What is a correct piaffe? Over the years I have seen many horses performing piaffe, and the way each horse creates the steps can make the movement look very different. Some horses have the strength to lower their haunches and show strides with good elevation, whilst for other horses the piaffe steps are much smaller and less elevated.
It is easy to be impressed by horses who make big extravagant steps, but is the piaffe still correct? A true piaffe should show: -
Common faults in piaffe are:-
Phillipe Karl has a diagram in his book "Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage" which shows some of these common problems. (See right)
These faults can occur because the horse is asked to piaffe too early in their training, when they are not strong enough to make the steps or they are asked to give more than they are capable of. The horse becomes compressed into the piaffe which results in these types of errors.
That is not to say that every piaffe will look the same, some horses find the movement easier than others and have more expression in the steps, whereas other horses will have small, almost shuffling steps. Looking for the qualities of a movement can show that the less spectacular piaffe is more correct than some of the dazzling steps we see at times.
In the pictures below at first the piaffes look similar, but when you look in detail at the position of the horses, you can see that the chestnut horse is blocked by the rider’s hands. The head and neck are compressed causing the fore limbs to track too far back under the horses body, the back is blocked, the haunches are lowered but the hocks are braced and you can see the resistance through the horse's mouth and tail.
The grey horse is in a similar position, but he is correctly engaged, more open in the head and neck, elevating the forehand and flexing his hind limbs with correct weight transfer towards the haunches and with the fore legs stepping down vertically.
Have an objective look at some videos of different horses in piaffe and see if you can spot the differences and which are more correct.
The Christmas holiday normally gives me a little time to do some reading, usually a mix of technical books and some more easy reading ones. This Christmas I revisited François de la Guérinière’s sizeable work, “School of Horsemanship”, a book I have read many times over the years and I always find a new understanding of the methods for training a horse.
It’s a challenging book, my copy is 322 pages of A4 size, and it covers every part of horse ownership from choosing horses by conformation and suitability, descriptions of paces and airs, to tack and stable management. Whilst the book contains some outdated advice on care, treating illness and dealing with problem horses, the relatively short chapters covering training, about 80 pages, are as relevant today as they have ever been.
With the rider’s position being such an important aspect of good riding, starting 2020 with a blog about François de la Guérinière notes on the subject should help to get us all on track for productive riding this year. A rider who sits well moves with their horse and can feel the movement and responses and can properly influence the horse towards greater collection.
The chapter on the rider’s posture in the book is only 4 pages long and begins by describing the overall requirement of the rider.
“By grace, I comprehend a air of ease and freedom which must be maintained in a controlled and yet supple posture, be it in order to maintain the depth of the seat int eh saddle where necessary, or to relax at the appropriate moment, keeping in so far as possible during all the movement of the horse that exact equilibrium which comes for judicious balance of the body’s weight. Furthermore, the rider’s movements must be so subtle that they serve to improve his seat, rather than being ostentatious aids to the horse. “ (page 108)
The important point in this section is in the very first sentence, is the control and balanced rider improves both the horse and themselves, whereas the unbalanced rider will never achieve the horse’s full potential.
He then notes that he feels that some of the methods in use at the time were diminishing the brilliance of the art of dressage.
“Given that this accomplishment has been neglected, and that nonchalance joined to a certain laxity has displaced the efforts made in the past to acquire and maintain that attractive seat which so charms the spectator and brings out the beauty of a handsome horse, it gives no cause for surprise to note that the art of horsemanship has lost a measure of its former brilliance.” (page 108)
Next, he covers mounting, insisting that the rider is responsible for checking the tack and they always mount quietly and with great care. Once in the saddle the rider must check their position, ensuring their seat is centred and on tipping towards the cantle.
His notes on holding the reins describes how to hold them in the left hand only whereas today, we use the reins in two hands, but he comments
“The bridle hand governs the forehand and should be placed over the neck of the horse neither too near or too the off side, two inches above elbow height and in front of the saddle, so that the latter does not interfere with the effect of the reins.” (page 110)
The reins are then centred over the horse’s withers with a quiet steady hand. With the reins in two hands it is much easier to allow them to wander off to the side or drop down towards the rider’s thigh. I have found that it is better to teach riders to carry their hands as a level pair just about the withers. This is so that, whilst they are developing an independent seat, their hands interfere less with the horse’s mouth, and once the rider has a secure seat and good control of their arms, they can then position their hands to help the horse more.
For the rider’s legs, de la Guérinière comments that they
“…serve to guide and control the body and the hind quarters of the horse: their proper position is to be straight ad relaxed from the knee to the foot, close to the horse without touching it, the thighs and calves turned somewhat inward, so that the side of the thigh rests close along the flap of the saddle. The legs must, however, be held firm in addition to being relaxed, for if they were not they would touch the horse’s belly incessantly, which circumstances would put the horse into a state of continual confusion.” (page 110 – 111)
This is a particularly difficult position to obtain with the legs, to be relaxed and firm at the same time! This is obtained from a good balanced seat, and having the thighs rotated as described, which makes the rider’s legs stable (firm) with the minimal muscle involvement (relaxed).
The position and use of the rider’s foot is of great importance, but can only be achieved from a correct leg and seat position.
“The heel of the foot should be held a little lower than the toe, but not overly much, for that would make the leg rigid; it should also be turned very slightly to the inside, in order to control the spur easily, and not be too close to the belly, which it should meet at approximately a hand’s breadth behind the girth…..
…. If the toe were turned too far outward, the heel would be too close to the belly and the spur would touch the horse incessantly…
… Properly speaking, it is not the legs which are turned when riding, but rather the upper thighs; and when the thighs; and when the thighs, and consequently the legs, are turned in one direction or another as much as they ought to be, so will be the feet. (page 111)
De la Guérinière notes that maintaining this position when the horse is in motion is difficult, and advises that riders spend five or six months in sitting trot without stirrups in order to develop good balance and a deep seat.
“It is by degrees that a rider gains this firmness of seat, which must proceed from equilibrium and not from the iron grip of the calves and heels which should be left to rough riding jockeys.“ (page 111)
He closes the chapter by admitting that, should the horse spook or shy it is necessary for the rider to change his posture in order to stay in the saddle (we’ve all been there!), but he insists that proper posture should be restored as soon as the horse is under control.
“By a natural process and without noticing, the rider will with time assimilate the method for maintaining a deep seat and an erect posture without rigidity or ungainliness; he will become relaxed and poised without laxity or nonchalance... (page 112)
And a final comment on balance.
…and above all without being bent forward, which is the gravest fault of all; for responsive horses move well or poorly depending upon whether or not the counterbalance made by the rider’s body is properly maintained. (page 112)
As rider’s we must continually check and correct our position until it becomes instinctive, so that we make it as easy as possible for our horses to follow our aids with ease.
Book – School of Horsemanship by François de la Guérinière, translated by Tracy Boucher, published by J. A. Allan press
This year I have been kept busy as I continued to work with all my clients as well as welcoming some new ones. I said goodbye Jane and her lovely horse Lucy, who is now semi-retired. The work we have done has kept her fit and supple into her mid-twenties and although she is no longer able to have lessons, she still doing some gentle work.
The great joy of my work is training and developing new skills for horses and riders. Even as the days become colder and shorter, I still love to go out and teach, wrapped up in thermals and big coats! The range of horses that I teach is always interesting: some of the more advanced partnerships have begun their first steps of piaffe this year, whilst newer riders are mastering the art of riding a perfect circle (which is harder than you may think!). Seeing the relationship between horse and rider develop into good understanding of each other, and building their strength and skills together is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.
As the 1st of January approaches and we look forward to setting goals and targets for the new year, it can be enlightening to look back to see how far you have come from the very beginning. A frustrated rider with a horse who couldn’t go around a circle without falling in is now doing shoulder-in, the horse who could only canter on one lead is now cantering on both leads and working towards counter canter and the horse who spooked in every corner now works quietly in the school, offering his rider movements at every opportunity.
I wish you all a very merry Christmas and every success with your riding in 2020. Diane
By the way, if you are following the Monday quotes, you may have noticed I have repeated some previous quotes for December, because somethings cannot be said too often!
Nuno Oliveira often said that "The hands receive the work of the legs" and this succinct phrase sums up the very complicated and delicate connection between the rider’s hands and their legs. During my time at Oliveira's, I became very aware of the effects of the leg aids and how subtle they needed to be, not to mention the timing of the aids. Get it wrong and nothing happens, or you get an explosive reaction! Using your legs with the necessary tact takes time. It is not just the pressure from the legs that is important, but the timing of the aid, which varies for each horse.
For the horse to be light in the hand, the rider must give light leg aids. I sometimes work a horse in-hand with the rider, and I can feel instantly how the rider is using their legs from the feeling the horse gives my hands through the bit.
Heavy leg aids create heavy horses, and this can be easily seen. Often, if a horse is unresponsive to the rider's leg, the instinct is to use a stronger aid and repeat it until the horse moves. Whilst this can produce the desired result, when the leg is used in a strong manner, the horse often, braces their ribs against the leg and becomes more blocked and slows, or rushes off and hollows.
Having observed the responses of many horses to the leg aids, I encourage all riders to keep the leg aids as light as possible. If your horse is not responding, check that you are not blocking with your seat, back or hands, that your legs are softly against the horse and not gripping, as all these blocks will prevent your horse from moving. If necessary, use a light touch with the whip to support the leg aid and ensure that you allow your horse to go forward: they will be confused if you are asking them to go forward but blocking them with your seat or hands. If your horse has not responded, then a stronger leg aid may be needed but it should not become the normal aid - always return to a light aid afterwards.
Your position affects the aids, if you have an unbalanced seat, it is easy to allow your legs to become tight and grip harder to compensate for an unbalanced seat. Equally a rider with a balanced seat can give aids that are imprecise or poorly timed. It is important to be attentive to the pressure from your legs and the feeling of the horse’s ribs beneath them. Feeling the responses your horse gives to the aid will help you to learn the correct moment and pressure to use usually lighter that you think and then riding becomes invisible and harmonious.
This month I have something a little different for the blog. I recently received a book by Keron Psillas Oliveira, containing beautiful photographs of Lusitano horses. The book “Lusitano, Noble, Courageous, Eternal” is the result of years spent photographing these wonderful Portuguese horses.
I first came across the Lusitano horse when I was studying with Nuno Oliveira in Portugal. In stable full of this incredible breed, I found horses who were generous in spirit, brave and agile, and who would willingly teach me all I needed to know.
Keron Psillas Oliveira has captured the essence of these versatile horses with beautiful photographs, showing them in all their many moods: mares with foals in the scenic Portuguese countryside, horses in piaffe, or simply exuding the joy of being a horse. This book captures the Lusitano at his very best.
If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone (or a treat for yourself) this could be the book for you.
Cookie was 10 years old when Catherine bought him, he was a retired show jumper and had been competing at a high level. She brought him to me for some lessons so that she and Cookie could have a good start together, however Cookie was showing some physical problems which were diagnosed as
“..a strain in his lumber sacral junction which left the pelvis and hind quarters compromised. This restriction has resulted in reduced support from the hind quarters for the rest of the body leading to reduced spinal suspension and a shift in the centre of gravity forward and down increasing the loading of the fore quarters to a degree.”
Cookie was moving with a high neck and head carriage, a hollow back, and the movement of his hind legs was very disconnected and unsteady, resulting in a very disengaged walk, and trotting exacerbated the problems.
Catherine had a good position and her work as a Feldenkrais practitioner gave her a very good feel for Cookie's movement and responses. We began with work to strengthen Cookie’s haunches, establishing very correct circle work and remaining in walk until Cookie was better balanced and moving correctly in his hind legs. Over the first few weeks, Cookie's balance improved, and he was able to release his neck, softening the muscles underneath.
As his suppleness and strength improved, he began to connect his fore hand and haunches more. We worked him round smaller circles which improved the action in his hind legs and the strength over his quarters. We introduced trot work, keeping the trot steps small, starting with a single circle and gradually building up the time he stayed in the pace.
Following on from this work, we used serpentines, counter flexions and spirals on circles to develop suppleness, strength and balance, resulting in a more connected horse. As Cookie understood the different requirements of the work, both physically and mentally, he began to develop a good frame, releasing the tension in his neck and back and developing some self-carriage.
The ridden work was complemented with some in-hand work and lunging to help him with his self-carriage. This work has not been without problems as he was initially very tense. With Catherine's patient approach, he is now working quietly and easily from the ground, further developing the engagement in his haunches and reducing the effort in his fore hand.
Cookie is mentally calmer and is finding his own rhythm; he engages his hind legs and is not relying on Catherine to hold him up.
Cookie's previous owner had said that he had been one of the most difficult horses to back, and even now, training Cookie is not straight forward, but with a steady, consistent and patient approach from Catherine, he continues to make progress with his new career.
The picture on the left shows Cookie before retraining, the one on the right shows him working towards a more balanced and relaxed way of going.
One of the most important things I learnt from Nuno Oliveira is that you cannot train each horse exactly the same way. Although there were many Lusitano horses at Mr Oliveira’s stables, we also trained other breeds, Selle Francais, Arabian, Russian Budyonny and Thoroughbred among others, and Mr Oliveira adapted his methods to suit each horse’s physical and mental needs throughout their training.
By closely observing the horse that I am working with I can see how and why they move in a particular way. Some things to look for are;
Choosing an appropriate exercise encourages the horse to release restrictions they may have by developing suppleness, strength and balance. Sometimes it is necessary to be a little creative and adapt an exercise or develop a new pattern of work that is more effective for the horse and if the exercise is not working as you expected, again analyse where the problem is and make the necessary changes or use a new exercise.
If the rider is not sitting well it has a huge impact on the way the horse moves. Working on the rider’s position, balance and aids is central to creating a horse that is well balanced and supple. If the rider is off balance their horse will be constantly adjusting his balance to compensate, and the rider’s aids will be unclear which leads to difficulty in communication.
Watch the horse continually and make small adjustments as necessary. Don’t expect too much, be satisfied with small improvements and give plenty of rests, tired horses become sour, and always reward their efforts.
Last month I blogged about how dressage is for all horses (click here to read it) and it can be difficult to appreciate the same movement with different horses. There are a lot of factors that affect how a movement looks with different horses, some of the main ones are
Whilst I take these factors into consideration, I always look to develop the horse as fully as possible. Often by using the developmental exercises to build towards a more difficult movement, the horse comes into their own and offers you the steps you were seeking to create.
Each horse gives movements their own expression and unique quality and this can be difficult to appreciate. When you see big moving expressive horses striding through half pass, it’s easy to dismiss such a movement from your cob’s training program.
However, if you train the qualities of each movement more things become possible. For example the qualities to look for in a shoulder-in are
With this in mind, it becomes easier to train all horses in the basic lateral movements, and often further movements develop from there.
Watching competitive dressage at the highest level it’s easy to think that dressage is only for very big moving, talented warm blood horses, but dressage is simply schooling a horse. All horses do some training at some time and whilst dressage may not be their specialty, all can benefit from a basic level of schooling and training to reduce injury and create a responsive, more comfortable horse to ride.
It’s easy to dismiss a horse’s ability because he’s a 10 yo who has only hacked out, or has less than ideal conformation, or exhibits behavioural issues, but with a considered training programme issues like this can be overcome. The experience of working with many horses has shown me that with correct training horses can often achieve more than we think. (Have a look at the case studies to see more)
By working towards building suppleness and strength through correct development of lateral exercises, all horses can attain the basic lateral movements; shoulder-in, travers, half pass and renvers, in walk and trot.
Training must consider the horse’s conformation, along with the work they have previously done, their temperament and natural movement. When the horse is ready, introduce the exercises that build up to more advanced movements, starting with very simplified versions and developing the exercise as far as the horse allows.
By identifying the qualities required in a movement, it becomes easier to see that each horse gives a movement its own expression. For example, some horses have a steeper angle in lateral movements because they are naturally more supple than others. By looking to see that the horse has a consistent bend through their body, they do not lean to their shoulders and maintain an even rhythm, every horse can produce a good lateral movement, from a Shire X to a Lusitano to a 23 year old cob.
And all the others!
Following on from circles and the serpentine exercises, another useful movement is to ride shallow loops. These are performed down the long side of school and can vary in depth from 2 metres to 10 metres. These are used to supple and strengthen your horse and great attention needs to be taken on the quality of the changes of bend.
A basic shallow loop
2. Increase the depth of the loop so your horse has to turn more through the loop.
3. Introduce some lateral steps to the work. Begin by riding off the track with a well-balanced inside bend. Keeping the same bend, move down the inner track, parallel to the wall in a slight shoulder fore position. At the end either go straight towards the short side or move back to the track with an inside bend, taking care to ensure that your horse does not drop to their outside shoulder.
4. This can then be developed further to a few steps if shoulder-in. I find that this exercise works well with horses who tend to try to run through their riders’ aids when shoulder-in is asked on the long side.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
Please CLICK HERE to read more about Horses and Riders I have been able to help with Classical Dressage Training