Training the Piaffe with Long Lines - Dressage Today

Training the Piaffe with Long Lines

Taking that first step toward the ultimate goal in dressage can be simplified by proper execution of this productive technique.
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Training the young horse on the long lines often will be safer and more productive with a front handler. (Credit: Doug McGlothlin )

Training the young horse on the long lines often will be safer and more productive with a front handler. (Credit: Doug McGlothlin )

Long lining—or long reining—is a training technique used since the beginning of dressage. The trainers at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, still use it to teach their horses many of the high school movements. While it may look simple, in actuality, it takes practice to develop the skills to long rein a horse properly. But once mastered, the method is invaluable for suppling and educating the horse. Because the horse is unencumbered by the rider’s weight, long reins allow him to learn to balance his own body first.

Although horses are born with a highly developed tactile perception, the touch of the whip and rein increases their awareness of their own body areas, especially the hind legs. As a groundperson, you get the opportunity to watch how your horse moves, both his musculature as well as how balanced he is. Over time, correct long-reining procedures will contribute to the development and strengthening of your horse’s muscle ring.

Seemingly, long reining also establishes a bond of respect, awareness and familiarity between horse and trainer. As in all horse training, long reining requires patience, clarity and repetition of commands coupled with reward and praise.

As a training tool, long reins have many uses. I find short and long reins particularly beneficial when beginning to train most horses to piaffe. For reasons already mentioned—suppling, strengthening—your horse will learn to piaffe with rhythm and confidence before adding the additional complication of a rider’s weight. However, before I proceed with this more advanced training, my horses must be proficient at longeing—including voice commands—and work on long reins, specifically the lateral trot work—shoulder in, travers, renvers, half pass as well as transitions such as trot–walk–trot, trot–halt–trot and trot–walk-a-step–trot, etc. It is also important to practice transitions within the gait, such as from collected trot to an ultra collected trot to half steps in the trot. This enhances the trot activation work, and is essential to strengthening a horse for piaffe. Before beginning any work, it is paramount for your horse to understand the meaning of the long reins and whip and to respond obediently to the voice commands. Consequently, everyone trying these techniques should first acquire the necessary skill level to prevent injury to themselves and their horse.

Setup and Necessities

Whether you’re a long-reining novice or skilled trainer, caution is paramount at all times. Do not take chances. Long reining takes time to learn and serious accidents to horse and trainer can happen if caution is neglected. As we all know, horses are creatures of flight when they are threatened or frightened. Consequently, the peril of being dragged is omnipresent if the trainer is not prudent. We also know that horses defend themselves by kicking or striking, so it’s important to know your horse well and to stay beyond his kicking or striking distance.

Both the handler and the trainer should wear gloves at all times. Spurs, on the other hand, should be taken off before you begin, as it is easy to trip or become entangled in them if your horse makes a sudden move. The most efficient way to teach a horse new movements with long reins is to incorporate a front handler into your session. Her purpose is to keep the horse on the right track, calm, focused and in control. Trainers must be ever vigilant not to get the lines caught in their hands or arms. I find the reins are easiest to work with if I guide them through the top of my hand—between thumb and forefinger—as if I were holding driving reins. Carry the reins separately in each hand, with the rein from the horse’s left side in your left hand and the right side in your right hand. Organize the reins in symmetrical loops so you can drop or reform a loop, as you need to lengthen or shorten the reins.

Although it is not always necessary to use a whip when long reining, it is an essential tool for training the piaffe. Always remember, however, that it is a timing wand and not a tool of punishment. To ensure that the message your horse is receiving is a correct one, you must be extremely accurate when you use it. Before trying your whip technique on your horse, practice with it in the driveway or on the lawn. Aim at a pebble or leaf until you can hit the mark regularly with the desired intensity. Once you’ve perfected that exercise, walk along a fence line, as if the horse were in front of you, and practice touching certain spots on the fence as you walk. This not only increases your “marksmanship,” but it trains you not to piaffe yourself as so many people do. Remember that you need to be proficient with the whip in both your left and right hand so that you and your horse do not become one-sided. 

Necessary Equipment
It is important to have the correct tack and fitting for both horse and trainer.
For the front handler and the trainer:
• Gloves—They should be worn at all times.
• Riding boots—In case the horse should tromp on someone’s foot.
For the horse:
• Snaffle bridle
• Properly fitted cavesson—The more sensitive horses dislike the weight of a cavesson and the reins, and respond better in a properly fitted snaffle bridle.
• Two long reins—I prefer the type that are tapered at the end as they slide through the rings of the surcingle, etc. more easily.
• Lightweight whip with a short lash—I find that when my students are learning long reining, a light, five-foot whip with a two-foot lash is easiest to handle.
• Optional side reins, loosely adjusted—Experience should guide the trainer’s decision on whether to use these.
• Front handler’s line—A longe line works well in case a young horse tries to bolt or rear up. It gives the front handler a little more leeway and control.
• Boots on all of the horse’s legs—Some horses, when initially reacting to the touch of the whip, will kick out and may kick or graze themselves.
• Surcingle and a saddle pad with girth keepers that will not slip.
• Sugar or bits of carrot (whatever you use for reward).

Principles and Beginnings
The piaffe is the most collected of the trot paces. During this movement, the majority of the horse’s weight is carried on his hind legs. His joints should be supple and elastic, which causes the hindquarters to lower and the forehand to be noticeably raised. As with all dressage movements, the poll is the highest point.
In a correct piaffe, the toe of each foreleg is raised to halfway up the cannon bone, making the forearm almost horizontal. The toe on the corresponding diagonal hind foot lifts to just above the height of the other hind leg’s fetlock. The piaffe is a stately movement and should be performed devoid of tension with relaxation and a good rhythm. The horse should always be willing to go forward.

While this description is a standard by which the mature horse is judged, it is not possible for the horse just being introduced to piaffe. Therefore, don’t expect to see this in the beginning. Patience and clarity of aids, combined with short, rewarding sessions, will help your horse understand what is expected of him.

As in all training, I think it is important to learn from the horse and to evaluate each horse individually. Remember, what is most important about training the piaffe is the impression you leave on the horse in the beginning. It is at this point that he will learn what is expected of him. The piaffe is probably the most difficult movement for the horse to perform in the trot—as canter pirouettes are the most difficult in the canter—because they require the greatest degree of collection. Short sessions with a lot of reward work the best so your horse doesn’t get confused or discouraged.

Work In Hand
As we have established, your horse must be obedient in hand before you can move on. In addition to knowing voice commands, he should go lightly when asked. He should also respond immediately to a light half-halt check on the rein from the other handler. Begin your training along the arena perimeter to help teach your horse to be straight.

The first step is to teach your horse to pick up each hind leg as it is touched with the whip. Eventually, your horse will learn to piaffe willingly and actively on the long lines with just a “cluck” from you, so start your training with a “cluck” incorporated into the aid. Because every horse is an individual and, therefore, will respond differently, you’ll have to experiment to find out what combination of aids work best. Some horses are sensitive to being touched below the hock, while others are more responsive when touched at the fetlock or pastern. There are horses who have a “cold” or almost nonexistent reaction and others kick out as fast as lightning—a “hot” reaction.

The correct reaction is when your horse raises his foot forward in response to a light touch with the whip. As soon as you get this, praise him with a voice reward, a pat on the neck and a piece of sugar or other treat. Incorrect responses include kicking backward at the whip, leaping forward, freezing or not picking up his leg at all.

If your horse is kicking backward at the whip, first reassure him and repeat the touch with the whip. If he continues, reprimand him sharply with your voice and try again until he gives the correct response.
The horse that leaps forward or freezes is probably just afraid. Reassure him with your voice and once he has relaxed, try touching him with the whip again. If your horse is truly frightened, stroke him with your hands—always wary of kicking or striking—until he has relaxed and you can try again. Never allow the horse to plunge and pull past the front handler.

Over time, your horse will learn to raise each hind leg at the touch of the whip. You may then instruct the front handler to lead the horse forward with short walk steps. With clucks and a touch of the whip, ask for short half steps or piaffe steps. To begin with, the horse may lift his hindquarters rather than lower them because he has not yet learned to bend in his hocks. This is normal.

Remember that it is better to do frequent short sessions—sometimes, two minutes is enough—rather than long sessions that tire and frustrate the horse. Gear the length of your sessions to the training stage of the horse. The sessions may be a few minutes longer at times in the beginning while he is learning to pick up his legs. Always end on a good note.

Once you have trained your horse to the idea of the piaffe, it is often beneficial to work on other exercises under saddle and then go back to the piaffe on the long lines after a week or so. Most horses enjoy long reining and come back to it with a renewed vigor.

As the trainer, you must determine—based on your horse’s temperament and progress—when he has the confidence and proficiency level to work without a front handler. At this stage, the trainer may stand parallel to the haunches or directly behind the horse. Of course, directly behind, the horse cannot see you very well. Some horses are alarmed by this and will kick out or run backward or try to turn sideways.

As with all of this work, skill, time and patience are required. This is where the work you have done on the long reins to reach the lateral work and transitions will be a benefit because the horse will understand the use of the whip and the touch of the reins on his sides while remaining on the bit on light contact.

As he becomes confident on the long reins, you will find that you can collect him more and more and gain better rhythm and elevation rather than just short steps. After the horse has offered some piaffe steps, allow him to trot forward again. Eventually, as the horse relaxes and understands, the whip is not needed and a cluck is sufficient.

Adding A Rider
When your horse has reached the level of working without the front handler, it is possible to put a rider on his back in addition to the long lines. Great care and, once again, experience must be utilized so that the rider does not get caught up in the long reins.

The rider should sit quietly and allow the horse to react to the stimulus response he has learned on the long reins. Because your horse now responds to a cluck, as he piaffes on the long reins, he will learn that a quiet seat, light contact and a light leg from the rider are the desired aids. Gradually work toward eliminating even the cluck. Immediate and generous reward should be given with every effort your horse makes.

What is most important is that force is not used, because this produces fear, and when fear is present in the impetus for piaffe, it is only a matter of time until there will be some aberration in the movement or perhaps even no piaffe at all. This reaction can be irreparable. Just as a piaffe can be trained into a horse’s mental and muscle memory, it can also be taken out.

Whether on the long reins or not, the best way to train the piaffe is to make it fun and rewarding for your horse. Like a person, your horse will perform better if his self-esteem is high. If he thinks he is good at something, he’ll want to do it.

It is our job to be open and to learn all the possible techniques applied with clarity, firmness and kindness. Michelangelo said that the sculpture was already contained in the marble—you just have to know which pieces to remove. Such is true with the piaffe. Each horse is a new journey. We must watch them and listen to them to find the best way to train them.

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This article was first published in the June 1996 issue of Dressage Today. The classic information in this piece, written by FEI rider and trainer Kathy Connelly, offers a straightforward explanation on how to use long reining as a tool to teach the horse the piaffe. Connelly’s advice on how to introduce the long lines to the horse is great information for trainers who are ready to expand or simply refresh their box of tools.

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