Christilot Boylen on Introducing Piaffe

Christilot Boylen made history at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo when she became Canada's first Olympic dressage competitor at the age of 17. Th

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By: Karen Robinson |

Boylen has written two books, including Basic Dressage for North America. She has mentored many of Canada’s top riders, including Olympian Belinda Trussell. (Belinda and Anton demonstrate the exercises in this article.) Boylen lives in Germany with her partner and trainer, Udo Lange. She was recently inducted into the Dressage Canada Hall of Fame.

There are three exercises in the grand prix test that are make-or-break skills without which a horse will never reach that highest level of competition: the one-tempi changes, the passage, and the piaffe. Of those three exercises, the piaffe is unique in that it can be introduced at a much earlier stage of training, and it can be a useful tool when developing the horse’s ability to collect and carry more weight on the hindquarters as his career progresses. Christilot Boylen has trained a large number of horses to grand prix; she has also taught some of Canada’s top riders how to reach that level with their own horses. Many decisions in a horse’s training must be based on the physical and temperamental qualities of each individual; but the philosophy and exercises in this article describe Christilot’s basic formula for incorporating piaffe into the training program of the developing dressage horse.


The first introduction to piaffe is possible when a horse is between five and seven years of age, but only when certain training benchmarks have been achieved. I actually have a four-year-old mare at home that I introduced to the half-steps (a precursor to the piaffe in which the horse is asked to take very tiny steps in a trot rhythm, but allowed to move only a little bit forward) in hand, on days when I lunged her at the end of the session. It is critically important to understand that this is not an exercise to be tried for the first time by someone who has not done it before. An experienced trainer is essential for all advanced exercises, and piaffe – in hand or mounted – is no exception.

At home in Germany, I am accustomed to seeing trainers work their horses in a certain way. It’s not that there are no bad trainers in Europe, but there is a general understanding of how horses need to be supple in their necks from the early stages of training. In North America, I often see trainers and amateurs who are missing that important point. The horse’s first vertebra at the poll is the place where suppleness must begin. In German, the term genick describes the area of the poll and throatlatch at that first vertebra. A horse chews from right beneath his ears. Suppleness at the genick is what gives a horse a good mouth.

I have seen riders in North America whose horses are bending at the third or fourth vertebrae, in the middle of the neck, while not being supple at the throatlatch. They might even have their necks so overbent that their chins approach the chest, but when those horses are brought up into a frame with the poll at the highest point, they are often stiff as boards.

Young horses can survive in their work for quite a while without the correct suppleness because they are not in a collected frame and transitions between gaits are allowed to take place over ten meters or more. But if the horse is not correctly supple, he will not be able to begin training any higher movements, including the piaffe. Transitions are the best test of both correct suppleness in the throatlatch and the horse’s readiness for the half-steps. Another test for suppleness is for the trainer to stand in front of the mounted horse, with the thumbs hooked in the rings of the snaffle. The horse is standing with his neck in a normal training position. The trainer should be able to lightly move the horse’s nose three inches to each side without a change in frame.

Depending on the individual horse’s physical and mental stage of development, he should be able to perform short, precise transitions between the walk and trot or canter and walk without changing the frame. Riding in a straight line, the rider should be able to achieve quick, neat transitions from trot to walk or halt, then immediately trot on. If a horse is still incapable of going from trot to halt without walk steps, or from halt to trot without walking, he is not ready for half-steps.

A further sign of readiness would be walk-canter-walk transitions. Half-steps are going to ask the horse to quickly engage, so if the transition work has not been accomplished sufficiently, he is not ready. If the horse comes to the transition and opens up, spits out the bit and gets longer – or conversely, if he drops behind the contact – suppleness has either not been achieved, or the wrong part of the neck has been suppled. If the horse can perform the FEI five-year-old test well and with ease, he is probably ready to begin learning the half-steps.

First steps, in hand

The reason I like in-hand work so much is because the horse will not be in danger of developing the tensions that are associated with being under the rider. With my young mare, I introduced the first idea of half-steps at the end of a lunging session, but I didn’t overdo it. One time around a 20×60 arena, with breaks and rewards along the way, was enough to introduce the idea. I repeated the process in subsequent lunging sessions, but kept the demands small and the time short.

The equipment for in-hand work without the rider is the same as for lunging: bridle, surcingle or saddle, and side reins. A lead is attached directly to the ring of the bit on the same side on which you are standing. The whip should be long enough that you can reach the hind-quarters from a position near the horse’s head, and light enough that you can use it precisely and gently.

Once the rider has been reintroduced, I will work the horse in both directions from the ground, but I usually handle the horse from the left side; it’s the side on which horses are already accustomed to being led. I am facing the back of the horse, with my left hand on the line and my right holding the whip. I always remain by the horse’s head, whether moving or stationary. In addition to the whip as a driving aid and the lead line on the bit as the restraining aid, the voice is an important aid: a click-click-click sound, something that tells the horse “move on”; and “whoa” or the German “purring” sound to ask him to stop.

The first work in hand must be quiet and calm to give the horse confidence. It’s as simple as asking the horse to walk forward, halt and back up a few steps before walking forward again. Even getting the horse to square up behind in the halt is the very beginning of teaching half-steps. There should be no resistance to the aid to go forward, or for the aid to stop and back up.

After you have established the correct response to aids for walk, halt and rein back, you can ask for a little trot with the voice and a light, rhythmic tap of the whip on the hind-quarters. The horse will probably be bewildered the first time. It was only during my third session with the four-year-old mare that she understood what I wanted. You will need to be able to walk quickly in order to give the horse some forward direction in the trot steps, and this is not easy to do when you are facing the back of the horse.

There is an important distinction to make here between the idea of positive tension and fear of the whip or the handler. Piaffe is an action that is carried out in nature only in moments of positive tension, when the horse is excited. You have to create a certain amount of positive tension with the whip – a little bit of anxiety that produces a couple of little trot steps, and then an immediate reward and return to calmness. Horses respond differently to the whip when it is used on various points of the hindquarters and leg. A master knows where the whip works best on each horse, which is another reminder that this is an exercise best in the hands of the experienced.

Introducing the rider

When the rider is put back in the picture, she must sit completely passively while the handler on the ground gives the aids. You never want the rider pulling on the reins. The rider should be in a “perfect” position, symmetrical and absolutely correct. The kind of spur the rider wears will depend on the horse and the rider’s length of leg, but I would not use a too-sharp spur. If you have to put a long, sharp spur on a young horse, then you’ve got problems that indicate the horse is not ready for this exercise until he develops more sensitivity to the aids. With a highly sensitive horse, the rider may use just a little hunter knob; most commonly, I use a normal-length spur with flat rowels that look like a thick dime.

Starting out in hand with the rider on top is the same as starting out without. Walk, halt, rein back until the horse is responding and understanding. The next step is to think of trotting on: the handler restrains the horse with the lead line while asking for a transition to trot with the whip. This is the point at which you discover if the horse’s transition work is really established enough to reach the next step. If so, the horse will respond to the driving aid by trotting, but he will take very small steps as the handler keeps him from going too much forward. Always remember to reward the horse for even the smallest response in the right direction. A break and a pat give both positive reinforcement and an opportunity for the horse to relax again.

Once the horse clearly understands the aid for half-steps from the ground, the handler can unclip the lead line and give the rider full control, while remaining near the horse with the whip to provide support. One of my favourite exercises is for the rider to go into a collected trot on the long side, then ask the horse for a few half-steps, then go back into collected trot. The exercise is a good test for whether there are problems with the flow of energy. If the horse half-rears or if his head comes up, it’s a sign that the suppleness has been lost, or was not really established in the first place.

The rider’s aids and leg position will vary according to many factors, but the quality of the half-halt is crucial. I tell riders it should originate in the lower back, travel down through the seat bones and finish with the ankle bones. Don’t forget you have an ankle bone. Some riders put the leg on for an aid and then take it right off again, creating a shock every time they use the leg. Even when it’s passive, the leg should be in contact with the horse; in order for that to happen the ankle must be supple.

While the horse’s willingness to continue to move forward must never be lost, even if he performs a perfect piaffe on the spot, riders often don’t realize how much they are travelling forward when they ask for half-steps. If the horse goes too forward, he will not learn how to truly collect and keep his hind legs underneath him. I tell riders to watch the boards on the side of the ring so that they are aware how much they are travelling. Another exercise I like is to ask the rider to shorten the steps of trot going into walk or halt. If the horse covers one-and-a-half meters in a stride, several strides should become one meter, then half a meter, and then the transition to walk or halt. Riders must understand that the transition from trot into half-steps is not instantaneous. By diminishing the size of the steps, the rider learns the timing of getting a smooth transition from trot to piaffe.

A test of talent

Circumstances can sometimes give you an opportunity to learn about your horse’s talent for piaffe. If you are riding out in the fields or on the trail and the horse is energetic, go to a collected walk. Ask for the trot, but then hold him back, so to speak. You should not be expecting a piaffe, but you want to see the horse’s reaction. Is he showing the right response by being eager to find a diagonal beat in which to move? Does he panic; or does he just keep walking? If you can interpret these responses, you will have some idea of what your horse’s ability will be when it’s time to train the piaffe.

Another opportunity to test your horse is when you are at a show and your horse gets pumped up coming out of the prize-giving ceremony. You can give the aids for piaffe for a few seconds and find out what happens. One more good test for the horse’s natural ability for piaffe was taught to me by George Theodorescu. You need to find a gently sloping hill with safe footing. The exercise is to rev the horse up a little and then jog straight down the slight slope. Most horses will almost immediately start to take diagonal little steps. One reason this exercise is useful is because horses are less likely to try to rear when they are moving slightly downhill. Rearing is an undesirable, but not uncommon, response when the rider first asks for half-steps.