The idea of riding pas de deux began when my friend, Joy Rothe, hired me to ride her Oldenberg gelding Rohan, the full brother to her own mare, Rolex. For years I trained in Portugal where pas-de-deux riding is common, so our initial joke of riding pairs with the brother–sister duo quickly became reality. We have come a long way since our First Level routine in 2011. We're now competing at Prix St. Georges with scores above 82 percent and an Intermediaire routine on the way. In that time, we have learned a lot about riding as a pair and hope to share our love of the “dance” with others. In this article, we provide a few exercises to help get you started in your own quest to perform a pas de deux.
Pas de deux is French for “steps of two” and, in ballet, “dance of two.” In equestrian sport, two riders and their mounts execute dressage movements together, accompanied by music, in either competition or exhibition. The journey of a successful pas de deux is full of challenges and rewards. It requires a lot of concentration, practice and dedication to master the skills specific to pair riding. It also builds confidence in both riders and horses as they work together as a team. It’s a lot of fun and a real crowd-pleaser—even nondressage folks can appreciate a dance of two riders set to music.
The USDF score sheet and judging system are similar to that of the musical freestyle: Both contain a technical and an artistic component. The technical side requires elements based on the level of competition and is judged on how correctly the figures and movements are performed by each horse-and-rider pair. The judge assesses the artistic component of the ride by scoring the harmony of the pair and how well the music matches the choreography.
Obedience to the rider’s aids is paramount because riding closely together can be somewhat risky due to the possibility of kicking or biting—usually by the more insecure horse of the pair. As you first start to ride close together, remember to stay prepared for any outbursts. After a time, many horses learn to enjoy working in pairs and will start to watch each other—almost like magic.
Horses performing side by side as a harmonious pair are the hallmark of any pas de deux. But other configurations, such as riding single file or in mirror image, can add to the interest and creativity of the performance.
Riders should keep an eye on each other to stay synchronized, focusing on consistent spacing, alignment and speed. However, when riding single file, the rider in the lead will be unable to see her partner. Then the bulk of the responsibility to stay synchronized falls to the rider behind.
When practicing the moves and elements of the pas de deux, be sure to ride them all alone as well as together. When riding together, never hesitate to slow down or drop to the walk to help your partner stay with you. You can also temporarily increase the distance between the horses to perfect the movement farther apart before attempting it more closely. Remember to praise and reward the horses. As with any form of training, ask little and reward often. The result is happy and obedient horses who are enjoying the experience as much as their riders.
Exercise One: Serpentine
The serpentine is simple but not easy. It requires all the basic elements of riding together—transitions and turns with synchrony and alignment. When the horses are side by side, the outside rider should be slightly ahead of the inside rider during the turning portion of the figure. For instance, when performing a three-loop serpentine the width of the arena, the horses will be together, stirrup to stirrup on the centerline, but through the turns one horse will be slightly ahead or behind. To do this smoothly takes adjustability on the part of both, because one horse will need to increase the length of stride slightly while the other horse must reduce the length of stride, all while maintaining the same tempo. How much, of course, depends on the figure itself and also the chosen gait.
Speed control is the key to keeping consistent spacing and alignment during any turn. Practice at the walk first to get a feel for the required increase and decrease in speed that a turn requires. Mastering this ability to adjust your horse’s stride to match the other horse will allow for success in the more difficult figures.
Exercise Two: Shoulder-In in Mirror Image
From centerline, horses perform in mirror image by doing movements such as leg yield or riding the diagonals in opposite directions. Shoulder-in right and left on the centerline is pleasing to watch when it’s done well. The horses are in mirror image of each other and make a “V” figure going down the centerline. This sequence is beautiful to watch with the horses flowing with precision and grace.
Meeting on the centerline can be a little worrisome for the horses at first because they are briefly heading directly at each other. Practice first at a walk until the horses grow accustomed to this new move. Synchronizing the turn down the centerline requires timing and feel, which will develop with practice. After a time the horses will enjoy this move and come together as if they were magnets.
Exercise Three: Flying Changes
Synchronized flying changes are very impressive when done as a pair. To ensure success in the timing of the change, often one rider of the pair will call/speak the movement or the riders might have a certain spot picked out on the rail to execute it. You can practice this movement by cantering on the left lead as a pair down the centerline at C. Half pass as a pair to the long side at B, straighten briefly and then perform a flying change together.
Keeping identical tempos is a requirement for successful synchronized flying changes. Practice increasing and reducing your speed as a pair to find where the horses sync up most easily at the canter. If the horses are not cantering in the same tempo, often a lack of impulsion is the culprit and increasing or reducing the length of one horse’s strides will fix the problem. With practice they can maintain the same tempo and rhythm—and it’s a wonderful feeling!
Exercise Four: Pirouette
When pirouettes are performed simultaneously, in either single file or mirror image, they can be breathtaking. We like to begin single file on the left lead, turning down the long side after C. We begin riding a half pass in the corner, the leading rider just past H and the following rider at H so that the half pass begins simultaneously and a spectator standing behind or in front would see only one horse. When both horses reach the centerline, we perform a full pirouette, paying attention to the proper number of strides, and then resume the half pass left, again with one rider directly behind the other. When both horses reach the corner near F, we perform a flying change to the right.
For this move, horses should stay directly behind one another. Often one horse will move sideways more quickly in the half pass or pirouette with a different number of strides. Talk to each other so you can correct tempo/speed and angles. Watch each other when possible to help synchronize the move and never hesitate to practice the moves first at a walk to perfect the timing.
Working together and performing as a team can be an extremely rewarding riding experience. Having another horse and rider out there with you during exhibitions or competitions can increase the confidence of both horses and riders and instill a real camaraderie and a “we’re in this together” mentality.
Pas de deux is a wonderful way to augment your riding tool kit by focusing not just on yourself and your horse but on the other pair. It allows for a lot of creativity and design. But most of all, it’s just plain fun!
Joy Rothe (left) is a Supervisor of Animal Training and Behavior for the National Marine Mammal Foundation and the Navy Marine Mammal Program. She is also a USDF bronze and silver medalist who has trained with Steffen Peters. Sarah Pinney is a USDF bronze and silver medalist whose mentors include Jean-Claude Racinet, Joao Oliveira and Maestre Luis Valenca of Portugal. She is a professional horse trainer based in San Diego, California. (sunhilltraining.com).