Many horses find piaffe one of the biggest obstacles on the road to Grand Prix. Piaffe, the trot in place (with a clear diagonal rhythm), differs from all other dressage movements in that the horse carries more weight with his hind legs (maintaining a fairly strong hock flexion) while providing the upward thrust with his forelegs. In all other dressage movements, with the possible exception of the canter pirouette, the horse carries more weight with his forelegs while using his hind legs for propulsion.
The ability of a horse to perform a high-quality piaffe is somewhat innate as a result of genetics. However, poor training can easily impair the horse’s ability to piaffe. Good training is absolutely necessary to develop every horse's potential to piaffe.
There are many methods of teaching piaffe. Most horses respond best to a combination of these methods. It’s best to introduce piaffe to a horse fairly early in his training. But it’s a common mistake to show piaffe before he is ready, causing him to become tense when asked to show piaffe in a test. Often months, and even years, are necessary before a horse clearly understands the rider’s aids for piaffe or becomes strong enough physically to execute piaffe without undue stress.
When I work with a young horse, I first need to make a decision about whether this horse will be asked to compete at the Grand Prix level. If the answer is “yes,” I know that I must plan to schedule an extra 20 minutes about three times a week for piaffe schooling.
I usually teach piaffe before passage, although I rarely turn down passage if a horse offers it on his own in a situation where he can be controlled. On the occasion that a horse offers passage, I will reinforce it with my aids along with a special cluck that I use only when I want passage.
Only rarely have I had horses offer piaffe in a controlled situation, although I taught my Olympic horse, Keen, to piaffe by having my mother ride ahead of me on her horse down the trail, heading toward home. Keen was a really hot horse and would get so upset if another horse was ahead of him (he was a Thoroughbred, after all) that he would piaffe if I restrained him a bit. After a while, I was able to use my aids to indicate piaffe, although he never piaffed as relaxed as I would have liked. I’m not saying that this was the best way to teach piaffe, but it worked for Keen.
Begin with Walk–Halt
Depending on the horse’s ability to balance and engage, I usually try to start schooling small, piaffe-like half steps around 5 years of age. Unmounted in-hand work may be started earlier with horses that are already able to shorten their strides. This in-hand schooling progresses in several steps:
1. I introduce work in-hand by having a person stand at the horse’s shoulder, facing backward while holding the horse with a lead line and a whip 4. to 5 feet in length. I like to use side reins on the horse at first to help keep his neck and shoulders straight.
2. I begin by simply asking the horse to walk forward a few steps followed by a halt. A cluck signals the horse to walk and a “whoa”—along with a check on the lead line, if needed—to halt. From time to time, I give the horse an easily chewed treat when he halts. I walk backward, holding the lead with my hand and staying next to his shoulder. I hold the whip in the other hand. It is important to stay near the horse’s shoulder for safety reasons in case he gets upset and tries to strike or kick. Some large horses work best with two people—one at the head, holding the lead, and the other nearer the hind end, working with the whip.
3. I quietly school the walk–halt for five to 10 minutes the first day as well as in following schooling sessions until he stays next to the rail, walking quietly straight ahead and allowing me to control his forward speed. He also needs to halt straight and square when I say “whoa.” Treats are appropriate whenever he halts straight and square.
When the halt–walk exercise is well performed, I begin to ask the horse for a few steps of shortened trot. Short taps of the whip just behind the stifle on his haunches, along with a cluck, indicate that he should trot. (Remember that horses respond differently to the feel of the whip on the body so you have to experiment to find the place that gets the response you want.) I should still be able to walk backward while the horse executes the shortened trot steps. Only a few trot steps need to be performed before I ask the horse to halt. Then I praise him. Short training sessions schooling trot–halt–trot help him improve his reactions to the cluck, the whip tap and the “whoa.” Gradually, the horse’s balance and straightness will improve.
If a horse finds it difficult to perform a trot short enough to allow you to walk with him, he may not yet be ready for work in-hand and may profit from work on half steps under saddle to enable them to shorten his trot enough to work in-hand.
Pick Up Each Hind Leg
When the horse is confident performing the trot–halt–trot exercise on the rail and stands well at the halt, I teach him to pick up his hind legs one at a time. I use a fairly stiff whip for this purpose. Alternate picking up the hind legs, left– right–left, just as he would in the piaffe. It’s important that no pain is associated with tapping the horse’s legs. Any pain associated with schooling piaffe may result in the horse tightening his muscles and even cringing. Horses that associate piaffe with pain rarely perform a loose, supple piaffe.
I tap one hind leg lightly on the front of his cannon bone until the horse unweights it. When he picks it up off the ground, I immediately praise him. I don’t care how he picks up the leg at first. I just want his hock flexed as he lifts the hoof off the ground. I ignore any kicking. It doesn’t matter at this stage of training if it happens.
I tap the other hind leg on the front of the cannon bone as I cluck, rewarding the horse when he picks it up. Short periods of regular practice picking up the hind legs will result in the horse alternating picking up his hind legs with just a cluck or by pointing at them with the whip using the lightest of taps.
Practice Half Steps
When the horse understands picking up his hind legs with a light signal from the whip, I cluck and point toward his hind legs as I ask for the trot from the halt. The ideal result is a few very short, active steps of trot with active hind legs and only slight movement forward. I ask for only a very short step before lavishing the horse with reward.
I practice these very short steps until he responds readily when asked. I ask for only 10 to 20 steps. A horse is never asked to perform more than 15 piaffe steps in dressage tests. Asking too much of him only makes the lessons more difficult. It’s better to ask for less, keeping the work less demanding.
Tips for success. Asking the horse to round his loin and engage his haunches is the next training goal. Usually tapping him on or behind his haunches causes him to tuck them under himself. I might also tap him on his croup to ask him to undulate his pelvis.
Remember that it takes constant analysis and adjustment of the aids to keep the horse in the right position to perform a correct piaffe. He should always be allowed to move slightly forward in his half steps to maintain active lift and bending of his forelegs.
I need to take care not to ask for so much engagement that his hind legs go so far under him that he is unable to flex them properly. Overengaging the hind legs may also result in a horse bringing his forelegs backward under his body to balance himself as if he were standing on a pedestal. If the horse begins to sit too much, I return to touching his hind legs to pick them up one at a time. This will cause him to adjust his balance, returning to a correctly balanced position.
Maintaining a round topline is also important, although usually when the horse works in-hand and wears side reins, he remains nicely round. Not having to carry the weight of the rider makes the piaffe work much easier for the horse, which is one of the benefits of in-hand work.
Straightness and regularity are important aspects of schooling piaffe. It may be necessary to shorten the outside side rein to prevent the horse from becoming crooked by falling out on that shoulder. Sometimes during this work, horses will lift one hind leg higher than the other or bring one leg farther forward. Switching directions as necessary when working the horse in-hand usually solves these problems.
Gradually, the horse can be asked for shorter steps, although even in Grand Prix competition, moving a hoof’s breath forward is allowed. If the horse begins to lose activity, it’s a good correction to trot him a few steps forward (but it’s challenging to run backward alongside him). If the horse wants to go too forward, it helps to alternate a few steps back and then go forward again into the half steps.
Finally, when the horse performs a reliable, correct piaffe in-hand, a rider can be added. At first, the rider just sits on the horse while the handler continues the work in-hand. This is our topic for next month.
Thanks to Laura Romfh for outfitting Hilda and Kim for this article from her collection at English Riding Supply (romfh.com).
Hilda Gurney is an FEI “I” dressage judge and two-time Olympian. She won a bronze medal in 1976, riding her Thoroughbred, Keen, and she was inducted into the U.S. Dressage Federation Hall of Fame in 2007. A respected judge and clinician, she breeds horses, trains and teaches in Moorpark, California.