The ultimate goal of most dressage riders is to ride at the advanced level, perhaps one day entering down the centerline tailcoat. However, although the majority of riders never get to compete at Grand Prix level, you can still enjoy the satisfaction of teaching your horse the advanced movements in the privacy of your home arena.
Perhaps the most difficult movement to teach the horse is the piaffe.
So, what is the piaffe? How do you ride the movement? And what are common mistakes?
Read on to learn how to ride and train the piaffe.
What is the piaffe?
According to the FEI dressage rules, the piaffe is defined as:
“a highly collected, cadenced, elevated diagonal movement giving the impression of remaining in place. The horse’s back is supple and elastic. The hindquarters are lowered; the haunches are well-engaged, giving great freedom, lightness, and mobility to the shoulders and forehand. Each pair of diagonal legs is raised and returned to the ground alternately, with spring and an even cadence.”
Piaffe first appears in the Intermediare II dressage test. At this level, the steps are permitted to creep forward a little, rather than being “on the spot.” The maximum forward travel permitted is one meter for every ten steps of piaffe.
What makes a good piaffe?
As well as meeting the requirements set out in the FEI definition, in a good piaffe, the horse must spring energetically from one diagonal pair of legs to the other, showing excellent cadence. The horse’s back must be supple, and he should lower his croup so that he can sit down on his haunches with his neck remaining arched and elevated.
Throughout the exercise, the horse’s nose should be a little in front of the vertical. In each step, the horse’s front leg should lift so that it reaches the center of the cannon bone. The horse’s forearms should be vertical.
While riding the piaffe, the rider should sit up tall, keeping their neck long and looking ahead, not down. The hands should be carried a little higher but without pulling back, and the elbows should hang softly at the rider’s sides.
To an extent, every horse is different. Some horses find the piaffe a natural and relatively easy exercise to carry out. However, the amount of lowering of the haunches and neck position will vary between individuals based on their temperament and conformation.
In general, the problems that occur with the piaffe are the result of tension or because the rider has taken short cuts in the training and asked the horse for too much before he is strong enough to cope with the demands of the exercise.
Common faults in the piaffe include:
- Loss of rhythm; the horse canters or walks
- Loss of rhythm; the steps don’t remain in clear diagonals
- Horse travels forward, rather than remaining in place
- Swinging from side to side
- Crossing the hind or front legs
Triangulation is a major fault in the piaffe. Triangulation happens when the horse’s front and hind legs become crowded underneath the horse’s body, forming an inverted triangle. The horse’s feet create the triangle’s point, the horse’s belly forms the triangle’s base, and the legs make the two sides of the triangle.
Each of the problems that are experienced with the piaffe usually relates in some way to the horse’s basic training.
Loss of rhythm
The horse usually loses rhythm because you’ve asked him for too much too soon, either by demanding too many steps or trying to introduce piaffe too soon for the horse’s level of training.
Try to make the transitions in and out of the piaffe as smooth and gradual as possible. If the rhythm is lost, go back to the collected trot and try again.
Flat steps, loss of energy, triangulation
If you use too much hand, the horse may stop moving altogether or even go backward. Your hands shouldn’t hold the horse in place; they merely make small movements.
Ease your hand and go back to working on the horse’s basic throughness.
If the horse starts to swing during the piaffe, that’s usually because his hind legs are trailing out behind him, rather than being underneath his body. Similarly, if the horse crosses his legs, that can simply be due to conformation, or it could be because the horse lacks the engagement and self-carriage that’s essential for a good piaffe.
To correct that fault, work on developing the horse’s carrying power, using lateral work to encourage the horse to step more underneath his body.
When is your horse ready to begin learning the piaffe?
Piaffe is the most advanced dressage movement that you can teach your horse. Before you can begin working at that level, the horse must be physically strong enough to work in a high degree of self-carriage and with true collection.
The horse must understand and respond to the rider’s seat aids and the half-halt, and he must be confident enough to remain relaxed when asked to perform this demanding movement.
Also, the horse must keep moving forward on his own, without you having to continually use your leg. That’s important because the hand aids that you will use in piaffe must not stop the horse’s hind legs from being active. Some horses find that much easier than others!
Don’t expect your horse to piaffe perfectly, to begin with. Some horses find it very easy to piaffe, whereas others are not naturally gifted with that ability and take much longer to get their head around the exercise. Also, at the beginning of his training, your horse won’t be strong enough to piaffe on the spot, so you must allow him a small amount of forward travel until he’s able to take more weight behind.
How to train the piaffe
Begin by riding half-steps in shoulder-fore in both directions. That improves the horse’s suppleness and keeps him on your aids. Essentially, you’re riding transitions, collecting the trot into shorter strides, and then lengthening the steps again. The exercise also helps to develop suppleness and increases the horse’s strength on both reins.
The shoulder-fore positioning also keeps the horse straight and prevents him from coming wide behind or trailing his hocks out behind him, both common problems with the piaffe.
To shorten the steps:
- In shoulder-fore, use half-halts while nudging the horse with your legs to keep the energy.
- Close your fingers to take up a slight resistance on the reins but without pulling back.
- By asking the horse to “go” with your legs and holding him with your hand, you are asking him to shorten his steps.
After a couple of shortened steps, go back into an engaged collected trot in shoulder-in. Make sure that the horse is in true self-carriage before you repeat the exercise, keeping everything as smooth as fluent as possible.
Gradually increase the number of steps that you ask for. If the horse becomes tense or upset, don’t push him. Instead, go back to the collected trot and just ride shoulder-in, asking for lots of impulsion and reinforcing the horse’s self-carriage.
When riding the transitions in and out of piaffe, focus on maintaining the rhythm and fluency.
Essentially, that’s it!
Teaching the piaffe is a long-term project that has to be a gradual process. It can take from six months to two years for the piaffe to become good enough for the competitive arena. Even if you don’t want to go out and compete, it can still take that long for the horse to become physically strong enough to work in the piaffe at home for fun.
Useful training exercises
Here are some helpful training exercises that can be useful when teaching the piaffe.
Exercise #1 Half-steps down the long side of the arena
- Ride down the long side in shoulder-fore from M to R.
- As you reach R, use small half-halts to shorten the horse’s steps. Focus on keeping the rhythm and having the horse forward into your hand. The trot should feel more elevated, not flatter or slower.
- Before you get to B, put the horse back into the collected trot so that you’re not tempted to ask for too much piaffe at this early stage of the horse’s training.
- Repeat the exercise on the next long side, and be sure to practice equally on both reins so that your horse becomes stronger to both sides.
Exercise #2 Half-steps on a 20m circle
- In collected trot, pick up a 20-meter circle, and put the horse into shoulder-fore.
- At two half points on your circle (either A and C or the centerline), use a half-halt to shorten the horse’s steps for five or six strides.
- Now, ride back into a collected trot in shoulder-fore, aiming for a smooth transition and keeping the rhythm.
- When you reach the next half marker, shorten the strides again.
As your horse becomes stronger, include the quarter points of the circle too.
Exercise #3 Half-steps from the walk
If your horse has a very good collected walk, he may find it easier to learn the piaffe from a collected walk.
- Establish a good, active, collected walk, and put your horse in shoulder-fore.
- Now, ask your horse for trot, but concentrate on establishing short, very active steps, using small half-halts to stop the horse from moving forward too much. Keep the horse in shoulder-fore position.
- Eventually, the horse will begin to trot in one place without moving forward too much.
- After a few steps of piaffe, ride forward into a collected trot again, staying in shoulder-fore. Make a transition to a collected walk.
- Repeat the exercise on both reins.
When the horse performs a few steps of piaffe, remember to praise him for his effort.
The piaffe is an advanced dressage movement that takes months or even years to teach, depending on the horse’s natural ability.
To learn the piaffe, the horse must be able to work in true collection with a high degree of self-carriage, he must also understand and respond to the half-halt and work with forward thought.
Do you have any other piaffe training tips that you would like to share? If so, pop them in the comments box below.