When done properly the “Turn on the Haunches” or “Pirouette” is one of the most effective gymnastic exercises for your horse that you can do. A correctly executed pirouette is a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of collection, impulsion, suppleness, strength and balance. In canter, it is one of the most physically demanding movements we can ask of our horse. It is a test of the rider’s ability to develop self-carriage and of a horse that is completely attentive and responsive to the aids.
The pirouette is a movement that fills many riders with awe and apprehension, a movement that too many feel is “not for me” because it is “beyond my abilities”. But as I mentioned in my introduction, it is a movement that has huge bio-mechanical benefits for your horse and whilst a perfectly performed canter pirouette may well be too advanced a movement at present, a walk passade is also extremely gymnastically valuable and can be learned relatively easily.
As with so many of the lateral movements there are a plethora of names to describe the same or similar exercise(s). Basically the “Turn on the Haunches in Motion” and “Passade” is one and the same, as is the “Turn on the Haunches” and “Pirouette”. In either of these exercises the horse is bent in the direction of travel and is expected to retain the rhythm of the gait with all 4 legs. Which means the inside hind leg has to keep moving. They therefore differ considerably to the Western “Spin” in which the horse just pivots around his inside hind leg. In a practical setting, such as bull fighting or herding cattle, pivoting is much faster. In fact prior to the 1850s a pirouette pivoted around the inside hind leg too, but as sword fighting became a thing of the past the pirouette evolved as bio-mechanically maintaining the footfall sequence is more beneficial.
Both the passade and pirouette are excellent exercises to improve your horse’s suppleness and mobility, help free his shoulders, engage the pelvis and hind legs, strengthen the abductor and adductor muscles and improve collection and uphill canter transitions! The only real difference between a passade and the pirouette is the size of the circle. When done properly, the passade is a very small turn in a quarter or half volte, with the hindquarters describing a smaller circle than the forehand.
It is a good idea to teach the passade on a slightly larger circle as if the circle is too small the hindquarters are apt to lose the rhythm or even come to a standstill. Probably the best place for your horse to learn the passade is in the corner of the arena, with the centre of the circle set some 3m to 5m behind the horse. When executed in the walk this is probably the easiest of the “side stepping while bending in the direction of travel” movements to learn and is a great preparation for renvers, travers, half pass and of course, the pirouette. You can make things considerably easier for both yourself and your horse if you teach the exercise on-line or in-hand first.
Before you can begin to teach the passade on-line you will need to have taught your horse the cue to move his outside shoulder and outside hind leg across with the stick. Once you have that cue firmly established, walk your horse round on a 10m volte in the corner of an arena. After passing the corner come to a stop at the 5m point. Stand just in front and slightly to the inside of your horse, with your toes pointing towards the horse’s hip (approximately 45°). Gently ask for flexion towards you. Start walking sideward and backwards around the arc towards the 5m point on the other side of the corner, drawing your horse’s chest towards your belly button. Ask for the shoulders and quarters to move as required by raising or pointing your stick. Look for just one step initially and reward. Then ask for 2 steps and reward. Allow a little forward drift to make things easier for your horse and to give him room to be able to cross his outside legs in front of his inside legs. In fact you may like to ask for one stop forward and one across initially as this helps to keep the horse active and the gait pure.
While executing a walk passade, the horse’s body should be bent in the direction of the turn from ears to tail, in a harmonious curve. It should not be over bent or crooked with the neck going in one direction and the quarters another. This means that your horse needs to be supple and his muscles elastic enough to accommodate the extending of his body on the outside of the bend and the contracting of his muscles on the inside of the bend.
If your horse is stiff and his muscles are not supple or his tendons and ligaments are tight, he will find it difficult to bend well longitudinally, flex the joints of his supporting inside hind or extend the joints of his outside hind leg to step over and around his inside hind leg. It is therefore important that you listen to your horse, are sympathetic to any difficulties he encounters and only ask for baby steps initially.
However, once both you and your horse find passade on-line in the corner easy on both reins it is time to try it in the saddle. At the 5m marker after the corner transfer your weight to the inside of your horse by rotating your pelvis. At the same time bring your outside shoulder a little forward. Your inside leg stays at the girth and keeps the inside hind leg active whilst your outside leg prevents the hindquarters from swinging out and supports the outside hind leg moving across. The inside rein leads the horse into the turn whilst the outside rein defines the position of the head and neck and asks for the horse’s shoulder to move over as does your outside knee. The inside rein aid should be the most passive. Break the movement down into tiny steps, and think inside calf to move forward, outside calf and hips to move the quarters across, then outside rein and knee to move the shoulders across. A little trick that can help us get into the correct position whilst we are learning to do the passade is to turn and look at the inside hind leg of our horse. By doing so, we rotate our body in the way it needs to rotate and lean in towards the turn. You see this slight tilt of the torso a lot with the Spanish and Portuguese riders although it tends to be frowned on in conventional circles.
Common rider faults consist of
- Using too much inside rein.
- Too much outside leg.
- Collapsing the inside hip.
- Wrong placement of weight (onto the outside of the bend).
These faults frequently happen together and may cause the horse to step backwards and flex incorrectly.
- Incorrect bend, invariably towards the stiffer side, which may well be caused by the horse not stepping forward enough with the inside hind leg.
- Going backwards. The passade increase the amount of weight that the inside hind leg has to carry, so the horse avoids this by stepping backwards. Alternatively this could be caused by the rider error of using too much rein.
- Throwing the haunches out against your outside leg. This tends to happen when the inside hind leg struggles to flex; as the leg straightens it throws the haunches out. Throwing the haunches out can also be caused by the rider turning their pelvis the wrong way, e. taking the outside hip forward and down rather than the inside hip.
- Pivoting on the inside hind leg, this normally happens because the inside hind braces against the flex/additional weight. Use your inside calf to establish a forward step, then ask for the quarters to move across, then ask the shoulders, then ask forward.
Once you have mastered the passade in the corner you can progress to passade along the long side of the school to change the rein. You want to aim for the passade to be performed in the same rhythm as was performed in the walk immediately prior to and after the turn.
As your passade develops you can reduce the size of the circle until you eventually perform a half pirouette.