I was introduced to the cowboy circle by SW in, I think, our second lesson together this summer. Cruise was being a tourist, head up, ears pricked forward, looking out the door, and not focused on me at all. Thinking maybe some naughty thoughts. SW explained the CC this way: the rider sits in a defensive posture, slightly back with leg a little forward, the inside hip pushed forward and in, the inside leg on, the inside rein a fixed hand to the inside knee, and the outside rein loose. The idea is that the horse keeps walking forward and the inside rein at the knee is like a fixed side rein. Not harsh, not giving and taking, just fixed in place while the rider is still asking for forward. Eventually, or pretty quickly sometimes, the horse gives to the rein, the rider goes back a normal rein position and regular work recommences. When or if the horse starts to lose focus again, first the rider asks for a little inside flexion to regain the horse’s attention before going to the cowboy circle if necessary. The horse pretty quickly learns to focus on the rider because if they don’t the circle is coming next.
Warwick Schiller does something similar with his green horses. When he’s toddling along and the horse pricks its ears to focus away from the rider WS uses a rein to change direction/get a little bend. As soon as the horse flicks his ears back at the rider, showing that his attention is there, the rider goes straight again. Not exactly the same, but I think both methods are dealing with the horse’s focus and attention by using lateral bend.
I played with this a bit this summer when Cruise would get fixated on something in the distance or just get plain porky. Now that the weather has turned and his energy level is high, I have found it an invaluable tool. It puts me in a good sitting up safety position when he is thinking about being naughty and the lateral bend makes it harder for him to try anything. The quiet bend itself is calming and naturally encourages head slightly down. Also, when the horse gives, if the rider adds the outside aids, magically there is correct bend. It’s a very quiet way encourage the horse to focus on the rider but is also very gymnastically beneficial. And it works great at the trot as well!
Thoughts and similar exercises?