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Think big to perfect the pirouette

Sun, 15th Mar, 2015 -- Kerry Mack

Kerry Mack and Mayfield Pzazz ©Michelle TerlatoWE HAVE LOOKED at how you can train your horse to get the higher marks in the dressage ring. Now we will look at pirouettes. The principles of the training scale always apply: Rhythm, suppleness (including bend), contact, impulsion, straightness and collection are the six qualities we aspire to continually improve. Pirouettes require collection, the increased carrying of weight by the hind leg. Use the training scale as a checklist to determine if you are on the right track. Ensure that your walk or canter is for an 8 within the piroutte.

There are three parts to any pirouette – entry, turning and depart. The entry includes the preparation showing shortening and collection of the steps while maintaining integrity of the rhythm of the pace. The pirouette itself must still be in the correct rhythm, with bend and preferably even steps. The turning should be more at the beginning and less at the end, a bit like a teardrop so that the pirouette smoothly blends into the depart on the straight line. The rhythm and balance must be continuous in the depart and the horse becomes straight. The quarters must not lead going in or out. To get a high mark, all the components must be good, and fluent, not just the turning. Rhythm and tempo must be maintained.

Walk pirouettes are asked for as early as the five-year-old test and the elementary test, and are still asked for up to Prix St George. As the level gets higher, the degree of collection increases and the size of the circle gets smaller.

The quality of the walk is paramount and many tests have an extra mark for the walk itself.

When you start training in this movement, you should insist that the walk marches actively around. Keep the training pirouettes very big so the horse can keep the activity in the walk. Very big may mean 10-15 metres diameter. Do many repetitions of this so the horse really knows to keep the activity before you make the pirouette smaller. Don't be in a rush. Take a few weeks doing big training pirouettes, it will pay off. Nothing ruins your mark like losing the walk rhythm, nor grounding in the walk pirouettes. Only start to make the pirouette smaller by turning when he really is established in these big training pirouettes. Pay attention to the stablity of the contact. Have an even feel in the reins and think of him keeping a stable head position. There should be a positivity in the contact, that he still actively reaches for the bit as he turns.

Practise the preparation without the pirouette. Collect the walk. Keep it active. Shoulder fore position. Then straight. He mustn't think the preparation is the aid for the pirouette. Always start the actual pirouette with shoulder fore position. This takes 15 degrees out of your turn and ensures that the hindquarters don't lead. Remember that the reason it's a mortal sin for the quarters to lead is that this is a collected movement. The quarters must carry weight and the hocks must bend. If the quarters lead, they don't carry weight, which is why horses try to push the quarters in to evade carrying weight behind.

Young horses should stretch to the rein, in my opinion, but when you are doing these at PSG the walk steps are very short, the frame is short and the head and neck must stay up. Advanced horses should feel like the hind legs almost march on the spot, a little like piaffe steps with the hind leg. The hind leg stays quick. Your legs must keep his legs active. Use your legs alternately, left, right, so he understands it's still walk that you want, not both legs together, which he may interpret as a trot aid. The Inside leg controls the impulsion. The outside leg contrtols the turning, to some extent. Don’t take your outside leg too far back, remember that you dont want to push the quarters across, the shoulders must turn around the hind quarter, which march a small circle. You control the turning mostly with the outside rein. If he turns too fast, correct this by taking both hands to the outside. If he turns too slowly, use more outside rein. This will restrain the forward movement and should get him turning faster.

Use you eyes to help the turn by looking where you are going. Look over your shoulder. Take your chin over your shoulder. This will put weight into your inside hip where you want it and ensure you don't sit to the outside as you use your outside leg. He can't step into a left turn if you are sitting to the right. Think about how you would balance if you were giving a child a piggyback ride. If the child sits to the left, you will step under him to the left. Jumping riders all learn to use their eyes to turn but dressage riders tend to look down instead. Look up. Look where you want to go.

The walk pirouettes also prepare for the canter pirouettes and, of course, the principles are the same. First, ensure he can balance in the very short active canter required for the pirouette. Practise transitions on the straight line and in shoulder fore position in and out of the pirouette canter. Practise very small circles in an active jumping canter so he learns to turn and stay balanced. Then you can do a square with a quarter pirouettes at each corner. Start with a square that is big enough to use the straight line to get the canter straight and jumping. As he gets more experience, make the square smaller so he has less steps to rebalance the canter and be straight. I particularly like this exercise. Part of your mark in the pirouette is the depart, coming out of the pirouette. He mustn't surge out but rather keep his balance and come out straight, all the time allowing the steps to get longer but staying collected, weight on the hind leg. Of course, in the Grand Prix, the canter pirouettes are on the centre line, so the depart is very important and any crookedness is very obvious. The square exercise allows a lot of practice entering and departing from the pirouette. It also helps him to learn to wait for instructions, not just anticipate the whole pirouette and spin around. In the square there will only be three, possibly four, steps turning. When he comes in very balanced with small collected canter steps, you can turn the pirouette steps more and make the corner small. But if the canter steps are longer, the pirouette and the corner must be bigger. The pirouette can only be small if the canter steps are small.

Large training pirouettes can be 10-15 metres. Vary the size of the steps while keeping the same angle and bend. Use the inside leg to make the canter bigger and smaller. The outside leg controls the angle. Soft inside rein allows the inside hind leg to come up and the outside rein keeps restraining the energy and rocking weight into the hind leg, controlling the turning. If his head bobs you need more energy in the canter, more leg. If there is unsteadiness in the contact, press his hind legs up towards the bit. This takes the gap out of the contact. 

To get the highest marks in the ring you must train your horse so that you can control the pirouettes, the size, the speed, the frame, the bend etc. To be in control you must be able to vary these things. He must not think “oh, I know what you want” and take over and spin around. He must wait. Vary the size of the circle, vary the size of the steps, vary the angle. Go from the pirouette onto the small circle and back. If the canter threatens to become sluggish, refresh him by riding forwards. You will do this often with a lazy horse.

All these exercises help to develop your horse's balance and his submission. They make him rideable, and give you the possibility to make corrections in the test. You may need to correct over-rotation by making the pirouette a bit bigger, or correct a lack of impulsion on by making him quicker, even within the pirouette.  He must allow you to ride each step, not just get into the pirouette and take charge himself.

Have fun playing with these exercises. You will find that you don't need to do completed pirouettes all that much in your training or warm-up, just ensure that you have all the possibilities..

Kerry Mack and Mayfield Pzazz ©Michelle Terlato