Grand prix rider, trainer, and former United States Equestrian Federation national youth dressage coach Jeremy Steinberg has two pieces of advice for anyone wishing to master the piaffe and dressage: take a high school physics class and read the FEI rule book.
Steinberg is serious on both fronts. During a recent clinic hosted by Equestrian Dreams in Campbellville, ON, Steinberg lamented the number of riders at the sport’s highest level displaying technique that is incorrect and damaging to the horse’s long-term health and soundness.
“Every movement we perform in dressage is about improving the horse’s well-being, both physically and mentally, and encouraging the weight shift to the hind end so that we can ask for increasingly more collection and self-carriage,” Steinberg said. “The transfer of weight isn’t a difficult concept; anyone who has taken a high school physics class can understand the mechanics in carrying more of the load at the back than at the front. As the weight shifts towards the back, the horse’s hind end lowers; the hind legs come further under the body towards the centre of gravity and the front end comes up.”
Teaching collection is a long-term process that begins with the most basic training of the horse. It’s at the highest levels, however, that we can most easily see whether or not it has been correctly achieved. Steinberg points to the piaffe as one of the weakest links among today’s top international riders, and laments the fact that high scores are regularly awarded for a piaffe not performed in accordance with the rules.
“The FEI rule book is one of the most valuable tools available, yet I’m amazed at the number of riders who have never even bothered to read it,” says Steinberg. “In what other sport would you compete without even knowing the rules? The rule book provides clear descriptions of how each movement is to be performed and how it is to be judged. Call me crazy, but I think the goal of every competitive rider should be to perform a movement as closely as possible to the standard set out in the sport’s rules.”
Steinberg points in particular to the first two paragraphs in the rule book under Article 415 – The Piaffe:
Piaffe is 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 with active hocks are well engaged, giving great freedom, lightness and mobility to the shoulders and forehand. Each diagonal pair of legs is raised and returned to the ground alternately, with spring and an even cadence.
In principle, the height of the toe of the raised forefoot should be level with the middle of the cannon bone of the other supporting foreleg. The toe of the raised hind foot should reach just above the fetlock joint of the other supporting hind leg.
Why is the correctness so important? Steinberg offers a quick lesson on the history of dressage.
“All the movements we now perform are the foundation of the ‘airs above the ground,’ the pinnacle of classical dressage. In order to elevate the front end in a movement such as levade, the horse has to bear all its weight on the hind end by moving the hind legs forward and under the centre of mass. Piaffe is the final step in preparation for the levade and when performed correctly, should clearly demonstrate this weight shift, lowering of the hind end and lifting of the forehand.”
Common piaffe mistakes include the horse’s body remaining horizontal to the ground; carrying the weight on the forehand; raised croup; quarters swinging from side to side; or simply trotting in place. “Yet for the most part, these incorrect piaffes are receiving high scores from international judges. I don’t understand it. Either the scoring needs to change or else the FEI’s description of piaffe must be changed,” states Steinberg.
Steinberg emphasized the importance of the weight transfer to the hind end throughout the clinic, whether working with young horses or those at grand prix. When starting the half-steps and piaffe work, the emphasis on moving the hind legs under the horse’s body far outweighs that of getting the steps to be trot-like.
“One of the more common pitfalls when training the piaffe is to try to ‘bounce’ the horse’s croup and get small trot-like steps first, instead of weight-bearing steps behind,” says Steinberg. “It’s become commonplace to see this bouncing piaffe and I’ve often heard other trainers use the term ‘bounce’ when teaching riders how to feel or train the movement. It’s my preference when training the half-steps at first to either do it in-hand or with a ground person where you can work on the lower limb of the hind leg instead of the croup, and work the hind leg under the body instead of the hindquarters into the air.
“When using the whip to help generate the understanding of the piaffe, we need to first start with work below the hock without wraps or boots on, down toward the fetlock, encouraging the horse to move the entire lower part of the hind leg forward. Incorrectly, we often see riders and trainers using the whip on the croup and getting a sort of bouncing phenomenon that discourages weight loading on the hindquarters and encourages weight shifting toward the forehand. “
Exercise #1– From the ground up
“I’ll often incorporate a bit of rein-back work into the half-step training when working with riders from the ground while they are mounted, but only on horses who are very well-schooled and confident about the rein-back itself,” Steinberg says. “If the confidence and understanding of the rein-back is there, it is an extremely useful tool in helping the horse understand you don’t want forward movement and need them shifting the weight onto their hind legs.”
1. The rider should very quietly do a few steps backward, then forward, then backward. ‘Rock’ the horse back and forth a few times, encouraging him to take small steps walking forward on the way out.
2. Once that control is there, a very gentle touch from the trainer on the ground with the whip below the hock can readily activate the hind leg under the horse’s body. It is important to understand that the training of half-steps is a multi-step process and each step can take weeks to be understood confidently in the horses.
“My first basic goal is to make sure they are confident about being touched with the whip and they understand it is the hind leg I am trying to engage under the horse’s body and centre of mass,” Steinberg adds. “I am not trying to produce a bounce or a trot; I am first trying to get them to understand walking the hind legs under the body. Once they understand that concept and I can feel or see a definitive engagement of the hind leg occur, then and only then do I think of trying to get the ‘trot-like” swing of the horse started. If I think too soon about the trot itself, it is easy to end up with a bounce instead of a sit.”
Exercise #2 – Walk this way
1. Work the walk into smaller and smaller steps and out again, gaining the horse’s trust that they can walk themselves into a small package without stopping or slowing down the tempo of the walk.
2. Add haunches-in on 4- and 5-metre circles in the walk, much like large walk pirouettes, teaching the horse the idea of the forward-and-under engagement of the hind leg.
“It is important for the horse to understand the concept of moving the legs while still making the stride smaller,” says Steinberg. “I want to feel like I can walk the horse’s hind legs right up under their own belly and out again easily with confidence well before I try to make it piaffe-like or trot-like. Working the horses through the walk is an imperative step in teaching a correct piaffe.
“Far too often I hear riders tell me they can’t work it in the walk because of various reasons; their horses understand it better in the trot, or they are teaching the piaffe through the passage, but it is exactly why the time needs to be taken to work it through the walk itself. Understanding there are many components to the process is important and knowing that the trot idea or swing of the horse’s limbs that defines the trot is one of the last pieces of the equation.”