I'm curious; how many of you have read the FEI's rules of dressage? OK maybe not every single page or every single rule, but what about the section devoted to the specific requirements and descriptions of each movement? Surely that's something every dressage rider has read...or not.
To be honest, it's not something I had given much thought to until the barn where I board hosted a clinic with renowned trainer Jeremy Steinberg last year. Several participants asked for help improving their piaffe and Steinberg went into a lot of detail about what makes a good, correct piaffe.
The FEI description is very clear:
1. 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.
1.1. 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.
1.2. The neck should be raised and gracefully arched, with the poll as the highest point. The Horse should remain “on the bit” with a supple poll, maintaining soft contact. The body of the Horse should move in a supple, cadenced and harmonious movement.
1.3. Piaffe must always be animated by a lively impulsion and characterised by perfect balance. While giving the impression of remaining in place, there may be a visible inclination to advance, this being displayed by the Horse’s eager acceptance to move forward as soon as it is asked.
1.4. Moving even slightly backwards, irregular or jerky steps with the hind or front legs, no clear diagonal steps, crossing either the fore or hind legs, or swinging either the forehand or the hindquarters from one (1) side to the other, getting wide behind or in front, moving too much forward or double-beat rhythm are all serious faults. The aim of piaffe is to demonstrate the highest degree of collection while giving the impression of remaining in place.
I will likely never be a Grand Prix rider, nor have I ever trained a horse to GP, so my knowledge regarding what a "correct" piaffe looks like relies 100% on the above description. Jeremy is both a successful GP rider and trainer, however, and he is adamant that where piaffe is concerned, the movement often seen in the ring (and often receiving high scores) does not necessarily match the FEI's description.
Instead of a lowered high end, he regularly sees bouncing croups. Instead of forefeet being raised higher than the hind feet, he frequently sees the opposite. Why the disconnect between what is supposed to be the ideal, and what is being rewarded by judges in the ring? Do the FEI's top international judges need a refresher course or does the FEI's description of piaffe in the rules need to be updated?
I had the pleasure of working with Jeremy to write an article for Horse Sport magazine on this very subject, including many of his helpful tips for introducing and improving the piaffe. Enjoy!
I swear I'm not a tackaholic. Well, I probably would be if I could afford to be, but honestly the reason I have gone through two bridles, three saddles and three girths in three years is Gus. He's the freaking Goldilocks of horses: everything is too hard, too soft, too stiff, too big, too small, too flexible, too something.
The bridle issues were easily resolved by giving up my drool-worthy, anatomically-designed, outrageously expensive Swedish dressage bridle for a plain-Jane padded monocrown snaffle with flash. The saddle saga was solved by the Prestige D1 Zero with its incredible shoulder freedom and super narrow twist. I am not sponsored by Prestige nor have any relationship with them, so believe me when I say this saddle is truly amazing. In the past six months four of us in our barn have switched to this model and every single horse has noticeably improved in their way of going, while the riders all say they are better balanced and feel more connected with the horse. A fifth barn-mate is trialing one right now.
The last puzzle piece is my never-ending quest for the right dressage tack is the girth. I started out with a very expensive, state-of-the-art British model, designed specifically for horses with a forward girth groove on whom saddles tend to slip. While it seemed ok for a while, over the past year Gus grew increasingly cranky while being saddled, and started to get small rubs. So I switched to a lovely Canadian made dressage model that claims to self balance. Again it seemed a huge improvement at first, but Goldilocks began to express his dissatisfaction after a month or so. I still love this girth, but think the elastic on both ends allows too much movement of the saddle, at least for my delicate 17+ hand flower of a horse.
In desperation I followed the advice of Liz at Bahr Saddlery, who fitted our Prestige dressage saddle. For a horse with Gus' fit issues, she highly recommended the revolutionary No Pressure Girth, also from Prestige. I was dubious and reluctant, mainly because it is so unusual looking. Ok, let's be honest, it's ugly. The girth consists of a circular padded donut, which rests against the horse's belly, distributing the pressure over a much bigger surface area than a traditional girth. I'm sure there's lots of science behind it that I don't understand, but for whatever reason it really does seem to work. Gus is happy and comfortable, moving freely and lifting his back, while the saddle stays in place without moving side to side or pulling forward.
We've had one on trial at our barn for a few weeks and so far I've been impressed, impressed enough to order one for myself. Fingers crossed that Goldilocks decides this one is "just right."
I know, I know, the Canada Day long weekend is already over but we still have lots to celebrate. Most notably, a few of our top Canadian riders representing the maple leaf in Europe and more than holding their own against the very best horses and riders in the world.
Diane Creech and her daughter Vanessa Creech Terauds are enjoying a dream trip competing at many of the most prestigious shows in Europe this summer thanks to the support of their sponsor Louise Leatherdale.
Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu and Jill Irving are made the Maritimes proud with their wonderful results at the CDI4* in Fritzens, Austria, where the stunning backdrop of the Alps is as spectacular as the horses on display. The Canadian duo will also compete later this month at Aachen, arguably the most famous horse show in the world.
These experiences are validation that Canadian competitors do have both the talent and the horsepower needed to be successful at the highest levels, with the right support. I would love to see more sponsors and owners investing in opportunities like these for their riders, along with Equestrian Canada of course.
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.