Better Pirouettes

Riding the Walk and Canter Pirouette

The pirouette has to be one of the most charismatic and challenging movements you can train your horse to do. When I began to study dressage I longed to ride the pirouette at canter; I assumed it was easier at walk and more difficult at canter, after all that is the order of difficulty in terms of test riding. Now I know that I was both right and wrong. It is easier for the horse to pirouette at walk, because there is no moment of suspension and not the same requirement to ‘sit’. It takes far longer to prepare the horse muscularly and mentally for the canter pirouette. But for the rider a pirouette at walk still has t’s challenges even when you have been riding them at canter for years. It is never a movement to underestimate in any gait.

The Pirouette is one of the movements where the direction of travel is to the interior of the bend. This means that you need to be sure that your horse understands that it should follow your weight as well as to move away from your leg. Differentiate consistently between a ‘foreleg button’ at the girth and a ‘hind leg button’ a couple of inches further back. This is important because you may need to send instructions to the shoulders in one moment and control the hind quarter a split second later. Your outside rein can be a very important part of indicating to the horse that you want to move into the pirouette. Sitting the hand towards, or even over, the wither is a good indication that you want the shoulders to move around. Using the Shoulder In to create and deepen your horse’s understanding will help a lot.

Being able to create collection, without compression or destroying the vivacity of the gait, is really important. Tempo control is vital to this. Long before you pirouette at any gait you need to be sure that you can work with maximal energy in a slow enough tempo to perform the exercise. Work that gait change on circles, straight lines and square voltes in preparation for training the pirouettes.

” The single most important factor that separates a good pirouette from a bad one is the quality of the gait you ride it in. “

Key ingredients of a good pirouette

  • The gait quality you begin with is maintained throughout – with regular tempo so keep your focus on activity but don’t hurry the horse.
  • The bend is even through the body of the horse. Look after the outside hind, because it often gets neglected, but generally think about riding both sides of your horse.
  • Each step has the same amount of crossing – think of even sized segments. Think of creating crisp, clear, expressive steps.
  • Hind legs step a little forward and around – not directly sideways. Make sure your outside leg is activating with the calf and not too heavy with the spur. It is very easy to create ‘lateral’ steps with too much prodding!

A note on rider position – staying in balance through the exercise will really help your horse to be expressive and confident. If your horse has a very high lift of the forehand (lucky you!) you will need to sit back a little more than if the canter is low. Beware of leaning forward as the forehand lifts because this will make the horse’s task more difficult. Unlike a Levade, where the angle between horse’s neck and rider’s upper body closes a little, the rider in the pirouette at canter is usually going to remain the same. You don’t increase the angle but as the horse raises the forehand you will feel as though you are further back. I was once asked to ride the pirouette with the back of my inside hand resting behind the saddle; this gave me a good appreciation of where my body needed to be in relation to the horse. One final point is not to look down into the middle of the pirouette, or down the shoulder of the horse; if you do it may lead to you leaning in and pushing the horse out of the exercise, think of stepping over the inside stirrup tread and keep the inside of your waist long.

Some common problems with walk and canter pirouettes

The horse roots it’s inside hind to the spot and ‘swivels’ around it – This is usually a problem to do with the quality of the gait. If you are losing animation in the gait it may help to make the base circle of the pirouette a bit bigger. I always tell students to begin thinking of the base circle being the size of a hula-hoop to start with and the size of a dinner plate in the end. It is far better to ride a pirouette that is on the large side than to end up with irregular footfalls and a loss of impulsion. Make sure you are not jamming the brakes on, your aid to assist with the collection should be momentary rather than continual. It is in between one aid and the next that the lightness and brilliance can be fully expressed. Ideally this moment of lightness and rider silence should happen as the outside fore leg is lifting and crossing. Don’t aid with the hand as the fore leg is advancing, let it go!

Head tilting – This is an issue that I call ‘banking’ because it reminds me of an aircraft that banks to turn. There are two principal causes of this and they are linked in most cases. First it often seems to happen when the bend is not even through the body and the horse bends too much at the base of the neck. The second cause, often linked to the first, is that the outside hind leg has lost activity. The common cause of these two problems is often loss of connection through the outside rein; when it disengages the outside hind deactivates and the inside rein becomes dominant by default and the horse often bends at the wither. Either way, the weight falls onto outside shoulder and the crossing becomes a struggle. If you notice that your horse’s inside ear has dipped then check your outside aids, rein and leg. Get the outside hind back on track and ensure that your outside rein is controlling the degree of neck bend.

Rearing around – This one is also linked to the quality of the gait and is similar to the issue of swivelling around on the inside hind, but this one manifests itself at canter. It is also sometimes a response to the disengaged outside hind leg. I have found this issue to be common in horses whose riders focus on riding very small pirouettes too early in training. It can be an excessive focus on getting the shoulders around at all costs; a kind of panic approach. If you chop the pirouette up into segments, riding crisp defined steps this is less likely to happen. 360 degrees, or even 180 degrees seems a long way to go but call that six, or three, big, clear canter steps and your horse’s shoulders will be round before you know it.

Scampering sideways – I hinted at this issue when I was talking about the key ingredients of a good pirouette but it deserves a little elaboration. One reason that this may happen is that many riders teach the pirouette from Travers, which is a time honoured and valid way to approach this movement. With Travers you have to be very careful that the outside leg aid is not too strong and this carries over into any pirouettes you prepare from Travers. Even at the most advanced level the inside hind is meant to travel forwards and around a tiny circle. If it goes too much sideways you are likely to get a comment about ‘lateralisation’ or ‘lateral steps’ and it will bring your mark down. More importantly it will put stresses on the inside hind leg joints that are not supposed to be there. The little forward jump of the inside hind is vital and forward riding off of the inside leg, even in the smallest pirouette, will be easier to accomplish if your outside leg is not too strong. Don’t make one leg fight the influence of the other.

Training exercise for teaching the canter pirouette – The Lozenge

To train the horse for the pirouette at canter requires a fairly high level of familiarity with the exercise; as always I would advise getting some experience of riding pirouettes on a trained horse under the eye of good coach. Make sure you have watched and preferably ridden open, easy working pirouettes as much as the finished, test ready article; they are all an important part of making this work successful. This particular exercise works for improving pirouettes in any gait once they are established but this version of the exercise is about progressing your horse’s understanding of the pirouette at canter.

Your lozenge can be situated anywhere in the arena, in a field or on a canter track. I tend to use a long diagonal line in an unfenced arena if possible. If you are in a fenced space or indoors you will need to avoid riding the end of the lozenge too close to the fence or wall because this can be inhibiting for the horse. The two long parallel lines of the lozenge lie equidistant from the long diagonal line. Joining these two parallel lines is a semi circle at each end.

Walk through the exercise with a walk pirouette at both ends. Repeat on both reins.

As you exit the walk pirouette strike off into collected canter, canter the line and include a few strides of the highest, bounciest, most collected canter you can do. Then walk as you approach the end of the lozenge, pirouette at walk and repeat. Ride this a few times on each rein.

Now we are going to abandon the walk pirouettes and set the parallel lines a bit further apart. This is to accommodate a semi circle large enough to ride Travers at canter. Strike off to canter and encourage the horse to be active but also to sit; some Shoulder In steps in may help. As you get close to the end of the line apply the aid for Travers and make some steps of Travers on the semi circle. It can still help to come back to walk and rebalance. For some horses a few walk steps prior to the Travers helps. Walk at the end of the line, strike off and take the horse into Travers on the semi circle. Again, repeat this to both sides.

The above exercises can keep you occupied for weeks, months, as long as it takes. The next step, when you feel ready, is the half working pirouette. I try to think of a complete working pirouette as happening around a base circle the size of a hula hoop, at the smallest. The size of this is dictated by your horse’s needs so be flexible in what you ask for.

“We want to encourage the horse to play with the idea of the pirouette, for it to be a fun game rather than a struggle.”

Use the long lines to make any kind of rebalancing you need, transitions, Shoulder In steps, bounce the canter almost in place; whatever works best for your horse. As you approach the end of the line look out of the corner of your inside eye for the line that will take you back in the direction. Still keep the idea of Travers position but focus on moving the shoulders around in three clear jumps. Walk and reward the horse for this effort. You will feel the intensity of the steps is greater than it was on the Travers semi circle. Ride walk, prepare and repeat.

When you can ride a working pirouette at both ends there are two directions to progress in. The first is to play around with the size of the pirouette and the other is to shorten the connecting lines progressively. When the two half pirouettes are very close to X and only separated by a couple of canter strides on the straight line it is a small step to riding a complete working pirouette.

To put the progression in perspective: a horse might begin learning the rudiments of big working pirouettes at six years old but it will not be making the kind of pirouettes we see in the classical academies or in Grand Prix tests until it has had a further four to six years of training. That is not how long it takes the horse to learn, it is how long it takes the horse’s body to develop enough suppleness and strength. When I say to play around with the size of the pirouette, bear in mind that on any given day a rider will make the easier working pirouettes with fully trained, strong horses too. Just because we can ride them small doesn’t mean we necessarily should do that all of the time. Certainly if there are issues with the quality it never hurts to enlarge the movement and improve it.

Training exercise for better pirouettes – The Sundial.

Think of a sundial with it’s many lines radiating from a central point. Now think about your pirouette having as many potential exit lines as there are steps. After every step you could ride forward along this exit line. However large or small your pirouette is, and in whatever gait you are riding it, you should be able to take a straight line out in good balance.

To begin with decide in advance how many pirouette steps you will ride before riding forward along the exit line. The test is that, if you don’t keep a good balance in the gait, if you allow the neck to break at the wither, if you don’t have both hind legs working optimally, then the canter on the exit line will be poor and so will the line. This exercise will keep you riding both sides of your horse and looking after the walk or the canter, ready to ride a really good line out of it. When you have worked with this for a while, get someone else to shout a number between one and six at random, as you ride into the pirouette. When you have worked with that for a while and feel comfortable with the demands of the exercise get them to simply shout ‘exit’ and you take a line from the next completed step; that is the most challenging form of the exercise.

I hope that you will find some of these observations useful and if you have any questions about the exercises please get in touch!

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