My theory regarding the teaching of piaffe has come largely from Isabell Werth and her trainer of the time, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer. Piaffe starts in your mind at the very beginning of your horse’s training when teaching the trot–walk transitions. In this downward transition, the horse steps from behind, he steps to the rein and his steps become shorter without losing the rhythm, throughness or activity (see first below). He never falls in a heap into the walk.
Every horse has a limitless number of trots: There’s the working balance, there’s collection and then greater degrees of collection. The horse can’t sustain correct diagonal pairs after a certain level of collection because of lack of energy, lack of strength, lack of bridge through the back or lack of understanding. But over years, he is gradually able to increase the degree of trot collection in that downward transition toward walk, and piaffe just evolves naturally into a sophisticated trot on the spot— with transitions between piaffe and passage built in. The training of piaffe is merely a continuum of trot education. You come back, go forward, come back, go forward in rhythm. The horse doesn’t know he’s doing piaffe and he doesn’t think it’s difficult. It’s the seamless, nonconfrontational evolution of a transition from a trot that moves toward walk in more and more engagement, shorter steps, always diagonal pairs. When done well, the horse is always able to go in and come out. Developing piaffe and passage seamlessly over years helps the physicality of them as well as the mentality of it. There’s never a situation in which the horse, all of a sudden, has to load the hind legs incredibly or he becomes mentally worried.
Piaffe is about diagonal pairs. It is sometimes trained from the walk as it is required in the Grand Prix Special, but that means the training of transitions between piaffe and passage is not built in. I feel the idea of the transitions needs to be taught from the beginning, therefore eliminating their difficulty and the negative emotions sometimes associated with them. When one buys a Grand Prix prospect because he’ll do piaffe out of walk, one should realize that the horse may be a long way from being able to do it with transitions in the ring.
When the horse is trained through trot–walk transitions, there’s no day when you finally say, “We’re going to do piaffe and passage today.” The horse’s education is physically and mentally seamless and the horse builds confidence along with competence.
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