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.
Over the centuries, classical riders have studied the work of their predecessors and expanded the understanding of the techniques and skills that have been passed down. Throughout, there is one quality that they all sought to achieve from every horse; lightness. This aspect of a trained horse makes them maneuverable and easy to ride and it should be the focus of every trainer’s work. When you have ridden a horse that is truly light it becomes the most important quality that you search for in your training.
Lightness is developed through a steady, systematic approach to using classical training techniques. The horse needs to be balanced and supple, so they can move their weight towards the haunches and develop self-carriage. This involves the horse and rider balancing themselves and working together. Once true self-carriage is achieved, lightness becomes apparent.
Lightness brings a softness to the impulsion and a unique expression to each horse throughout their work. The ultimate demonstration of this lightness is “descente de main” or descending the hands. This is where the rider is able to lower the hands, releasing the contact, and the horse remains in the movement, without interference from the rider.
This quality has been over-shadowed in today’s competitive dressage world, it takes time and builds on a pre-existing foundation of creating a balanced, supple horse. Nuno Oliveira emphasised the value of working a horse on correct, geometric circles with the weight of the reins being sufficient contact. The rider must have a well-balanced seat and supple back in order to have exact control over the leg, seat, back and hand aids.
Developing lightness begins with the early work, centering round applying the training techniques in an appropriate way for each horse. Setting up correct basic foundations starting with circles is the key to the correct progression of dressage. Nuno Oliveira said that horses learn many things when ridden correctly round a circle, as this begins to supple them, places them round the inside leg to the outside hand and starts to engage the inside hind leg.
From correct circle work and riding correct corners, shoulder-in develops more easily, and these 3 movements form the basis of dressage and more advanced work. It is worth remembering that when problems occur in advanced movements, they are often resolved by coming back to correctly ridden circles and shoulder-in.
In these pictures, the black horses are heavy and blocked in front, whereas the other horse is light. Look at the lengthening of the horse’s frame, rather than the hooves, the contact in the rider’s hands and the position of the horse’s head and neck.
In the pictures below, the horses are all in piaffe. The horses in the first two pictures lack lightness, whereas the horses in the last picture show lightness. Notice the rider’s hands and connection to the bit, the position of the withers, neck and head as well as the general outline of the horse.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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