All dressage enthusiasts dream of one day being able to perform the advanced movements with their horses.
One particular variant of the paces that always draws gasps of wonder and admiration from spectators is the passage.
But what is the passage? How do you ride it? And what can go wrong?
Read on to find out!
What is the passage?
The passage first appears in the Intermediare II dressage test.
According to the FEI, the passage is defined as:
“a measured, very collected, elevated, and cadenced trot … characterized by an increased degree of flexion of the hocks and knees, pronounced engagement of the horse’s hindquarters, and elasticity of the movement.”
The horse’s legs are raised and returned to the floor in clear diagonal pairs with a prolonged suspension and clear cadence.
In a perfect passage, the height of the horse’s toe on his raised forefoot must be level to the center of his cannon bone on the supporting leg. The toe of the raised hindfoot must be a little above the fetlock joint of the other supporting leg.
The horse’s neck should be gracefully arched and raised with his poll at the highest point and the horse’s nose on or close to the vertical. The horse should remain “on the bit” with plenty of impulsion and without changing the cadence.
When is your horse ready to begin learning passage?
Don’t expect too much at the beginning
When you start teaching your horse passage, don’t expect too much.
Although your ultimate goal is to have your horse passaging like a Grant Prix animal, you must accept that the movement will be flatter and less expressive until the horse is physically stronger and understands the exercise properly.
Also, don’t ask for too many steps in the beginning. This is a very difficult exercise that requires a lot of strength and balance, so be sure to give your horse plenty of breaks and mix it in with other work that he can do easily.
How to ride the passage
Before you can ride the passage, you need to establish an active, swinging collected trot with the horse taking the weight onto his hindquarters and carrying more weight on his hind legs. That gives the horse the power that he needs to lift himself into the passage.
Sit deep in the saddle, using your leg and seat to push the horse into a fixed rein aid.
The “fixed rein” aid
A “fixed rein” is used when you ride a transition from collected trot to passage. The idea is that you influence the horse’s hind legs to become more active and come underneath the horse by pushing him with your seat and leg into a hand that doesn’t allow the horse to go forward.
That converts the pushing power generated by the horse’s hindquarters into carrying power.
When the horse takes more weight behind, the center of gravity moves back, lifting the horse’s forehand, and making him softer and lighter in your hand. When that’s been achieved, you can soften your hand, holding the horse in balance, rhythm, and self-carriage by using your seat and leg aids.
Passage to medium trot
To ride from the passage into a medium trot, push with your seat and soften your hand to allow the horse to push himself forward and swing through his back.
To ride from medium trot back into the passage, simply push against your fixed hand, holding the contact until the horse transfers his weight back into an uphill, cadenced passage.
What can go wrong?
There are many common faults in the passage:
- Irregularity of rhythm
- Swinging of the forehand or hindquarters
- Jerky movements of the forelegs or hindlegs
- Double beat in the moment of suspension
- Dragging the hind legs
- Hocks disengaged and trailing
- Horse is on the forehand and croup-high
- Horse becomes tense
- The forelegs cross
If the horse finds the exercise extremely difficult or stressful, he will become tense and tight, which is when you see problems such as jerky steps.
Keeping a regular rhythm
As with any dressage movement, the correctness of the rhythm is paramount. At Grand Prix, the worst possible fault in the passage is an irregular rhythm.
So, when you begin teaching your horse passage, don’t try for too much elevation and cadence. Instead, focus on keeping the regularity of the rhythm.
In the passage, the length of the steps and the tempo of the passage must be equal. Even if your passage is a little flat to begin with, keep the rhythm consistent and regular.
Aim to ride a half 20-meter circle in a correct passage, and once your horse can do that, you can ask for a shorter frame, more energy, and more uphill.
If the regularity of the rhythm is lost, allow the horse to take slightly longer, flatter steps, and re-establish the correct rhythm and tempo.
Here are a few of the common problems experienced when riding passage and some ways in which you can fix them.
When you begin to teach your horse passage, you must have a swinging collected trot. From that trot, you then use half-halts to shorten and shorten the trot until you have passage.
Quarters trailing and double beats
If the horse loses his hindquarters and trails them out behind him, he won’t be able to carry himself in the passage. So, you need to close the horse’s frame by using your leg and riding into a restraining hand, as described above.
Often, horses that lack energy in the passage tend to throw in a double beat behind or drop onto their forehand and come croup-high. So, if you need to activate the hindquarters to keep the energy and maintain the engagement, use a long whip to quicken the tempo.
Irregularity is a common problem when riding the passage. Uneven steps in the passage usually occur because the horse is stiff.
All horses are naturally stiffer to one side than the other. In the passage, uneven steps occur because the horse’s hind leg steps forward more on the supple side than the stiff side.
To fix this problem, you need to work on making your horse more supple to his stiff side. Lateral work can be helpful, as it makes the horse work equally into both reins, as well as engaging his inside hind leg and encouraging him to step through more with that leg.
Travers is especially helpful here.
For example, if your horse tends to step short or “snatch” with his right hindleg, ride him in travers right. The horse doesn’t need to step under the heaviest point with his inside (right) hind leg. Instead, the outside hind steps into the heaviest point, making it easier for the horse to step through with his right hind. So, when you ride straight again, the horse will take more even strides.
The passage is an advanced dressage movement that the horse can only perform well when true collection, engagement, and self-carriage are established.
Take your time when developing the passage and focus on keeping the rhythm regular before asking for increased height and expression.