Beginning to dance with my horse

All my life I’ve dreamed of being able to ride Piaffe and Passage. Dancing with my horse, in perfect harmony, one in body and spirit.

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I can’t quite say that we can do that…not yet…but almost! We only look like Charlotte and Valegro in our dreams, but Finn the Wonder Pony is learning and does steps of both piaffe and passage with the help of a ground person (videos at the bottom of this post). It’s fun! It’s bouncy and super springy! It’s exciting! A little too exciting sometimes, as Finn occasionally WAY overreacts to the sight of the piaffe stick, throwing himself about histrionically. Alfredo calls him “A little Napoleon.” The little diva has to throw a little tizzy fit before he gets down to work, and then he’s just fine and I think he enjoys the challenge and variety from his usual work.

Fortunately, we have been working on this with the help of Alfredo Hernandez, who does occasional clinics in our area and has been teaching piaffe/passage (and other facets of dressage) to horses and riders of all shapes and sizes for decades. Finn and I were introduced to Alfredo and  P/P in October and have schooled a little piaffe with our trainer at home since then. You can read about our earlier clinics with Alfredo here:

We returned to do some more work on collection and P/P with Alfredo recently at American Sporthorse in Watsonville, CA. The videos below show Finn doing some baby piaffe and then passage with the help of the bamboo. Use of the piaffe stick or the bamboo requires perfect timing and care as it can be dangerous to the handler – you can get kicked! In other words: don’t do this at home unless you REALLY know what you are doing. It’s easy to mess up the horse mentally or get yourself hurt, so please: go to a clinic with someone really experienced like Alfredo, and learn to do it correctly.

Piaffe and Passage require several years (perhaps as many as four, according to some experts) and careful training, strength development, and repetition before they are really confirmed. Finn and I are just beginning, but we are enjoying the lessons and the work benefits our other work. As an example, notice how beautifully Finn walks out after he does the Piaffe work, with a long overstep and a stretched neck.

One last thought from this clinic: the value of an experienced and talented trainer cannot be overstated. Alfredo pushed us just enough but not too much, knowing when to ask for more and when to give the horse a break so that he does not become frustrated.

Because of his experience, we were able to achieve not only some steps of piaffe and passage, but also steps of canter collection far beyond what I thought Finn could do. Lesson learned: it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a clinic occasionally and learn something new! We can do more than I thought we could and my instructor at home will be so happy to hear that I have finally begun to figure this out…

Here, Finn does a few steps of Passage: fun and bouncy!

In this video, you’ll see and hear Alfredo instruct Carol in how to help me work with Finn on Piaffe.

Alfredo Hernandez Piaffe Clinic #2: Good Girrrrrrrrrrrrl

Alfredo is a character. Six feet or more of imposing Spanish presence, his english excellent but the accent strong (occasionally briefly incomprehensible with comic results). He has Personality  and Presence with a capital P. The horses stand up straighter when he comes nearer, and if they don’t, he makes sure they do and they don’t forget it. Justice is swift but very fair and clear.

My lesson began with work on the 20 m circle, collecting the horse, then letting him trot bigger. Most of the work was quite collected, as we were warming up and suppling the horse. Alfredo made the point that this is not the trot you would use in a show, but that it is an excellent training trot as it spares their legs the pounding of the bigger gaits, building strength in the topline and abdomen. Lots of transitions within the gait, shoulder-in for a quarter of the circle, then straight for a quarter of the circle, then shoulder-in again, etc. Occasionally when I got it right I got the praise of

“Good Girrrrrrrrrrl! Thas right! You got it!”

Then it was on to Piaffe! Anxiety kicked in. Would I do it wrong?  Would my horse freak out? Would I fall off? Would I cry and make Alfredo mad? Would I be able to earn a “Good Girrrrrrrrl?”

In the end, it was all pretty simple. Put the legs back a bit behind the girth, sit lightly and quietly, keep the horse on the aids. Alfredo taps him with the whip. BAM! LEAP! That’s not piaffe, that is an evil leap and buck! Wait a minute, Finn just objected to that big time. Kicking out, bucking, backing up. Stop, move him forward, do it again, and BAM! No, Finn, that is NOT the right response!

“You’re kiiiidding me,” exclaims Alfredo. “You’re kiiiidding me!” and keeps the pressure on, while I try to keep Finn in position, thinking to myself (sit deep, keep his head low, back up, legs back, don’t grip, don’t hang, relax – ha ha ha!), and then….

PIAFFE! My pony did Piaffe.

Good! Pat him and free walk. And Alfredo says,

“No, that was too easy. This pony has already been trained in this. It’s never that easy. But let’s do it again.” 

We did it again, and again a couple of times, and the pony has a pretty nice Piaffe. Turns out the former owner had done some Piaffe work, but hadn’t mentioned it. Yay, saves me some effort! So Finn knows how and he’s pretty good at it, too, once he gets over his initial objection to having to work that hard. He is, as Alfredo puts it, “a little Napoleon.”

And let me tell you, Piaffe is FUN. I want to do it again. Unfortunately, Finn and I don’t yet know how to do it without someone helping us by standing there with a long stick clucking and occasionally tapping. But give us time, we’ll get there. Piaffe shall be mine!

That piaffe stuff is hard work, mom!

That piaffe stuff is hard work, mom!

Alfredo Hernandez Piaffe Clinic # 1: Don’t let him see you cry

Recently I attended an Alfredo Hernandez passage/piaffe clinic. My pony Finn and I are training at 4th level/PSG and it seemed a good time to introduce a bit of piaffe. Not to mention I have always DREAMED of riding piaffe and I finally own a horse who maybe could do it. Let’s try it! So I signed up.

I asked my friend, who had been several times, what should I expect? What does he do? My friend is very no nonsense and an experienced horse woman whose horse is well on the road to doing piaffe and passage (yay!). She doesn’t mince words.

“First of all, he can’t remember your name so he calls everyone Princess or Gorgeous.”

I don’t mind that. I’m now at an age where it’s rather rare to be called gorgeous so I’ll take it when I can, even if it’s just because he can’t remember my name.

And if you’re scared, don’t tell him, because he’ll just laugh at you. Just deal with your fear. Don’t let him see you cry, because that just makes him mad,

she said, looking at me with a warning shake of her head.

Why would I cry?

“Well, a lot of these women have really big warmbloods that they’re kind of scared of already, and when they start training piaffe, the horse starts leaping around, rearing, or bucking, or backing up fast, and the women get terrified. Alfredo gets annoyed if you can’t just deal with it. It’s your job as the rider to deal with it, or you shouldn’t be there.

"Mom, why did you tape my tail up like this? It feels weird."

“Mom, why did you tape my tail up like this? It feels weird.”

Hmmm. True. But also making me a little nervous now. One of my riding goals is NOT-TO-FALL-OFF, and before you diehards scoff, when you get to a certain age, it’s a good goal to have. We don’t bounce like we used to. But the lure of Piaffe is strong, my trust in my pony is deep (most of the time), and so: off to the clinic! Did we piaffe? Read our next post to find out!