(© Manolo Mendez and Caroline Larrouilh. First published Baroque Horse Magazine, July 31, 2013. Image Courtesy Manolo Mendez Dressage.)
How I Introduce the Walk Pirouette
To introduce the walk pirouette, several methods can be used.
Turn on the haunches: Some riders ask for a turn on the haunches and then make the turn smaller and smaller. Sometimes the term turn on the haunches is used to describe a pirouette. This is not quite correct. A turn on the haunches is different from a pirouette in two ways; it is asked for in a slowed medium walk instead of a collected walk, and the hind legs travel on a wider circle then what is required in a pirouette which requires the inside hind leg lifts and drops in the same footprint.
I do not use this approach because in my experience, teaching pirouette like this interferes with flexion and the correct bend of the whole horse’s body. The horse goes into the movement anticipating no flexion and they do not understand the bend we are now asking for to make the movement a correct pirouette. As a result, they tend to want to take over and struggle.
Haunches in: Pirouette can also be taught by asking for haunches in on a 10-meter circle. I do not use this approach because it is not appropriate for a young or inexperienced horse (below Medium/3rd level). They should not be expected to maintain flexion and bend on a 10 meter circle for so long. It is too small a circle and it is physically too demanding. This exercise can be adapted and used in increments that break up the 10-meter circle but it should only be used with a horse that has extensive experience doing lateral work, never with a young or inexperienced horse.
In all my training, I like to make the work very simple for my horse, and as easy physically as possible.
Travers: As a preparation for working on pirouettes, as previously mentioned, I make sure my horse is confirmed in his lateral work and travers in particular.
I like to use travers because it is an easy introduction for my horse to learn to move in the same direction as his body’s flexion and bend. I can ask for just a few steps in the beginning in walk, trot or canter without stressing him. This is a prelude to what we will ask for half-pass and pirouettes.
To ride travers, I bend my horse so that his forehand is on the track and his hindquarters are off the track, inside the arena. I position him so that his outside hind leg crosses over the inside hind leg and steps into the track of the inside fore leg. This increases the engagement of the inside hind leg so that its joints have to flex more deeply and carry more weight. With an inexperienced horse, I first ask for this movement as I turn into the corner, from the short to long side.
As he understands this work, I can ask my horse to do a few steps of travers, go straight and do a few more steps of travers again without needing a corner to set the movement up.
Beginning to Teach Pirouette
Once he is fluent in travers, I am ready to start working on my pirouettes.
One figure I like to use is a square with four square corners that I can turn into 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 or full pirouettes if I want to, or turn into a circle or ride simply as a corner, depending on how my horse feels. I use this square not only to teach the walk pirouette from scratch but also to retrain a horse who does not understand how to execute a correct pirouette but can do a bad one.
I begin by riding around the arena and warm up my horse. Then, in a good active–but not over-active–walk, as I turn onto the long side, I ask for a couple of steps of travers.
Then I go straight, then a couple of travers steps again until the next corner.
The travers helps prepare my horse for the pirouette as it improves the crossing of the outside hind leg and creates more engagement for the inside hind leg; it has to carry more weight and its joints have to flex more deeply.
I turn the corner onto the short side, walk straight and make a square corner right, walk straight, make another square corner to the right, go straight, slow down, turn right but I do not ask for a pirouette yet, I continue straight, and the next corner I slow down and ask for a quarter pirouette checking that the outside hind leg stepped under and over well. Then I go straight, do a square corner without asking for anything, then straight and at the next corner I ask again for a quarter pirouette.
I consider if my horse is listening to me. I go straight and ask for no pirouette and at the next corner, I ask for a half. I go back to the long wall and ask for travers at the walk, not too steep.
I vary the walk, sometime working walk, sometimes a more collected walk, I ask my horse to slow down and ask for a quarter pirouette again, then ask for a half pirouette.
I vary the size of the pirouettes I am asking for because I am training, not competing and I want to develop my horse’s suppleness, willingness and keep his attention. My pirouettes may be a bit bigger or smaller then 3 meters and I am not concerned about it. I am not drilling, I am suppling my horse.
I do not want my horse to anticipate and brace against what comes next. I am constantly listening to what his body is telling me. His ribs against my leg…are they stiff or supple? Is he struggling to bend or carry himself over his inside hind leg or is it easy for him? How does he feels in the contact? Is his mouth soft or is he locking his jaw and poll? If he tells me I am asking for too much bend for him today, I ask for less.
If my horse is finding the 1/4 and 1/2 pirouette easy, I ask for 3/4 and then a full pirouette. If I feel him struggle, I do not try to fix the pirouette while in it, I step out of it and go large, perhaps pick up the canter and work in a light seat forward, down and out to release and relax all his long muscles.
I may work on something else for the rest of the lesson – or come back to the pirouette after a while. Whatever I chose to do, I know I can go back to a square corner any time I want.
To ride a pirouette, if I am turning to the right, I sit in the middle of my horse but because my body mirrors that of my horse, my weight is slightly to the right, in the direction of travel, in the inside of the bend.
In this direction, my horse’s pivot leg is his right hind leg.
I keep my right leg closer to the girth to control my horse’s activity and bend. My left leg is slightly behind the girth to prevent his hindquarters from swinging out, encourage his outside hind leg to step in front and over the pivoting inside hind leg and to prevent his hindquarters from swinging out.
My legs pulsate, they do not kick or press hard, I sit without tension in my seat and all the way down to my heels.
My upper body is very slightly turned at the waist to reflect the bend in my horse’s body with my outside hand controlling how much bend in the neck my horse has while my inside right hand guides the horse in the direction of the turn with a light opening rein. My arms follow the movement of my horse’s neck and head in walk. My shoulders, arms and hands work together, and as my torso turns very slightly to accompany the turn of my horse’s shoulders, my own shoulders mirror his.
My outside rein is against my horse’s neck but it it is not short or tight, my outside rein is leading him in the turn but it is not long or loose. I keep a soft, accompanying contact.
As I go from a straight line in and out of the pirouette, I continue to follow my horse’s movement and I ride every stride of my horse’s walk.
Entering and exiting the pirouette is as important as the pirouette itself, especially exiting. It is important that I prepare my horse so that he goes from bend to straight without losing his rhythm, balance and activity.
Sometimes a horse will anticipate the end of the pirouette and step wide behind, trying to be done faster, it may rush or on the contrary, lose power – or it may lose its rhythm. If this happens, I check the size of my pirouette and the amount of bend I am asking for, it may be too small and steep for where my horse is at today.
I ride a larger pirouette and if that does not help, I go back to schooling 1/4 or 1/2 pirouettes and focusing on clear steps and balance, and then give I give my horse a break and try again another day.
Pirouettes are hard on the body, I do not want to teach my horse to dread them.
Sometimes, I see riders who become stuck and forget to ride the walk and follow it with their seat and hands. They stiffen and block the horse. These riders pull on the outside rein as a habit and pull on the inside rein to try to create the bend instead of using their seat and leg to channel the horse and position him properly. This creates a neck shape in effect instead of a true, harmonious bend from ears to tail. These riders sit to the outside of the turn with their torso and shoulders turned to the outside of the turn.
Sitting to the outside of the turn and using the seat and leg aids results in incorrect pirouettes that do not have enough or true bend.
If the rider is not using his legs properly to create and maintain the bend and impulsion, the horse loses energy and the pirouette just putters into nothing.
If a rider over bends the horse, he may also find it hard to get out of the pirouette in time. And/or, the rider may rush the pirouette which is very common. The horse spins in and out of the pirouettes and loses balance and self carriage
This creates confusion, fear and upset in horses which then have to be retrained, which takes even more effort and time and is not easy.
A learning rider can also get overwhelmed and become confused and upset when starting to learn how to ride a pirouette because of all the elements that have to come together: the pattern, the precision, the collection, the rhythm. The same advice for training the horse apply to the rider. Break the learning in small chunks, give yourself time, step away if you get frustrated and know that it takes a long time to perfect a good pirouette. Not days and weeks but months and years.
If a horse is properly prepared before beginning to work on pirouettes, and the work is introduced progressively, the rider will find it much easier to learn and teach his horse, and become ready to introduce the canter pirouette.
(Part III of this series, Introducing the Canter Pirouette coming soon!)
Manolo Mendez was the first Head Rider, and one of six founding members of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Based in Jerez, Spain, the school is one of the four classical schools which also include the Cadre Noir in Saumur, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art in Lisbon. A master horseman with over forty years of experience spanning classical dressage, doma vaquera and jumping, Manolo is dedicated to a soft, sympathetic and thorough training method which prepares horses physically and psychologically for each stage of training from training to Grand Prix and Haute Ecole. For more information and more articles visit: www.manolomendezdressage.com.