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The piaffe is the pinacle of collection in dressage, being an extreme connection of power, sit, and cadence. I believe that piaffe is a movement that the horse should be given a long period of time to understand and perfect. But when is it right to begin the piaffe? Truly I cant say for certain as all horses are individuals, but I do believe there are some necessary parts that will make the training progress much quicker. For most of my horses I like to begin piaffe when they are 6 years old, or when they are schooling third level. At this point in their training they are able to understand and take pressure which the collected movements put on them. Additionally, they have an understanding and strength for balance and sit which are two very imperative parts in the piaffe.
Most of our young horses we teach a "game" when they are cross tied, teaching them to pick up and hold each of their legs. We begin this by using a whip, but eventually many of them will use it against us as a form of begging. Interestingly, I have not found an easy correlation between this and the piaffe other then getting them used to the whip aid and having an understanding of picking up their legs. So how do I begin teaching the movement?
- First I highly recommend either a tall arena wall or fence to help with straightness
- you wanted to stand up near the horses shoulder/ neck, holding reins in one hand (I have had some prefer that i hold reins individually in each hand too). Its very important that you keep the reins fairly short, but this isnt for pulling them back. Additionally you want to keep your arm/elbow up in a higher position to encourage straightness
- always keep moving! When you teach the piaffe it is essential that you keep walking so that the horse does not feel claustrofobic and that they understand this is a forward movement.
- use a whip, preferably a longer one ( I use a simple dressage whip, but it is easier to use a piaffe whip). Apply this pressure to the top of the croup. The horses will often either over react or under react when this aid is intially applied. Jeriah ran back to the barn 4 times on his first day of piaffe, so be patient! The first couple of sessions is teaching them how to react to this new pressure. If they are lazy to the whip aid then you need to apply more pressure until they react and then reward, if they are hot to the aid then you want to gain the ability to apply it without them throwing a tatrum or running over you.
- We train piaffe for no more then 5 minutes 2-3(sometimes 4) days a week. I like to do 3 or 4 passes, rewarding each time with a walk and some sugar once they at least give the movement a good effort. Bucking, Kicking, rearing, striking, or any other bad behaviors are not allowed. Often the horses will kick at the whip, this often means they are overly sensitive to the aid and do not understand it as a "sitting" aid. Many horses will try to run you over initally, this is where i will use back up and our previous ground work. I do not use back up for the piaffe, this teaches then backwards and I do not believe it will produce a correct piaffe.
Eventually you will have something that resembles a piaffe. The horse should be light and understanding of the whip as a "sit" aid instead of as a "drive" aid and therefore you should not feel as if you are being run over. Holding your arm up also helps the horse understand the direction of the energy.
Be understanding that all horses have a different ability and look to what is "sit" for them. Not all horses can look super classical in their piaffe because physically they are not built in a way where they can. A horse like Illuminator, who is fairly straight in the hind leg, sits very differently then a horse like Jeriah, who takes the hind leg way under him.
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