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Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to get your horse into the corners of the riding school, and why he/she tries to stick firmly to the track made by the other horses?  Riding school horses are notoriously adept at this.

Riding a Figure of Eight





Corners and turns offer the rider opportunities to improve the horse's balance and engagement, and in a dressage test will show allow the judge to see how well the horse has been trained, and the skills of the rider.  If ridden incorrectly the horse will lose balance slightly, and the judge will spot this and marks will be lost.


Bend

Figure of Eight



Figure of eight exercises are useful to help a horse bend properly, as  they combine circle exercises on both reins.  Not only does the horse have to bend correctly in one direction, a figure of eight will ask for a change of bend in the middle.  As a rider you will need to concentrate on how you ask your horse to make the bend.  Pulling on the inside rein should be avoided, as this will put the horse off balance and he may go crooked.  Instead a bend should be asked for with the inside leg and the outside rein.  The outside rein should be an elastic contact to prevent the horse overbending to the inside.   The inside rein should be gently applied for the correct degree of bend, but the contact on both reins should remain constant. 
Rider preparing for a corner
This rider is preparing her horse for the corner by subtlely moving her body weight to the inside, applying the inside leg aid whilst retaining a contact on the outside rein.  The horse is remaing well balanced.

A simple exercise to start with is shown below - this is a half figure of eight which results in a change of rein. 
Riding Exercise - half figure of eight
Starting at A, walk as if you were commencing a 20 metre circle.  As you approach X (the imaginary marker in the middle of the school), go straight for a couple of paces before bending in the opposite direction and starting a half 20 metre circle which will take you round to C.

The complete 20 metre figure of eight is shown below.  This time, start at A, and complete the first half circle.  As you approach X,  go straight for a couple of paces before starting asking for the change of bend and commencing the second 20 metre circle.  This will take you round to X again.  After a couple of paces straight, change bend and complete the exercise round to A.

If this exercise is ridden in canter, the horse should be brought back to trot at X momentarily before changing the bend and asking for canter to enable him to be on the correct canter lead.  More experienced horses can perform a flying change at X in this exercise.
Figure of eight
Different figures of eight can be ridden, or combined with other exercises (the half figure of eight above can be used to change the rein).  10m figures of eight can be ridden between B and E.

The exercise below combines two figures of eight, and introduce changes of degree of bend as well as direction. 

In this exercise you would start at C, and perform the 20 metre figure of eight, taking you back to X.  Instead of completing the first circle, this time you change the direction but ask for a tighter bend, and work a 15 metre circle.  As you approach X, change the bend, and work a 15 metre circle on the opposite rein.  As you complete this circle at X, change direction, but move back onto the 20 metre circle to complete the exercise at C.

Variations of this exercise can be performed, also using different paces.  Different sizes of circle can be combined with different paces introducing a variety of transitions to increase the complexity of the exercise.
Riding Exercise - Variations of Figure of Eight
Other pages you might like:

School Etiquette
School Exercises
Circles
Serpentines
Dressage
Jumping

How a horse will take the corner depends both on the rider's skill and the ability of the horse itself.  Most well schooled horses are quite capable of riding closely round the corners, however if you watch it will take a competent rider to get them to consistently do so!  It also depends on your pace and speed - a novice horse may be able to make the bend equivalent to a 10m circle in medium walk, but if he is in canter may only be able to make a 20m circle whilst remaining balanced.
Not going into the corner means they keep the angle of bend very shallow, which is much easier for them!  Tighter circles mean harder work!

Riding tighter bends is excellent to supple the horse, and improve your position as a rider.  Being able to ride bends properly helps with the horse's balance, and enables him to go straight correctly as well.