible horse,
you might make that half-turn and only be able to take three or four steps
Eventually, the object is to back up as far as you want and as long as
you want while the horse stays comfortable, not interfering with his feet or
losing his balance.
Work it into your program as your horse needs it. If I have a horse that's
good going to the left but is a little sticky going to the right, I might just do this
drill on the right side and that's it.
When I rotate the horse to go forward again, if he's a reining horse, I'll
rotate him with a slight bit of forward motion, turning around on his inside
hind foot. If he's a cutting horse, I'll rotate him with more weight on his hocks,
using either both hind feet or the outside hind foot to turn around on.
Fence helP
I like to do this drill out in the open, in the middle of the arena. But if
I'm having trouble with a horse, I'll do it in the corner of the arena where I
have two fences to push the horse toward to keep the circle as round as I
possibly can.
As the horse comes off the fence and wants to go out of the circle, then
I'll drive back to a point that's 4 to 6 feet out from the corner. He'll learn that
arc and not want to leave out of the corner.
My favorite option with this drill comes at the end. Instead of doing the
half turnaround at the end to come back going forward on the circle, I'll turn
the horse around two or three times and end up back on the circle.
Another variation on this drill is to make a figure-8 with your back-
You establish your perfect circle going forward. When you stop and
maintain that arc in the horse's body, don't do a half turn to back around the
circle. Instead, just back the horse into an additional, same-size circle right
next to the one you just made, making a figure-8, maintaining the same arc
in the horse's body.
riDing PerFecT circleS
Be consistent in your circle size. For this drill, make your circles 12 to
14 feet, and learn what that looks and feels like to ride.
What usually happens when you're working on this is that you get a
bubble in your circle; one side is a little larger so it's really an oval or egg.
Using a focal point for your circle can help with that.
I've used just about anything: a cactus, rock or piece of manure that
was in my arena. In clinics, I'll put a barrel or a cone in the middle of the
circle. Use that focal point to help you stay exactly 6 or 7 feet from all sides
of that focal point for your perfectly round circle.
bout the Author:
Arizona horseman, Al Dunning, has owned and operated
his "Almosta Ranch" since 1970. The Quarter Horse training facility is in
Scottsdale, Arizona. Born in Chicago in 1950, Al's family moved to Arizona
when he was 8 years old. He began riding horses with his sisters and went
on to further his talents with mentors such as Jim Paul, John Hoyt and Don
Dodge. Over the years, Al developed his multifaceted business with a focus
on the development of champion horses and riders. Al married his wife Becky
in 1971. Becky is a well-known horse show announcer, and co-founded
America's Horse Cares, a division of the AQHA foundation which focuses
on therapeutic riding charities. The Dunnings have two children, Grady and
McKenzie Parkinson. Al has been a professional trainer since 1970. His
expertise in all facets of western events have elevated him to great success
in the AQHA, NRHA, NRCHA, and NCHA. Al has developed a winning
tradition with quarter horses that is well documented. He trains, conducts
clinics, and consults for ranch development and equestrian planning.
Learn more at, a membership website
featuring the training methods and best practices of World Champion Al
The Back-Around Drill
by Al Dunning
Photo by Charles Brooks