Piaffe and Passage with Christopher Bartle: Part Six

Christopher Bartle looks at the ultimate in trot collection

  • enjoy the gallery of piaffe and passage photos, and some of the photos are taken pre-helmet days…

THE culmination of, the training of the competition dressage horse is the piaffe and passage and the transitions between the two. The pirouette is the most demanding movement performed in the canter in terms of the degree of collection and the strength required in the hindquarters. In the trot the piaffe and passage require the same degree of collection and almost the same amount of strength. However, although they represent the end object of the schooling, the piaffe at least should be introduced before the horse is already competing at Prix St Georges levels.

The quality of the piaffe and passage is reflected in the extent to which the exercises are performed with apparent ease on the part of both horse and, just as importantly, rider. They must appear as natural to the horse as the trot or the canter and for that reason the training which produces these exercises must be a logical extension of the work already described in previous articles.

The piaffe is a controlled explosion. At the Spanish Riding School and at the Cadre Noir at Saumur the ‘airs above the ground’ are still performed. These airs are not required in competitive dressage but it is useful to remember in one’s training that the piaffe is but a preparatory exercise for these high school movements. Of course, just as at the Spanish School the high school stallions are not expected to perform all the high school movements, so in dressage competitions not all the horses will be particularly gifted at performing the piaffe.

Temperament and Conformation

The horses which excel in the piaffe are the horses which have not only strong conformation of the hindquarters but also a sharp or electric temperament which leads them to offer the piaffe naturally. Such volatile horses are not always easy to train and compete as youngsters because of their temperament, but in the long run it is worth persevering with them because they are less likely to ‘switch off’ in the arena. To ask and expect a horse to trot happily on the spot, in extreme collection and in the arena (without the assistance of whips or trainers on the ground) is to ask a great deal of it, and there are not many horses which have the temperament to stand it.

The passage is less demanding on the horse’s temperament, partly because the horse is allowed to move forward and partly because the degree of collection required is slightly less. But just as there are some horses whose temperament suits the piaffe, so there are some which have a more suitable conformation and way of moving for the passage. In general the Thoroughbred moves with a much straighter action than a Warmblood. The rounder and bigger action of the Warmblood makes it easier for him to perform a more impressive passage, particularly with the forehand.

In dressage competitions the cadence produced by the forehand and the degree to which the foreleg is raised in the passage often appear to count for more than the degree of collection and cadence created by the hindquarters. This often enables a horse which has a big and round action to score well in the passage even without collection. The absence of genuine collection only becomes really evident when the horse fails in the piaffe or finds it difficult to engage the hindquarters into the piaffe thus causing a rather rough transition.

The classical passage also must not be confused with the passage which is seen when a horse is excited, for example in the field or when ridden in an exciting situation. This form of passage exhibits a rather stiff-legged gait which involves a lot of cadence but no engagement or flexion of the hindquarters and so no collection.

next Christopher tells us how to recognise phoney passage

A phoney passage is also seen frequently in horses which are in effect not going forward – in response to the stronger driving aids of the rider the horse ‘dwells’ or ‘hovers’ in the trot. This fault often arises with inexperienced riders who mistakenly feel that the horse is showing collection because of the enhanced cadence of the gait. A ‘hoverer’ must learn to go forward without constant driving from the seat and leg.

It is nearly always best to start by teaching the horse the piaffe, and then to start on the passage only when the piaffe is fairly well established. If one teaches the horse the passage first it is often very difficult then to teach him the piaffe. The horse evades the piaffe by increasing the cadence and slowing the rhythm into passage. This problem arises particularly with horses that have a tendency to hover in the trot.

Teaching the Piaffe

What, then, are the aids for the piaffe? The piaffe is not so much a response on the part of the horse to a set of aids, as for example in the half-pass or the flying changes, but rather a response to the attitude of the rider. The half-halts obviously have a role to play as do the legs in maintaining the liveliness which is essential for the piaffe, but their action must be so discreet as to be virtually invisible, as if understood by thought transference. The horse learns to recognise the stretching and bracing of the rider’s body, the looseness of the leg and the collecting effect of the rider sitting still with hands very slightly raised as if suggesting to the horse to elevate the forehand and thereby engage the hindquarters. It becomes more of a feeling than a direct action of hand and leg.

The development of the piaffe on demand arises out of the association between the rider’s position and attitude and the action, performed by the horse at first unintentionally. The correct ‘accidental’ reaction will arise partly out of the understanding of engagement and collection which the horse has developed through the basic work and partly as a result of being placed in a situation where the chances of the horse offering the piaffe steps are increased. Such situations can be set up through exercises, the most useful of which is the walk pirouette, or through taking advantage of situations where the horse is excited, for example, when wanting to catch up with a horse in front or eager to get back home!

It is of course important that the horse’s reaction is monitored so that the correct reaction is well rewarded. For this reason it is important that even the experienced rider has some ‘eyes on the ground’, at least for some of the time, which can confirm whether the steps which feel like nothing more than a shuffle are indeed diagonal steps and therefore the basis of the piaffe. A frequent cause of errors in the early stages of teaching the piaffe is for the rider to expect the same or even a greater degree of cadence in the piaffe steps as in the trot. In fact the correct piaffe will feel like nothing more than a shuffle with very little back action or ‘bounce’. If the rider tries to create the same feeling in the piaffe as in the trot, the horse will either move forward too much or will become croup high.

To understand why, it is necessary to consider what exactly the horse is required to do in the piaffe. The classical piaffe involves the engagement of the hindquarters so that they carry the greater part of the horse’s weight on elastically flexed limbs which in turn absorb the weight and then reimpart the energy to propel the mass upwards sufficiently for there to be a slight moment of suspension before the other hind leg receives and absorbs the weight. The horse must give the impression of hopping from one hind leg to the other rather than stepping. Because the bulk of the horse’s weight is carried by the hindquarters, the foreleg is enabled to be picked up and then put down in a vertical plane with the same moment of suspension.

If the horse does not carry the weight sufficiently on the hind leg, a variety of faults will emerge.

In the case of horses which engage and flex the hindquarters correctly but lack the strength to take the weight of the forehand, the horse will take more of the weight on the foreleg and will give the appearance of stepping from one foreleg to the other. Another common fault in horses with weak backs is the shortening of the base of support by pushing the supporting foreleg backwards and therefore more under the body. Some horses over-engage the hind leg too far under the body, soon becoming ‘stuck’ in the piaffe. Other horses are prepared neither to engage the hind leg nor to flex, and will shuffle from one foot to the other or become croup high.

When to Start

The time to start teaching the piaffe is as soon as the horse has acquired the basics of collection through the earlier work. The acceptance of the three priorities explained in earlier articles is at the base of the piaffe and remains a precondition. These priorities are the response to the forwards aids; the acceptance of the slowing aids, and therefore the half-halts.

The piaffe is but an extension of the work towards collection and if introduced fairly early in the horse’s training becomes a useful exercise in itself, both to develop the correct reactions on the part of the horse towards collection and to develop the strength of the hindquarters and the horse’s confidence in using them correctly. As explained above, the piaffe is developed out of situations which arise, rather than out of the direct actions or aids of the rider. In a schooling situation the walk pirouette leads most naturally to the piaffe because if done correctly it causes the horse to engage and flex the hindquarters. The horse is brought along the wall in a very active collected walk and then asked to come around in a half pirouette.

As the pirouette is finishing, and the horse is ridden along the wall, the rider energises the horse a bit more, if necessary by a click of the tongue or a touch of the whip, so the horse is able to offer more steps, and be asked to move less forward in the piaffe. This will in itself load the hindquarters and, if accepted by the horse, cause the lowering of the croup which is an integral part of the piaffe.

Problems and Evasions

In practice, teaching the piaffe is never as straightforward as I seem to imply. Each horse will develop different problems or evasions depending on its temperament and conformation. In dealing with the different problems which arise, the first priority is that the rider must be able to obtain the extra liveliness without driving strongly with the seat and legs. Just as in the canter pirouette, the horse is expected to stay on the spot, and it is therefore illogical to drive the horse forward and only causes him to lengthen his stride and the rider to have to pull at the front end.

The next priority is for the horse to accept the half-halts or the collecting effect of the rider’s position. In so doing the horse must remain laterally submissive so that the rider can keep him straight. Many of the problems of irregularity in both the piaffe and the passage arise out of the loss of the lateral submission which causes the horse to come against the rider’s leg on one side.

Thus the horse over-engages one hind leg and avoids engaging the other. The correct response to the half-halts and the maintenance of the lateral submission give rise to the engagement of the hind leg and the flexion of the hindquarters. In the case of horses which resist the piaffe by disengaging, the correction must be to come back to exercises which promote engagement. In the case of horses which over-engage and resist the flexion of the hindquarters, the rider must encourage the horse forward in the piaffe.

The Passage

Once the piaffe is fairly well established, the work on the passage can begin. The horse learns to passage in response to the r’s position and attitude, but the rider can assist by emphasising the rhythm through the back, leg and half-halts. The half-halts should be applied in every other stride, the seat should be allowed to come down in the saddle more definitely in every other stride. It can be likened to bouncing a ball down on the ground: The harder it is smacked downwards the more it bounces back upwards. So the rider should not attempt to avoid the bounce by becoming looser in the waist or by gripping with the leg; rather, the extra bounce should be used to encourage the passage.

The passage can be started from either end. In other words the horse can be encouraged to go on into passage from the piaffe or encouraged to develop the passage from the collected trot. At the start one way suits one horse and the other suits another, but in due course it should be possible to develop the passage from either end. The degree of cadence and suspension in the passage will develop only gradually, what is important at the beginning is that the horse develops the correct rhythm and that the hind legs remain engaged and the hindquarters flexed. Once the rhythm is established, the horse can be encouraged to develop the height of the passage as he becomes stronger.

The priorities set out earlier in regard to the work on the piaffe remain the same in the passage. Irregularities usually arise out of the loss of lateral submission, causing one hind leg to over-engage and carry while the other disengages and pushes. The hind leg which disengages must be encouraged to engage by working for the lateral submission on that side. Where the horse disengages with both hind legs, he must be taught to accept the half-halt and if necessary to return to the basics to establish the correct reactions. The passage should be taught out of the piaffe with horses which tend to disengage, while with horses which are irregular in the passage because they over-engage one hind leg, it is helpful to work on the passage from the collected trot.

next transitions between piaffe and passage


The quality of the transitions between passage and piaffe is dependent on the quality of the piaffe and the passage. If the passage is well engaged then the transition from passage to piaffe will happen easily. If the piaffe is engaged with hindquarters flexed and the forehand ‘up and out’ then the horse will be able to progress smoothly into passage. If, one the other hand, the horse is disengaged in the passage, there will have to be a break in the rhythm while the horse’s hindquarters catch up and engage for the piaffe. If the piaffe is disengaged and therefore croup high, the horse will fmd it difficult to pick up the passage directly.

Each problem which arises in the piaffe or the passage must be analysed and the solution found in terms of the priorities outlined. The whip, whether used by the rider or a trainer on the ground, must be used with great care because, at the end of the day, the horse must accept to piaffe in response to the rider’s position and attitude. After all, no whips or trainers are allowed in the Grand Prix test. The piaffe in particular should be treated, nurtured and developed like a delicate flower. If it is abused or the effort is prolonged unreasonably then it will lose its quality.

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