Free Access: Developing Intuitive Feel for Piaffe and Passage

This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Heels Down Magazine. For more stories worth reading, subscribe now.


By Chloe Hatch

Just as intriguing as they are demanding, the piaffe and passage are two of the most important and eye catching elements in a Grand Prix test. It is obvious even to the most amateur observer that these movements require deeply intuitive feel and strong perception for timing from the rider. Professional dressage rider Mel Montagano shares her experience in bringing along a Grand Prix horse from the ground up.

The first step to training passage and piaffe is the critically important task of knowing whether or not the horse is actually ready to begin these movements. Mel stresses the importance of assessing each horse as an individual.

“Knowing when is the appropriate time to start training the passage and piaffe depends on the maturity of the horse. In my opinion a lot of people start it too early,” says Mel. “They get the idea that since a horse is so many years old that it must be doing this or that. This is not the way it should be.”

Which comes first?

There is also a science to determining which, either piaffe or passage, you should introduce first.

“There’s definitely a strategy in my training to starting with one or the other. Again, the judgement depends on the particular horse and it’s movement. Horses are either naturals in the passage, or they are not. A horse that has a hint of passage naturally in the trot and a clear metronome is going to find passage easier,” Mel explained. “That said, it’s still most important that they respond very well to the half halt. That’s how I can tell, if they respond correctly and you can bring them back with a half halt, you know they will be able to come back to passage. However, most horses do not have the rhythm naturally, so in those cases it’s easier to teach piaffe first.”

“Also keep in mind that when introducing a new movement to your horse, it should enhance the movements he’s already confirmed in. For example, dabbling with the piaffe can be a clever way to not only refresh the horse’s response to the half halt, but to also encourage him to lift his shoulders and enhance his lightness on the forehand. I test my horses by giving a simple half halt, and if their response is lackluster I exaggerate by schooling a little piaffe,” she added.

You have to be rhythmical in your aids and be very aware of the way you’re moving your body.

Start small:

In the early stages of training the piaffe it is of the utmost importance to start small and allow the horse to properly develop.

“You have to build up to piaffe with half steps over the course of several months. At first, a horse may only respond with bouncy half steps. If you force the piaffe before the horse develops the muscles for it, he will drop the neck or over compensate,” Mel warns. “Even with older horses that are confirmed in the piaffe, I don’t ask that they always piaffe on the spot. Make sure that you have the right reaction to the aids and that you can get it on the spot, but you don’t always have to school that way.”

Since the passage is simply a very collected trot, developing this elevated variation of the gait requires a careful balancing act of half halts.

“A horse that has a clear metronome in the trot will have an easier time with the passage. If they have natural elevation in their trot then it’s just a matter of juggling how much half halt to use. However, horses that do not have this naturally will need the rider to help them find the right rhythm. You have to be rhythmical in your aids and be very aware of the way you’re moving your body. These horses will also find the transitions to and from piaffe and passage challenging because they will have to switch between two different rhythms, the piaffe being the quicker of the two. Develop these transitions the same way you would with any variation within a gait by asking them to move forward and come back.” she said.

In addition to using mirrors, Mel finds it helpful to have assistance on the ground.

“Schooling the passage and piaffe is immensely easier if you have help on the ground. The rider can focus on using the aids and a person on the ground can assist with a piaffe whip. Whip placement is also something to be aware of. Know how your horse reacts when tapped on the croup versus the hock,” Mel suggested.

“The amount of time it takes to achieve show ring ready work also varies horse to horse. It mostly depends on how old the horse was when it was started and how much pressure they can take. Some have a strong aptitude for piaffe and passage and quickly pick it up, but they can’t take the pressure so it takes longer and requires more patience for these types.”

Conformation matters:

An understanding of conformation goes a long way in working with the mechanics of your horse.

“I’ve found that a high-set neck can be a helpful attribute to the Grand Prix horse. This is because in the piaffe, the shoulder needs to come up so the forehand lightens,” Mel said. “This is more challenging for a horse whose neck is more horizontal than vertical.”

Due to the contradictory aids of the extremely collected piaffe and passage work, many horses get easily frustrated when first learning.

“In these movements lots of naughtiness can come out. It’s a lot of pressure, lots of collection, and the contradictory aid to “Go, but don’t go.” I think to avoid mentally stressing the horse you have to keep it really playful and don’t expect too much too quickly. Keep it a game because if the horse doesn’t have fun he won’t be happy. So instead of drilling these movements, play with tempo, school it in a field, on the trail, test sending the horse out forward,” she added.

Training these advanced movements is all about cultivating correct responses to the aids and developing a common language with the horse.

“I do believe that the passage requires more natural ability, therefore making the piaffe more trainable,” Mel explained. “That said, with any horse and any type of training, rideability is number one. If the horse is highly rideable, you can train it to the best of its ability.”

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