Piaffe and passage are the icing on the cake when it comes to dressage riding and are the culmination of many years of training for both horse and rider.
However, the transitions between the two paces are also extremely important in dressage tests and are marked separately.
In this guide, we look at how to ride the perfect transition between piaffe and passage.
First, let’s have a quick revision of the piaffe and passage.
What is the passage?
The passage is basically a very elevated, super-collected trot.
The steps are measured, elevated, cadenced, and very collected.
The hindquarters are very engaged and lowered, the knees and hocks are noticeably flexed, and the movement is elastic and supremely graceful. Each diagonal pair of legs leaves and returns to the ground alternately, showing prolonged suspension and cadence.
What is piaffe?
Piaffe is a highly elevated trot on the spot.
The steps are cadenced, highly collected, and elevated in diagonal pairs, the horse giving the impression of remaining in one place.
The horse’s hindquarters are lowered, and the hocks are active and engaged, providing maximum lightness and mobility to the horse’s forehand and shoulders. The steps are free, and the horse’s back is elastic and supple.
The diagonal pairs of legs are raised and returned to the ground alternately with an even rhythm, great spring, and cadence.
What is the judge looking for in good quality transitions?
- The transitions between the piaffe and passage should be smooth, balanced, and supple without restriction.
- The rhythm should remain unchanged throughout the transitions, and cadence must be maintained.
- The horse should show no signs of resistance or tension, such as a swishing tail or tightness through the back or neck.
- The horse’s frame should remain unchanged, i.e., he should not drop his poll or draw his neck back away from the contact.
- There should be no half steps when transitioning between piaffe and passage; the movement should be direct and seamless.
- The horse should not “jump” from piaffe to passage.
- The horse must clearly maintain the pace through the transition and not walk out of or into the piaffe or passage.
Generally, the quality of the transitions depends very much on the quality of the piaffe and the passage.
If the rider has the passage well engaged, the transition into piaffe should be easy. Similarly, if the piaffe is engaged with the horse’s hindquarters lowered and the forehand light and free, the horse will find the transition into passage easy.
If the passage lacks engagement, the horse will lose rhythm as his hindquarters catch up and become engaged in preparation for the piaffe.
Likewise, if the piaffe lacks engagement and is croup high, the horse will struggle to transition directly into the passage.
Essentially, if problems arise in the transitions between the piaffe and the passage, the rider should revisit each movement and evaluate what’s going wrong. Once the problems within the piaffe and/or passage are rectified, the transitions should improve naturally.
Many people use a long whip to encourage the horse to increase the activity in passage and piaffe, often with a helper on the ground.
However, some trainers advise against that approach, as the whip can encourage the horse to snatch his legs up rather than raising them smoothly and evenly.
In such cases, take time to nurture the passage and piaffe, allowing the horse to develop the strength and confidence to perform the movements well in his own time.
Riding transitions from passage to piaffe
Usually, horses find the transition from passage to piaffe easier than the other way around. However, that is dependent on the horse finding a good piaffe rhythm, which is generally quicker than that of passage.
Make sure that the passage is energetic and rhythmical and that there is no tension through the horse’s back and neck.
To ask the horse for piaffe, bring your lower leg back slightly as your aid.
As you give the horse the aid, use a small half-halt to ask for smaller steps and ride forward against the hand slightly.
At the point of the transition, most horses need a second or two to adjust from the slower passage tempo to the slightly quicker piaffe tempo.
Don’t make the common mistake of pushing too much for the piaffe. Although that pushing aid can improve and activate passage, you need much lighter and more subtle aids for the piaffe.
Once you’ve asked the horse for piaffe, allow him to find his own rhythm, then you can use a little more leg to encourage the activity.
Riding transitions from piaffe to passage
The most important aspect of the piaffe to passage transition is that it is smooth and fluent; you don’t want the horse to lurch from the piaffe into the passage.
Make sure that the piaffe doesn’t have too much forward creep, or the transition into passage will not be clear.
Use your leg and seat to push against a slightly restraining hand. That helps to keep the horse engaged as he makes the transition. The forehand should lift as the horse swings forward smoothly into the passage.
When your horse is learning the transitions between piaffe and passage, you might find it helpful to allow him to take a few steps of collected trot out of piaffe before asking him for passage again.
That helps to keep the rhythm and balance.
When the horse is stronger and more experienced, you can expect him to produce direct transitions smoothly and in balance.
The rider’s position through the piaffe and passage transitions
The key to riding good transitions between piaffe and passage is to preserve the cadence of the paces.
If you move around in the saddle too much, you will disrupt or even destroy the cadence altogether.
From piaffe to passage … and back again
- Your back should follow the movement in the piaffe, lifting your chest upward and slightly backward. It can help to think of your chest as a sail with the wind blowing into the sail from behind you.
- As you come out of piaffe into the passage, relax your back to allow the horse more forward movement.
- At the same time, move your legs back slightly to ask the horse to transition to passage.
- Momentarily, ease your hand very slightly to allow the horse forward, and then hold him again once he is in the passage.
Essentially, you use the same technique to bring the horse back from the passage into piaffe:
- Allow your back to follow the movement in the passage, and lift your chest upward and slightly backward. Remember, your chest is a sail with the wind blowing into it from behind you.
- As you come out of passage into the piaffe, relax your back as you ride a half-halt to allow the horse to keep thinking forward. Be careful not to use too much hand in the half-halt, or you risk the horse transitioning into walk.
- At the same time, move your legs back slightly to ask the horse to transition to piaffe.
- Momentarily, ease your hand very slightly to allow the horse to creep forward a little, and then hold him again once he is in the piaffe.
All the time, your leg should hang long without gripping, you should be sitting in the deepest part of the saddle, you should look up and ahead of you, and your hands must be still and as a pair.
The transitions between the piaffe and the passage are one of the most challenging movements that are demanded in Grand Prix dressage tests.
The quality of the transitions depends on the quality of the piaffe and the passage, so if problems arise during the transitions, it’s advised to revisit each of the movements individually.
Once any problems are rectified, you can then use the pointers in the post to help you ride seamless transitions and enjoy top marks in your next dressage test!
If you have a horse working at that level, we’d love to hear your top tips on how to ride flawless transitions! Share with us in the comments box below.