In a previous blog I looked at the causes of a horse rearing whilst in the middle of a dressage test, What Went Wrong? In this month’s blog, I wanted to look closely at a piaffe shown in a grand prix freestyle competition and the qualities that the horse shows in the movement in this video
I am focusing on the piaffe that begins at 1 minute 8 seconds. Before this piaffe, the horse is in passage and to bring the horse into piaffe, the rider makes a backward pull on the rein (1:09) whilst simultaneously using her spurs and bracing her body backwards. This has the effect of compressing the horse through its neck which puts the horse on its fore hand, disengages its haunches and disrupts the diagonal steps (below).
Consequently, the horse can only bounce its haunches up in the piaffe as it’s front legs barely come off the ground (1:13) and there is no elevation of the neck and withers. Unable to correctly engage its haunches the horse is now fully on its fore hand as the front feet land significantly before the hind feet and the rhythm of the diagonal steps is completely lost.
Through the piaffe, the horse swings its left hind out to the side whereas it should move up and down under the body of the horse. The rider makes continual backward movements on the reins, blocking the horse and creating resistance in the horse’s jaw, neck and back.
Due to the incorrect movement in the piaffe, in the transition out of the piaffe, the horse makes two canter strides before picking up passage steps(1:22).
In a correct piaffe, the horse moves its centre of gravity back, the hind legs flex more and the fore hand becomes lighter and more elevated. The haunches should not bounce higher than the withers.
The front feet should be raised higher than the hind feet, or the hind feet and front feet should come to the same height if the horse’s conformation or level of training does not allow for the former. If the hind feet are raised higher than the front feet, it is a clear indication that the piaffe is on the fore hand and incorrect.
The pictures below show two horses with different conformation showing correct piaffe steps and the piaffe shown by this horse and rider for comparison.
Lightness is a characteristic of classical dressage, sought by riders throughout the centuries. For me, lightness is the ultimate goal of dressage training, it brings a unique expression to each horse throughout their work, and it directs all my work and teaching. When a horse is truly light, dressage is elevated to another level, something that, once you have felt it, is never forgotten.
Lightness means to be nimble, with a lack of weight, or a lack of weightiness or force and each of these interpretations are relevant to classical dressage.
Horses are naturally weighted towards their forehand, and through correct training, the horse gradually learns to use their strength to bring their balance towards quarters. As training progresses and the horse engages their haunches more towards collection, their forehand elevates, and the horse becomes more manoeuvrable. This lightness in the forehand can ultimately create piaffe or even a levade.
The aspect of lightness in character should not be dismissed. Both horse and rider should enjoy the work. Where training becomes an effort with riders becoming stronger and the horse becoming resistant, the joy of dressage is lost.
Without lightness in movement, dressage horses become physically blocked and laboured, unable to produce the full beauty of which they are capable.
The pictures below show two very different piaffes, the bay horse is heavy in the fore hand, it’s head and neck are blocked, which has disengaged the hind legs which are stepping to the side, and the fore leg is drawn too far back under the horse’s body. The horse shows resistance throughout its body
The grey horse also shows a piaffe but in a completely different way. There is lightness in the fore hand, the hocks flex as the hind legs are brought under the body of the horse and the head and neck are elevated with the poll raised. There is no tension or resistance in the movement.
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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