There are some exercises which seem to work for almost every type of horse. Squares definitely fall into that category. Although there’s nothing wrong with perfecting your 20m circles, incorporating squares into your schooling routine regularly has loads of benefits for both horses and riders.
Remember that squares can be ridden in two ways. One way is to turn the quarters around the shoulders, similar to a quarter turn around the forehand. The other is to ride the shoulders around the quarters, similar to a turn on the haunches.
Here’s the difference between the two, what they can help with, and how you can adapt squares to suit your level of experience and your specific schooling problems.
Riding Squares by Moving the Shoulder Around the Quarters
Ridden this way—the more common of the two—your square’s corners would be almost like a quarter pirouette. That is, the aim is to move the outside shoulder across to make the turn while putting more weight on the hind end. For a visual explanation, here’s a video of squares being ridden in canter.
This can be ridden in walk, trot, and canter. Initially, you might start with the walk and keep the square big. As you progress, this can be ridden even at the canter on a 15m square.
To ride the corner of the square, you will put slightly more weight on your inside seatbone and close your outside leg against the horse’s side. If there’s no reaction, you can add more pressure or tickle the horse with a long whip behind your outside heel. Note that if you’re doing a rising trot, you should think about stepping slightly into the inside stirrup rather than sitting on the inside seatbone.
As you apply the seat and leg aids, turn the shoulders by moving both hands to the inside softly and smoothly. Keep the outside rein contact to stop the horse from escaping through the outside shoulder, and keep the flexion slightly to the inside. Keep in mind that the rein aids should be a back up to the seat and leg aids, rather than the other way round.
Why is it useful? Riding squares like this can:
- Help your horse to engage the inside hind for more engagement and collection
- Encourage better control of the shoulder and shoulder position
- Straighten a horse
- Reinforce the horse’s understanding of the outside rein and leg aids
- Teach the rider how to use the hands as one unit when needed
Riding Squares by Moving the Quarters around the Shoulders
You can also ride squares the opposite way. That is, instead of bringing the shoulders slightly in, you bring the quarters out.
When you ride squares this way, the aim is to move the hind end around the shoulder. Put more simply, the horse’s front legs turn in a much smaller arc than the back legs. You can see this in action here.
As with squares which are more like a pirouette, you can ride this in all paces. You should always solidify them at a walk before moving up a gear, and keep the squares as big as is necessary for you to adequately prepare for a good corner.
To ride them, you would ask the horse to stay straight in the shoulders as you approach the turn, and use your inside leg behind the girth to guide the quarters around the shoulders in a wider arc. Your outside rein and leg guard the horse from falling out through the shoulder.
Though this exercise isn’t used as frequently as the one above, it can be helpful for:
- Straightening a horse who is crooked and falling in with the quarters
- Strengthening the outside hind leg and helping the horse to develop more engagement
- Encouraging the basic principle of acceptance of inside leg and outside rein
- Developing suppleness and improving balance
For jumpers, squares are great practice for making tight turns on course without sacrificing the quality of the canter. For dressage riders, squares are a good test of the connection and responsiveness to the aids. Riding good squares will make the advanced lateral work easier, because you’ll find it much easier to position the shoulders and quarters in exactly the way you need to. And even if you just do trails, being able to ride good squares makes it infinitely easier to open gates from horseback!
So next time you hop on your horse and are tempted to ride lots of circles, why not try squares instead? They’re often beneficial when it comes to making your horse stronger and more uphill, and will encourage you to ride accurately, and will give you a few new exercises to add to your schooling routine.