The King of Dressage Movements ~ The Piaffe
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
The difference between a Small Tour horse and a Big Tour horse is his ability to trot on the spot, which is the ultimate collected trot movement. Many horses are sidelined from reaching the Grand Prix level by their lack of magnificence in this movement that should always show the desire of the horse to move forward.
While there are odd occasions when a horse may be taught the passage before the piaffe, this is a much harder route to accomplish the goal as the horse may never want to just sit down and piaffe once he has learned the passage. Of several horses I have trained to Grand Prix level only one was taught the passage first.
At the Intermediare level the horse will demonstrate some slight movement forward. This is permitted. The maximum is one meter (3ft, 3 inches) every ten steps. The horse must always maintain an elastic spring from one diagonal leg pair to the other and the steps must show good cadence. The horse should demonstrate flexion across his back with his haunches sitting down by dropping his croup and his neck freely elevated without contortion. His nose should be slightly in front of the vertical. The front leg should rise to the center of the cannon bone in each step and steps should not be earthbound. The front forearms should be vertical. The rider should sit tall with a long neck, elevate their breastbone and bring their hands slightly higher without pulling back with their elbows at their side. The positioning and amount of ‘sit’ on the haunches and neck position will be different for every individual horse based on his conformation and to some degree temperament.
You can begin to teach the piaffe earlier in the horse’s career than FEI level, and indeed it is desirable to do so as it is a valuable tool in engagement. This is particularly useful if you have a phlegmatic horse, as it will increase his hind leg activity. Sensitive horses may become undone if training to piaffe is begun too early and it takes some experience to know when to begin. Often you may introduce some baby half steps, and then have to leave them alone for a few weeks and work on other gymnastic exercises before returning to them.
When you begin training the baby steps the horse may swish his tail or kick out. The tail swishing will disappear as he relaxes and understands your requests and he develops the strength to step more and more underneath himself. Be certain your use of the whip is accurately placed, is never used in an aggressive manner but rather an assertive one. There must be no fear in your horse. Also be careful you are not jabbing him in the mouth when you use the whip and ensure your whip is long enough to reach the hindquarter. The use of the baby steps will improve the submissiveness of your horse and is a valuable training exercise.
The classicists would argue that there should be no use of the whip from the saddle, only from an expert ground person who is there to assist as minimally as possible to aid in impulsion. The rider must address the individual horse in this matter. I have approached training in different ways during my career and whichever way you choose it is of the utmost importance to proceed extremely slowly when teaching the piaffe. It is paramount that the quality of the steps are good and in even rhythm and show an elastic energy. As soon as this starts to dissipate then the horse must be moved briskly forward. Some horses simply have very good innate ‘electrical harnessing’ and find keeping the diagonal rhythm easier than others. When purchasing a youngster good diagonal rhythm is something I specifically look for when they are at liberty, along with how well they sit down in transitions.
Training of the baby steps can be done from the ground in long lines and only with baby or half steps being required. There are many errors that can occur at this young stage and certain pre-requisites should be met before taking the long reins in hand. Some trainers, particularly those working with warmbloods as opposed to the Baroque breeds, do not employ work from the ground to teach piaffe. Their belief is that the work on the ground is too static. The subject of how to correctly work a horse in long reins is a whole other topic and is beyond the scope of this article. Let’s focus on teaching the horse the piaffe from the saddle.
In the training of the piaffe the work is approximately 80% leg, a passive seat but 15% use of the small of the back, and only 5% rein aid. The passage on the other hand is 80% seat aids, 15% leg and 5% rein. This will vary depending on the horse to some degree. There is always the question in piaffe as to what comes first. Do you give the aids to get a piaffe or does the piaffe create the aids. In good riding, I believe it is the latter.
The prerequisites for training the piaffe under saddle are brilliant trot-walk-trot transitions. These should be bright and on the money. There should be a clear understanding by the horse of soft collecting half halts and their action should be true on both reins. If you cannot exact smooth transitions, this is an indication that your horse does not have a sufficient degree of the rein going through his body. Your horse must also exhibit a clear response to each of your legs becoming more active if you ask for more engagement from one side over the other. As the piaffe under saddle requires a lot of strength and flexibility the basic training of the horse must be correct and he must have been properly developed gymnastically using correct transitions.
The piaffe requires the utmost cooperation from your horse and you must have a supple seat, with no stiffness or tension to accomplish it.
One of my favorite exercises toward piaffe is to work daily on transitions within the trot. I like to employ this on the long side of the arena on the inside track so you can determine that your horse does not fall out to one side or another. You sit to your horse’s working trot and bring him back to you with soft collecting half halts (just a second or two and release each time) still your seat, breathe in and relax all thigh muscles but allow the rhythm of the horse to bounce your lower legs actively on the horse’s side and allow your balance to keep your seat centered on the horse. Your horse will ‘come back’ to you for a few strides and elevate his stride, and then you can drive him forward with more leg aid and activate more seat (without leaning backward). The horse’s back should concertina easily with the slightest of your aids in a back and forth motion stretching toward the bit with confidence and ease and remaining light in the shoulders. I use direct aids and not diagonal aids in the piaffe. Diagonal leg aids may be useful in the early stages but you should move to direct aids as soon as possible. You will have a better result if you use your leg on the girth rather than too far behind the girth as this is a forward/impulsion aid spot.
Once you have the above pre-requisites in place, you can begin playing with the baby steps but placing your horse in the center of the arena on a circle. Take your horse slightly sideways off the curve by sending him toward a soft half halting outside rein in a slight shoulder in position. You are asking your horse to step laterally for a stride or two to the outside and to drop his neck slightly and you want to feel a slight slowing down of the gait. By quick but light half halts your horse will step into baby piaffe steps and you can then release him forward and ask him to straighten once again on the circle. These changes in tempo will help your horse collect over his topline. It is permissible for the horse to drop his neck when learning his half steps as long as he is not leaning on the rein.
The reason to use the circle is that if the horse cannot move forward from the ‘sit’ he can step sideways off the circle.
It is important to not overface your horse with this exercise. He should respond promptly forward to your active leg aid and remember the thought in piaffe should be forward, not stationery or static. You can use the whip to gently tap on his inside hind leg to aid the response to the leg aid.
You can also train the piaffe from the walk. Ask him to trot and restrain with half halts and by ‘dropping your seat’ and allowing gravity to center you in the saddle. It is imperative that your aid changes are subtle and that you push the horse slowly forward. You will slightly brace your lower back or tighten it in order to ask the horse to come back to you and brace his own.
It is always important to interval train your horse between collected and extended exercises. Frequent extensions between sets will keep your horse in forward thought. All the aids must be gently used and you must have a supple seat. It is preferable that you have experienced sitting on a correctly trained horse in piaffe under supervision from an expert so you recognize the feel. Your legs will become slightly less active when the horse comes into his baby steps and your seat will be passive but when he loses his brightness you must send him forward and he should step forward evenly without hesitation.
If you find your horse is taking too much rein then instead of making transitions within the trot, make a trot halt transition and back to trot. The horse must carry himself at all times. Be certain you are using repetitive half halts and not holding the half halts too long or too strongly.
In piaffe we ask for the horse to step a little faster then he might at first offer. The training requires much patience and long walk breaks between the piaffe exercises. A correctly trained horse will walk out without hesitation with an even contact to the bit following piaffe steps. The lengthy walk breaks will dissolve tension. The use of the aids must always be harmonious. However after breaking to the walk from the piaffe always allow a few steps in collected walk. If you do not you will later have trouble training the piaffe/passage/piaffe transitions.
Use of the Pirouette in Piaffe
The use of the pirouette is very valuable in the piaffe work as it gives the rider the opportunity to keep the horse more active in the steps of piaffe with less leg aids.
For example, while in the pirouette to the right I restrain the sideways step with both legs and the outside rein until I obtain a few steps on the spot. As soon as there is a loss of elevation or cadence I move sideways again for a few steps and repeat. Once this is achieved I’ll do the same on the other rein. Once you have achieved this exercise you can switch from one direction to the other. A few steps to the right, then reverse in the other direction and do a few steps to the left.
The above exercise is very valuable with horses that have trouble with a piaffe on the center line or on a straight line. It will enable them to adjust their balance and shift their weight. Horses can also benefit from work on the passage and then come back to work in the piaffe once the passage is confirmed if they have trouble being in open space.
The alternating direction pirouette in piaffe can also help develop more impulsion and helps horses who have a tendency to become earthbound in the front steps.
My Horse Rears
If you horse rears when you are schooling the piaffe it is important to send him promptly forward and to abort the exercise for that day. Check that the horse is sound and that his inability to work doesn’t come from soreness in the hocks or hind end. Also be sure he is ready and supple enough to answer your demands i.e. go back to basics and then try the piaffe steps again a few months later.
Be certain that your aids are not sudden or rough, that they are gently asked. Review DVDs of horses attaining the best piaffes and train your eye to how softly the aids can be applied.
For a horse that moves wide behind in the piaffe the trainer must do more work on transitions in and out of the trot. The horse must always be energetic in his work. For some horses this is a matter of lack of strength. It may be beneficial to start work on the passage which will help to strengthen the horse.
Your horse may become stiff in his neck or step sideways. This can be resolved by putting your horse in a shoulder fore position in the piaffe. If the horse is showing a lack of engagement behind on one side then ride the piaffe on a circle with the horse in a shoulder in position to his other side to get him to extend that under-engaged hind leg and to strengthen it.
Horses can also attempt to alleviate pressure on the hocks by bringing them too far underneath their body and placing much of the pressure of the ‘sit’ on their fetlocks. To correct this ride the piaffe again on the circle so the horse can move sideways if he is having trouble taking so many ‘on the spot’ steps.
As the scores at Grand Prix are heavily weighted to the piaffe/passage movements the top horses in the worldwide dressage rankings should exhibit excellent piaffe work. It is always helpful to watch good piaffe action first hand to train your eye. During a trip to the renowned Blue Hors Stud in Denmark to visit with Lars Pederson, he introduced me to the brilliant Blue Hors Cavan. This beautiful stallion had a flawless conformation and character and exhibited superb piaffe and passage, as did Blue Hors Matine. In history there have been many such talented horses at the piaffe, such as the rhythmic Donnerhall, who I was also privileged to watch work in preparation for competition during my education at Grönwohldhof, Germany and the light footed Marzog to name but a few. Today I proudly point to my fellow Brit Charlotte DuJardin and the exceptional Valegro. If you study DVDs of horses in piaffe at the top level you will soon see how they move and sit differently in the piaffe based on their conformation and temperament.
A short-coupled horse will be more able to bring his forearms to the vertical while a long backed horse may find the exercise more difficult and may never achieve it to a fine degree at all.
In all remember to take it slowly. This is a movement you do not want to ‘mess up’ during training. If in doubt, leave it out. The horse must be ready. Today many trainers feel the pressure to show off the horse in half steps in warm up at the side of the arena, and to show off to clients that they have expertise in the area by introducing the movement early. The horse and rider must be mentally and physically ready.