If anyone doubts the importance of the canter pirouette in dressage, one need look no further than the tests themselves. A working half-pirouette is introduced at Fourth Level Test 2, and half- or full pirouettes in both directions are in every test all the way through the Grand Prix Special. They are the only canter movement that always has a coefficient of two; in fact, other than in the Grand Prix test, the canter pirouette is the only canter movement with a coefficient, which effectively doubles its value.The canter pirouette could be considered the single most important movement to perform well in dressage tests at Fourth Level and above, since it counts for more than any other exercise.

Having trained many horses and riders from the lower levels to Grand Prix, Crystal Kroetch goes to a few specific exercises when schooling the pirouettes. “I call it the piaffe of the canter work,” she says. The pirouette requires the horse to achieve maximum collection and turn his forehand around the hindquarters, which remain on the spot, but in a canter rhythm. “It’s the most collected exercise in the canter program,” says Crystal. “I think that because it’s an in-place movement, riders have a tendency to stop riding forward, and to ride backward.” The purpose of the canter pirouette is the same as all dressage exercises: to gymnasticize and strengthen the horse evenly on both sides. “All horses have strong and weak sides,” Crystal says, ‘but the goal of dressage is to make the horse “ambidextrous.””

First Strides

I often introduce the idea of very collected canter and working pirouettes to horses at the age of six, but of course the age is less important than whether the horse is ready for this more advanced work. The first prerequisite to beginning more collected work in the canter is that the quality of the canter must be good, and it must not disintegrate with the introduction ofthe exercises. The canter should have good rhythm and balance, and good jump. The horse must be able to go properly forward and back within the canter, while staying in front of the rider’s leg.

Tempo is an important aspect of the canter; by tempo I mean the rate of the horse’s canter rhythm. The tempo should not change when the horse goes from a working to a medium to a collected canter. Riders often find that their horses get faster in the tempo when they ride forward, and that the tempo slows down when the horse comes back. The tempo should stay the same in the forward and back.

Another important point I make to my students when they work on the more collected exercises is the reminder that a half-halt should never subtract, only add. In other words, the amount of power and energy in the horse’s gait should increase after a correct half-halt, not be diminished. When riders half-halt with a backward idea in their minds, they take away from the quality of the gait. The half-halt is what I call the miracle of dressage – a difficult-to-describe coordination of the driving and holding aids that enhances the movement. When a horse performs a true, on-the- spot canter pirouette, the tempo of the canter does become a very slight four-beat in almost all cases – but the visual impression should still be that the horse is maintaining a good quality canter, not a four-beat canter that has lost jump and balance over the hind legs.

The canter pirouette is an exercise that puts more stress on the horse’s hind legs – the hocks and stifles – than other work. It should not be trained every day. Pirouette work does increase the horse’s strength in the collection, but it’s tough on the body. I would not school pirouettes more than two times a week with a younger horse.I ride my horses three days on and one day off at home. I would not include pirouette work in more than two of those three rides with any horse.

I will often school the pirouette canter in straight lines, rather than actual turns. The turn is really secondary to the more important skill of being able to canter on the spot while staying supple over the back. With green horses making the transition from Third to Fourth Level, I will introduce pirouette canter on straight lines first. I collect for three to five strides, then ask the horse to canter on again. That simple exercise needs to be easy for the horse to perform before he is ready to turn.

Riders sometimes forget to use the aids on the outside when the wall is there to support the horse, so riding away from the wall on quarter lines reminds the rider to use her outside aids. Many horses tend to use the wall of the arena as a support as well. Ultimately, the horse should be able to come back into a pirouette canter anywhere – even in a wide open space.

Through all work on pirouettes, the rider should continually check that she isn’t pushing too much with the aids or working too hard. If you do too much with your body, you put the horse out of balance. This is so important with younger horses; your job is to help the horse find his balance, not take it away by doing too much.

I tell my students to always sit quietly and in the middle of the horse. I don’t tell them to sit more heavily to the inside, because in my experience that can often cause the rider to lean in with the shoulder while shifting the hip out, which is just the opposite. I tell my students to imagine carrying a backpack full of boulders that is shifted to one side. It’s easiest for the horse if the rider is balanced and in the middle. Two seat bones and the pubic bone make a triangle, and the hips should be above that triangle. The rider’s weight aids work together with the leg, but it’s important to resist the temptation to clamp with the leg or to get so tight in the seat that you effectively “stop” the canter with your seat.

First Turns

One of my favourite exercises for introducing the pirouette – and even as a schooling exercise for more experienced horses and riders – is the quarter-pirouette. It can be ridden either from the track or from the quarter line. I will ride down the track and collect the canter to the point where it is on the spot, or almost on the spot. I then turn the horse 90 degrees until he faces across the ring, and canter out of the turn in a shoulder-fore position.

The shoulder-fore position is an excellent way to ensure that after the turn the horse is still on the aids, and not falling with the inside shoulder into the direction he turned. It also reminds the rider to keep using the inside leg, not just push with the outside leg to get the horse to turn. If the horse falls onto his inside shoulder, he is no longer on his outside hind leg.

It may even be difficult to stop the horse from continuing to turn because he is so tipped over the inside shoulder. If the horse departs from a quarter-turn and easily goes into shoulder-fore, then the rider knows the horse has correctly kept his centre of gravity back over the hind legs, particularly the outside hind. If the rider uses too much outside leg or inside rein, what often happens then is that the horse falls onto the outside shoulder instead, and the rider is not able to turn him at all.

I usually start this exercise by making two turns on a square: from the long side, make a quarter-turn, then canter across to the other side of the ring in shoulder-fore, riding the next turn like a corner. Then I ride another quarter-pirouette from the long side to go again across the ring, with the following turn being ridden just as a corner.

As the horse gets better at the exercise, I will then start doing a quarter- pirouette for every turn. eventually, with more advanced horses, the size of the square can be as small as eight metres, with four quarter-turns. Two quarters make a half, so riding two of these quarter-turns only a few metres apart is actually approaching a half-pirouette.

I find that teaching riders to do two quarter-turns improves the quality of the turns as well as the canter, compared to simply schooling half-pirouettes as such. once the rider is able to put those two quarter-pirouettes together with no straight strides in between, the result should be a correct, balanced half-pirouette that takes three to four strides (a full pirouette should be six to eight strides).

The quarter-pirouette is an excellent exercise for developing the correct responses to the aids. The horse’s ability to balance is directly connected to his confidence. Any advanced exercise is about getting the horse to allow you to place him where you want him, and that requires his trust in your aids. It’s the rider’s responsibility not to get the horse into trouble, where he feels vulnerable. When that happens, you get a lot of tension in the bridle, the back and the hind leg. Swapping leads behind and taking over in the turn are signals that this is taking place.

I want to emphasize again how important it is to always remember that this is a forward exercise, even though you are making the canter very small. When things aren’t going well, take it back a step until the quality of the canter and the horse’s confidence are restored.

Around the Pylon

Having the rider put the horse in a travers position around a pylon is a good exercise to reinforce the importance of weight bearing on the hind legs and keeping the hind legs separated in the stride – not jumping together, which is a not-uncommon problem in the pirouettes. The rider goes onto an eight-metre volte around a highway pylon, keeping the pylon always in the centre of the circle. The horse’s hindquarters are closer to the pylon than the forehand and the horse is bent around the inside leg.

I would not do more than two circles around the pylon without letting the horse go forward on a bigger circle or straight line. This exercise can be introduced first at the walk to a horse or rider that hasn’t done it before.

In and Out, Up and Down

An exercise I like to use with more experienced horses is to go in and out within the pirouette, particularly with horses that have a tendency to shrink back and get short and tight in the neck. What often happens next is they begin to almost rear in the pirouette and spin, instead of taking balanced turning strides.

As I begin to ride the pirouette, I ask the horse to canter out for one stride, then go back into the smaller canter, which helps to keep him from tightening in his back. I will also sometimes play with the horse’s frame within the pirouette, asking him to stretch deeper, or to change the flexion. It becomes an exercise where I ask the horse to do the opposite of what he is inclined to do.

Going in and out or playing with the length of neck and flexion improve the horse’s rideability within the exercise itself. Just as with the exercise around the pylon, I would not ask the horse to turn more than two revolutions before letting him canter out onto a bigger circle or straight line. With a younger, greener horse I would do even less in between the breaks. Pirouettes in tests are always ridden on diagonals or on the centre line. I prefer to train exercises like this one on straight lines, but going directly across the arena.

Advanced Strides

With horses that are more experienced in the pirouettes, I replace the shoulder-fore of the earlier quarter-pirouette exercise with a half-pass. I will ride a quarter-pirouette, followed by three to six strides of half-pass, and then a second quarter-pirouette. The sequence can be ridden all over the arena, and I don’t tend to tie the exercise to any specific line.

The effect of the exercise is similar to that of the quarter-pirouette to shoulder-fore: it improves bend, softness and suppleness while also reminding the rider about the aids on both sides of the horse. It really reveals to the rider if the horse isn’t truly in front of the leg and still reaching to the contact. For horses that get straight and tense in the pirouette, this is an excellent exercise to keep them in the bend.

Keeping the same tempo in the canter is very important. If the horse gets slow and laboured, I would go back to just schooling forward and back on a straight line. If things go wrong it always means you should go back to see how the connection is from the hind leg to the bit. Each of the exercises I have described has flexibility and offers various possibilities depending on the horse.

Don’t get stuck in something that isn’t going well or drill an exercise. Throughout the training of a dressage horse, there is one imperative that must never be forgotten: you have to listen to the horse. He’ll tell you when he needs help.