Essential Guide to the Piaffe – Part One

Introduction to the Piaffe

I would like to see more children learning to ride the Piaffe and more beginner riders sat on schooled horses to see how the movement feels. I would like to see more horses taught to do this, so that they in turn can help teach even more riders to teach even more horses and ponies. Spending many of my formative years in places where this actually happens has shown me just how possible it is.

High School dressage is embedded in the equestrian cultures of certain nations around the world. Though the work that is happening in the riding clubs and riding schools of those nations is not always up to test riding standard, it is a healthy thing that it is happening at all. It busts the myth that advanced dressage movements are only for some kind of equine and human elite. I couldn’t count the times I saw the faces of children light up with grins as kindly school horses moved into a gentle bouncy Piaffe when the instructor asked them to. There is no question of “will you ever be good enough to do this difficult thing?” because by the age of ten or eleven they are happily asking the horses to Piaffe without the teacher along side. I believe the mind-set this creates is a very good thing.

I believe in simplification and I don’t really like insider jargon or the mystique that this level of dressage can get wrapped up in. Whenever I encounter a rider talking about their PiPa Tour, it often makes me think of General Patton, who wrote this:

“It struck me as rather strange that, in the midst of a world at war, some twenty young and middle-aged men in great physical condition…had spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle their butts and raise their feet in consonance with certain signals from the heels and reins.”

So without a Pi or a Pa in sight here is a guide to the art of teaching your horse to wiggle its butt!

When I wrote about Developing Your Horse’s Trot I mentioned that the Passage and the Extended trot share a certain quality of tempo; that the moment of suspension in both is elongated to more or less the same degree. The Piaffe is very different to the Passage in two important ways. The tempo is quicker, sometimes much quicker, and the ‘base’ of the movement (the proximity of hind hooves to front hooves) is short rather than long.

As beginner riders we learn that there are several categories of trot; collected, working, medium and extended, each with its own clear definition. This is a basic guideline but in practice it is overly simplistic. The trot is easier to develop well if we think of it as a spectrum with Passage at one end and full extension at the other. We begin training in the middle with the ordinary trot and work out from that towards both ends of our trot spectrum. The Piaffe might seem to sit at the extremely collected end of the spectrum, beyond the Passage, and there is some logic in this view. It is the most collected and gathered of all the types of trot and I tend to develop it right alongside all of the other trot variants, but rather than thinking of the Piaffe as part of the trot spectrum I tend to think of it having a spectrum all of its own!

The Piaffe has what I call a training arc. Training it is a long-term process which is embedded into the greater part of the horse’s working life; if you think of beginning at five what will be complete at fifteen then that gives you some idea of what I mean. The Passage is linked together with the Piaffe in the minds of most riders but they are very different to train and the demands they make on the horse’s body are quite distinct; hence the challenges in riding repeatedly from the one to the other. If the Piaffe were no more than a Passage in place then it would be a relatively easy thing to move between them. In transitions between them the horse is going repeatedly from a long body base to a short one and it is changing tempo as it does so. These transitions are magical to ride and I always ensure the aids I acclimatise the horse to for both movements are quite different. This makes the transitions easier for the horse to understand. The Passage is often easier for the horse to understand and in many cases it is fully understood by the horse before the Piaffe is. Resist the temptation to simply pin down the Passage for a few steps and call it a Piaffe. If the distance between the front and hind hooves doesn’t become less and the tempo quicken then what you have is a diminished Passage and not a Piaffe. Remember that even half steps are quick. Just think Passage is slower than most other trots, Piaffe is quicker.

Many of you reading this will be totally familiar with riding the Piaffe and teaching it to your horses, other readers might never have experienced it at all. The riders I most want to connect with are those who have an inner assumption that Piaffe is something they will never be ‘advanced’ enough to enjoy with their horse.

  • To those who ride Piaffe routinely, I want to look at what makes it really good and what the pitfalls are that we can avoid through good training.
  • To those who aspire to learn and teach this movement, I would like to demystify it and explain a few of the approaches you can take.
  • To those who think it is in any way beyond them, or their horse, I want to explain why it is almost certainly not!

The first article in this series is an overview of the movement’s origins, why the Piaffe is good for the horse and the different reasons why we might use it (aside from high level competition training). I will also talk about the training arc of the movement, which might take anywhere up to a decade. From the first gentle half steps to the magnificent Piaffe of the established and mature dressage horse there must be a patient and systematic progression. Piaffe is like all other dressage movements in that teaching it to the horse is only one milestone along the way. Once the horse can perform the movement you must spend many years polishing and perfecting it. What the horse can do at seven, it will do far more beautifully at fourteen! Wherever you are on that training arc it is important to know where you want to end up and so I will describe the ideals and criteria I personally apply to the Piaffe.

 

 Why do we train the Piaffe at all?

There is constant debate about the merits of the various movements and the degree to which they are natural to the horse. You will probably have observed that horses, even or especially foals, will Passage as part of a play or display scenario. It is rare to see an untrained horse Piaffe. I have done, but only on a handful of occasions. A young Irish Sports Horse of mine once settled into a really beautiful, technically correct Piaffe when he was being led from the field and met a tractor on the drive. Critically there was an element of restraint in the situation. He was only held by a head collar and rope, but clearly he perceived that he was not really free to run from the tractor. His precocious Piaffe was very beautiful and later his trained Piaffe was even lovelier. It is very rare to see the Piaffe in a horse that is truly at liberty so perhaps those who say it is not natural have a fair point. Natural or not it is in my opinion beautiful, fun, and, when it is done with care it is healthy and beneficial for the horse. The reason that Piaffe exists is only partly about art and display. It might look like a dance, but it once had a deadly and serious purpose.

Modern dressage owes a huge debt to the cavalry tradition and competitive dressage has its roots firmly in military equitation. Many of the trainers of my trainers were from this tradition. It is one I value highly because it is rooted in practicality. Piaffe is not required for a mass charge of cavalry but it (or something passing for it) is pretty essential to closed combat, hand to hand fighting, and to duelling from horseback. Whilst you would not need a classical Piaffe, you would need a great degree of contained energy and animation expressed more or less in place. Think how difficult it would be to fight an opponent at close range if your horse and theirs kept drifting away from one another. Think how dangerous it would be if your horse became rooted to the spot. Rather like a human boxer or a tennis player, the horse in Piaffe is highly mobile, with options to change direction and jump. Two movements supply this necessary quality of animation in place – Terre a Terre and the Piaffe. Both are still used today as a springboard for high school jumps and leaps. The Piaffe also allows a horse great potential for evasive manoeuvrability and the option to lash out with any limb at any moment. Approaching that horse from the ground would have been a very daunting thing, which would reduce the odds of the rider being dragged to the ground or the horse being hamstrung.

Display riding has derived from Court life and I believe that even that developed to reflect the skills required in combat. It was a highly ritualised expression of combat skill taken to an artistic extreme. The High School jumps were perhaps more of an educational tool for riders who were learning to sit well enough to survive the violent contingency riding of battle. Some of the jumps might have had roots in actual battle airs, opinions differ but I suspect they have probably been refined beyond recognition! The Piaffe then is probably not entirely natural; personally I would say that it is a conditioned response based upon natural behaviours, which have been developed for human purposes. Whether we encounter it in competition arenas or in the riding halls of equestrian academies it is the same beautiful dance that was once something much darker.

 

Why every sound, sane horse should learn to Piaffe!

We no longer have the horror of taking horses to war but I believe that the Piaffe is certainly not redundant as a practical skill. Piaffe is a reasonably difficult gymnastic exercise, but nothing like as challenging for the horse as one or two tempi changes are. To piaffe in a basic and gymnastically constructive way is within the reach of most sound, sane horses and ponies. On the other hand, to piaffe in a way that is close to technical perfection is seriously strenuous and requires the right conformation and a carefully prepared equine physique. Don’t underestimate the complexity of the task but equally don’t buy into the idea that this is impossibly difficult for you and your horse. It takes good basic education for both of you, and it takes time to prepare correctly, but it is not innately difficult at all. The way you sit and communicate with the horse is a defining factor of success. Have a look at Better Dressage- Contact for some insights to how your leg, seat and hands, can influence the horse optimally. Riding the Piaffe well depends very much on good contacts and clear communication.

Alongside the Warm bloods and Iberian horses I have ridden, I have known Clydesdales, Shetland Ponies, Breton Cobs, Thoroughbreds, Egyptian Arabians, and Icelandic Horses who could all piaffe very nicely. The first horse that I succeeded in teaching it to was a full Thoroughbred, the second was an Irish Sports Horse. The school master horse I had learnt to ride the movement on was a 14.2hh Anglo-Arabian, a horse who was beautiful but quite unremarkable by many people’s standards. Of course a gifted horse will always have a more brilliant Piaffe but most horses and ponies will have a Piaffe that is pleasant and gymnastically useful. Only severe conformational contra indications should prevent us trying to teach the movement at all. Some of those, for example, would be severe sickle hocks, very long sloping pasterns or very high hocks. To judge the suitability of this work for your horse, study the mechanics of the movement in detail, consult a really experienced coach, talk it through with your vet and use your common sense. With care for the horse, willingness to adapt the outcome and good sense much is possible.

 

Different contexts for training the Piaffe

If you have a horse that you hope to take to high levels of training and perhaps competition then the Piaffe will ultimately be a natural part of your training plan. But why teach it at all if the horse is not expected to compete at high levels? Well, it can be a remedial tool, it is a great gymnastic aid to health and strength, and most importantly it is fun. I have had some awesome moments in the Piaffe with the kind of horses that other riders would not even bother to take into training. Never under estimate the small joys of dressage.

Piaffe can actually make your horse safer to ride. If your horse perceives that he or she is in danger then you can use the ‘animation almost in place’ of the Piaffe to reassure the horse that flight is possible, without flight actually taking place. Whilst many horses will make something like a Piaffe if agitated, the usefulness of a trained Piaffe when out hacking is considerable. I once had a nightmare ride on my very high-strung PRE horse in flat open countryside with an electric storm closing in on us. We were out alone and he got badly frightened by the situation; I wasn’t exactly in a happy place myself! The last long straight stretch to the farm lay ahead of us and he began plunging up and down. I felt there were two options – I could let the horse bolt home or I could try to manage his nervous energy. I asked him to Passage and, whenever he became too exuberant I asked for Piaffe. I don’t know how many transitions we made along that track but we made it home safe. If I had been on an untrained horse I know I would not have had the option to channel the energy in that way.

The Piaffe can be used as a gymnastic exercise and customised to suit the needs of the individual horse. What governs the degree of difficulty is how much we expect the horse to elevate the fore hand or not. When the horse first learns the movement it is in a very flat balance, or even slightly croup high. This does not bear favourable comparison with the Piaffe of the fully trained horse, but if we did not use this training state it would be very difficult or even impossible to teach the movement to at all. We have the option to ask for the Piaffe with any amount of elevation that is possible and appropriate for that individual horse. This opens up a range of possibilities to use it for gently warming up the body of the horse. Piaffe warms the muscles and helps prepare the surrounding tendon and ligament structures for hard work. I have taught the movement to horses in their old age and worked it, very gently indeed, from the floor to assist in retaining joint mobility. It can be so soft and easy a movement done this way. I call this a ‘fluffy slippers’ Piaffe! As a gymnastic exercise Piaffe is just as useful for the show jumper, the event horse and the hunter as it is for the dressage horse. In fact it is useful for any horse that is expected to use the triangulation of its hind legs joints to provide power or speed.

This is one end of the athletic spectrum; at the other end is the Piaffe of the Grand Prix horse or the High School horse. Incidentally, in warming up the fully trained horse I still make use of the ‘fluffy slippers Piaffe’; it is a good, gentle beginning. We are always free to under ride a movement deliberately if we want. There is often a great deal of value in doing so. I think of this as controlling the power in the way we control the heat under a pan; riding the Piaffe as a simmer rather than a boil can be a gentle part of your daily schooling. Pushing your horse to its athletic limits is something to do sparingly if you want to keep it sound and happy. Within the range of possibilities that the particular horse offers, by virtue of age, fitness and level of training, you are free to vary the body frame and vary the emphasis of the exercise, just as you would any other.

Eventually, after years of training, the Piaffe can develop into a vastly demanding exercise in pelvic tuck and elevation of the forehand. It is ultimately a basis for the Levade. Having had the good fortune of training in an environment with High School horses, I was able to learn about the relationship between the Piaffe and the Levade in some detail. It changed the way I look at the movement forever. If you want your horse to lift its forehand off of the floor, eventually with you on board, and sit in what is effectively a deep squat then you had better make sure your horse is making a very high quality Piaffe. In this I am talking about creating the ideal situation.

 

 What makes a high quality Piaffe?

For me the measure of a good Piaffe is one where a Levade looks possible and feels possible, even if the horse is not trained in that movement and never will be.

 

  • The lifting mechanism of the neck and shoulder muscles raises the forehand of the horse. The neck is high – but it is high because the shoulders lift. Think of the shoulder mass pushing the neck up and the neck pushing the poll and head up. You cannot achieve this by artificially raising the head. If you do, you run the risk of depressing the shoulders and limiting the horse’s ability to execute the movement.
  • As part of the lifting effort it is natural for the poll to be raised and the throat relatively open. The nose is usually in front of the vertical, sometimes considerably so. It is a consequence of how the horse is using its muscle structure. The conformation of the neck has a bearing on this too. The loose-coupled horse will not need to open as much as a horse with a thicker neck.
  • The long back muscle is fully engaged in raising the forehand and will contract powerfully in combination with the neck and shoulders to create the ‘archers bow’ profile. This is where great strength is needed in the back. The back must be healthy and gymnastically well prepared. It is strength of muscle, not amount of muscle that counts. I have ridden this movement on horses that look very lean rather than bulky and the Piaffe has been just as lovely and easy for the horse to carry out. Some horses are wiry and others are powerhouses; it very much depends on breeding. An Anglo Arab will never bulk up like a Lipizzaner or a Holstein!
  • The pelvis of the horse tucks under and brings the hind legs deeply under the body. Among the muscles used to do this is the Psoas; a muscle that is greatly strengthened by working the Piaffe. The pelvic tuck helps the long back muscle to engage even more powerfully.
  • The joints of the hind legs close like a concertina and allow the hindquarters to drop. This is the ‘sitting’ which we hope to achieve in Piaffe. The muscles of the croup and hind legs must be strong to support the balance and organize the (hopefully) regular diagonal motion of the trot in this position.

 

It is the power of the lifting mechanism that is pre-eminent for me; what cannot lift, will not sit. Having the strength in the hindquarters to sit is vital too, but it plays a secondary role to the lifting. Another way of putting it is that the lifting creates the sitting.

The style of Piaffe I prefer is defined by the raising of the forehand therefore I feel strongly that I cannot ride it effectively if the neck is longitudinally broken, the face is behind the vertical or the body frame is too deep. I do see it ridden that way from time to time of course but I can only assume that the riders have goals that are different to mine. I know what I like and what I want from the horse in this movement and that is the lightness that caused me to fall in love with dressage in the first place. For this the horse must lift in front, tuck behind and gather itself under me to the best of its personal ability.  I love the feeling that the horse is a vibrant ball of energy within the trot.

When I wrote about Achieving Lightness last year I described it as a ‘seam of gold’ for which the rider is always searching. I think that riding the horse in lightness is rather like a drug to which we can easily become addicted! One aspect of this that has great relevance for training movements like the Piaffe is not to ride the horse into greater lightness than it is ready to give us. The half steps of the young horse will be in a level balance at best, if not a little high in the croup. If you drive a younger or weaker horse ‘uphill’ with demanding aids you will destroy its love of the movement and ultimately detract from its love of you. Every movement you train which works the muscles that raise the forehand, from direct transitions to canter, through gymnastic jumping and the Spanish Walk will help to make your Piaffe better. Focus on making your horse strong in lifting and in sitting over the years and this will support the developmental arc of the Piaffe.

There are some commonly accepted technical goals for the Piaffe and it would be remiss of me to not outline them here. We hope that the fore hoof lifts to somewhere between the top of the fetlock and the middle of the cannon bone and that the hind hoof lifts to somewhere between the coronet band and mid fetlock. Ultimately, the horse will advance only half a shoe forward at each step, that is a few inches forward only. The very best horses can Piaffe for a number of steps at a time in the pillars and advance by such tiny increments that they never tighten the pillar reins, but are never quite on the spot either. These are all eventual goals, which must be recognised as end results. They are not the starting point by any means. In the next part of this series I will talk in detail about the ‘training arc’ of the Piaffe, from the start of half steps in hand and under saddle to the full classical Piaffe as described above.

Whatever stage of training you and your horses are at it will be valuable to study the series. Getting to know the process in detail will give you a real advantage when the time comes and it is hugely motivating to know that, all things being equal, Piaffe will be part of the future for you as a rider so long as you want it to be. 

 

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