Canter pirouettes are one of the advanced dressage movements that many riders at the lower levels aspire to ride one day.
So, how do you train a horse to perform correct canter pirouettes?
What is a canter pirouette?
The FEI defines a canter pirouette as:
“… a circle or half-circle that is executed on two tracks with a radius equal to the length of the horse, the forehand moving round the haunches. The forefeet and the outside hind foot move round the inside hindfoot, which forms the pivot and should return to the same spot, or slightly in front of it, each time it leaves the ground. The horse should be slightly bent in the direction in which he is turning and should remain on the bit with light contact with the poll the highest point.”
The pirouette or half-working pirouette is required in the Prix St. Georges test. Full canter pirouettes are asked for from Intermediare I through to Grand Prix.
Working pirouettes and half-working pirouettes have the same requirements as full pirouettes, although the acceptable diameter is approximately three meters.
Working pirouettes are required at fourth level tests.
Canter and collection
As with any work in a dressage test, the quality of the gait is always of prime importance.
When it comes to the canterwork, the rhythm must be clearly three-beat with sufficient activity and impulsion to allow the rider to create true collection.
Without collection, it will be impossible for the rider to make the horse’s strides shorter while carrying more weight behind, creating an uphill balance, and allowing the horse to execute a balanced pirouette of the correct size.
Common faults in canter pirouettes
Most faults that are seen in canter pirouettes are as a result of a loss of quality and collection in the canter:
- Loss of clear three-beat rhythm
- Hind legs jumping together due to loss of collection and engagement
- Quarters slipping out, as the horse avoids taking the weight behind
- Falling onto the inside shoulder, as the horse avoids taking the weight behind
All these faults can be addressed by going back to basics.
When troubleshooting pirouettes, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you lengthen and shorten the canter without losing jump in the steps?
- Does the horse’s neck stay controlled during the transitions?
- Is a consistent, elastic contact maintained?
- Can you ride a quarter pirouette smoothly and with good balance, suppleness, and activity?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” don’t even think about attempting half or full pirouettes just yet!
How to train canter pirouettes
The usual method of training a horse to perform canter pirouettes is to introduce them by spiraling in from a large circle.
That method can backfire, as many riders make the mistake of using too much hand to pull the horse round, or they kick frantically! The poor horse doesn’t understand the new aids, becoming confused and tense, which achieves nothing.
You should not start training canter pirouettes until the horse can perform a walk-canter transition smoothly and confidently. At this stage, you will know that the horse can begin to develop the collection in the canter because he is able to flex his hocks, lower his quarters, and sit.
Ask for collection on a large circle. As soon as you feel the horse begins to sit, ask him to walk. Walking is a reward. So, if you teach the horse to sit by rewarding him with a walk transition, he will begin to anticipate the reward by sitting more quickly when you slow the tempo of the canter.
If the horse struggles to sit in the canter, you can begin teaching him pirouettes in the walk. The basics for pirouettes are the same in the walk and in canter. So, if you teach the horse to pirouette in the walk, it will ultimately be easier for him to carry out the movement when you move on to the canter.
Teaching walk pirouettes
To teach walk pirouettes, start by teaching your horse to do travers on a circle.
Once the horse understands the exercise and can manage a few steps of travers, you can ask him to turn, making a pirouette in the walk. Sometimes, the easiest way to get a horse to understand this exercise is to ride a large square with a quarter pirouette at each corner.
Controlling the shoulders
If you want the horse to move his shoulders to the left, take both your hands to the left and vice versa if you want the shoulders to move to the right. The technique is similar to that used in western neck-reining.
The idea of controlling the shoulders is to enable you to center them precisely over the horse’s inside hind leg. The inside hind leg must keep stepping forward, rather than moving to the side.
So, for example, in pirouette left, you want your horse to turn and bend left. To make the pirouette larger, you’ll need to move the shoulders out by using your inside (left) rein.
You don’t want the horse’s quarters to fall in, so don’t use too much leg. Turn the horse using your outside (right) leg and mostly your rein. When you are in control of the horse’s shoulders, you can bend him left and control the shoulders too.
Riding a large pirouette in the walk
Here’s how to ride a pirouette in the walk:
- Maintain the left bend. Turn your horse to the left, using your right hand and very little leg.
- Once your horse has turned in the pirouette, ask him to move out again from your inside leg and rein. Keep the shoulders controlled by neck-reining the shoulders out from the inside rein, while keeping the left bend.
- Once you have control with the inside rein, you can turn the horse again, using the outside rein.
Once the horse has learned how to perform walk pirouettes, ride them larger, smaller, slower, and quicker. These corrections and adjustments are important, as you will need to make them later in the canterwork.
Training canter pirouettes
Once your horse understands and can execute walk pirouettes, you can ask him to canter. Use your whip to give a small tap if the horse is slow to respond to your leg aid.
The moment the horse obliges with a canter step, return to walk and walk out of the pirouette as a reward. When the horse is confident and capable of executing one step of the pirouette in canter, ask for two, and then three.
Gradually, build up the steps until the horse can make a whole pirouette without losing his balance or rhythm.
Correcting problems in the canter pirouettes
Pirouettes are a difficult exercise for the horse to learn, and mistakes do happen. Here are the most common problems you’ll experience while training canter pirouettes, together with solutions:
Spinning around, rather than jumping around the pirouette is a common fault.
If the horse tries to turn too fast in a left pirouette, stop and leg-yield to the right, keeping the bend to the left. The horse learns that you can stop him with your inside rein, and you will soon be able to ask for as many strides as you want.
Two legs jumping together behind, rather than in a clear separate stride, happens when you ask for too much collection in the canter.
Ride the horse on a large circle in travers or half-pass. Keep pushing the horse over until you can feel his hind legs separate, and then walk. If the horse persists in jumping together behind, make the circle larger and ride travers in canter again with plenty of impulsion.
As with all your training, when the horse gets it right, stop and reward him with a break before continuing.
Loss of balance on one rein
Sometimes, the horse will lose the balance and rhythm on one rein, even though he can manage the exercise on the other. That usually happens because one hind leg is stronger than the other, so it’s more able to support the horse’s weight than the other.
Sticking is a very common fault in both walk and canter pirouettes when the horse simply stops, and the hindlegs lose all their jump. The pirouette will stick if the canter lacks impulsion, or you try to make the pirouette too small.
If the pirouette sticks, you should ask the horse to begin again. Be sure not to use too much leg, and ask the horse to go from your voice or from a tap with the whip. Make the pirouette larger and easier for the horse, before gradually making it smaller.
Training canter pirouettes can only begin when the horse understands and is confident in performing walk pirouettes.
Before canter pirouettes can be mastered, you must be able to ride a lively, collected canter that can be slowed down, and the strides shortened without you losing the energy of the steps.
As with any dressage exercise, you must take a step back if things go wrong.
If you have any other hints and tips on training canter pirouettes, or if you would like to ask us a question, please leave a comment in the box below.
- How to Ride a Walk Pirouette
- How to Ride Collected Canter
- How to Develop Your Horse’s Engagement in the Canter
- How to Develop Self-Carriage