Equitation/Chapter 28

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CHAPTER XXVIII
THE PIAFFER

ANOTHER of the low airs is the piaffer, in which the horse trots, with perfect motion of its diagonal bipeds alternately, yet without progress in any direction. The piaffer is, then, one stage beyond the passage, since it presupposes an even more perfect state of equilibrium and a still further development of the horse's muscular strength. All masters regard the piaffer as the foundation, the sine qua non, of the whole scientific equitation.

There are, however, two sorts of piaffer, the slow and the quick. There is also still another kind, that exhibited by a horse which, through excitement, excess of energy, or nervous temperament, cannot stand still. If, then, the rider does not permit the animal to go forward, it prances impatiently on the same spot. Such a mount is annoying and even dangerous to an inexperienced horseman; so that the fault needs to be corrected by a moderate and progressive training, in which the chief difficulty is to stop the creature and to keep it still.

Both the quick and the slow piaffers are recognized by the scientific equitation. They are, indeed, closely related. The quick piaffer, as its name suggests, has the more rapid tempo. It is also commonly the more easily obtained, since it needs less energy on the part of the horse and less tact on the part of the rider. Notice that, although I say less tact, the tact must nevertheless be of a high order.

The slow piaffer is rarely seen. Baucher, Fillis, and myself have obtained it from a limited number of horses, each of which has left a name in the countries where it has been shown. Even the quick piaffer, though attained by a greater number of animals, is no ordinary feat of horsemanship.

It would take volumes to describe and explain the machines, straps, pillars, and other instruments, more or less complicated, which have been employed to obtain an action so agreeable, so elegant, and so difficult as the quick piaffer, and to set forth the theories of able masters with regard to it. But to obtain the slow piaffer, what study is needed, what labor without end ! It is the dream which few, very few, masters have realized.

From Xenophon to Pluvinel, horsemen have sought the rassemble or assemblage. In Pluvinel's time the pillars were used to obtain this state; and as master has succeeded master, some horses have come to the piaffer by this and other mechanical means. Even to-day the pillars are still employed in the military riding-schools of the nations of the world, always for the same reason and to the same effect. Results are uncertain or negative. Brilliant as the outcome may sometimes be, all the evidence goes to show that they are seldom enough anything of the sort. The scientific equitation cannot consider, teach, or admit any such devices.

The quick piaffer has the cadence of the trot, but the movements are rapid, and the action not high. To obtain this type of piaffer, the horse is first brought to the most complete possible state of equilibrium and kept in this condition at the manege walk. The rider then makes repeated attacks with the spurs, first with one, then with the other, in diagonal, at a tempo faster than for the passage and comparable to that of quarter-notes in music. At each attack the spur touches the flank near the girth, while the leg still maintains its pressure, and then moves away no more than the twelfth of an inch.

In the meantime, the rider, by the accuracy of his seat, helped by his fingering on the bridle, receives the excess of action given by the spurs, and holds the center of this action at the center of gravity. He should, thereupon, feel the hind limbs rise and fall alternately, a little in front of the perpendicular. If the hind legs are too far in front of the perpendicular, the horse cannot continue to move, except by contracting the two vasti muscles and rearing high. If when the horse rears, the rider instantly pushes it forward by leaning sharply to the front, the horse will leap. But if the rider does not immediately check the rearing, the horse will fall backward at once or paw the air with its front feet and then perhaps fall. But so long as the rider feels by way of his seat the action of the hind legs, everything is right for a beginning. One must be careful at this stage not to keep the horse too long at the exercise. Five or six repetitions are sufficient.

As for the fingering of the hand on the reins, this has to meet three conditions. The fingers should close on the reins in the same tempo with the diagonal effect of the legs, and should be proportioned to the cadence and strength of these. The fingering must allow the center of gravity, so to say, to filter imperceptibly to the front side of the medial plane, and not under any condition let it get behind this position. A fortiori the fingering must maintain always the assemblage, collection, and equilibrium.

As soon, therefore, as any derangement of these conditions appears, no matter how slight, all diagonal effect must stop instantly, and the horse be sent forward with decision and energy. After a few forward steps, the horse is once more brought to a stand, its calmness reestablished, the equilibrium once more obtained, and the piaffer again asked. As a general principle, every execution of the piaffer, no matter what the stage of progress, should be followed by at least one or two steps forward. Otherwise, the horse would get into the way of stopping with its legs inside the perpendicular, and this, with time and habit, would create the acculer.

When the piaffer is first obtained, no one can prophesy how it will develop. It nearly always begins as the quick form; and with this, at first, the

Figure 34. PIAFFER: RIGHT DIAGONAL
Figure 35. PIAFFER : LEFT DIAGONAL

trainer should be satisfied. He should then proceed, by calmness, moderation, and equestrian tact, to regulate and to establish the rhythm and cadence of each diagonal stride, their height and tempo. With time and moderation, the horse, more or less excited at the beginning, will calm itself, will understand better the cadence demanded by the esquire, and with the habit of calmness will respond to the timing of the effects of hands and legs. Then, by diminishing little by little the rapidity of the step, the horse is finally brought to the slow piaffer, the only really perfect and scientific form.

The slow piaffer is the poetry of action of the horse in motion and is admitted by all schools to be the crown of the scientific equitation. Baucher, Fillis, and I employ the quick piaffer only as a means of obtaining the slow, since we consider this to be the only difficult and desirable form. The two grand masters regard the slow piaffer as the absolute proof of the state of equilibrium in motion, and therefore as the most difficult of the low airs. I too accept the slow piaffer as the proof of equilibrium in motion, but I also employ it as a part of my system of physical culture, to develop the muscles of the horse's back, loins, and haunches. (Figures 34, 35.)

Baucher and Fillis, as I have already explained, do not attempt the piaffer with their horses until the diagonal effect is well understood, as in the Spanish walk, Spanish trot, and passage. Baucher, at the beginning of the training, works his horses for a considerable time on foot, with the whip. All this greatly aids the animals in understanding the movements of the piaffer. Fillis works his horses on foot very much less than Baucher, but has already trained them in diagonal movements before he asks the piaffer. Both, for a horse to be taught the piaffer, select with the greatest care an animal that has, to start with, the required conformation, strength, and soundness, with the moral and physical qualities that give action and energy. And since the horse which has these qualities sustains the state of equilibrium a great deal better than does one of inferior grade, such an animal has really a value equivalent to the time and effort needed to secure the degree of education proved by the slow piaffer. I, on the other hand, do not trouble myself over the choice of a horse. The more inferior it is, the more faulty its conformation, the more interesting becomes its education. The more difficult the work, the more the fun of doing it.

Both Baucher and Fillis have had some violent fights with their horses. They put a young beginner in the saddle to hold the reins, while they, beside the horse on foot, direct its movements with small or long whips. I work very little on foot. I never, or rarely, use a whip. I do all the work myself; and I very seldom, when mounted, have a quarrel with my horse or an act of defense from it. Six months after I begin training, the horse has already ceased to be the caricature which I bought. I explain these points, not to dwell upon my own ideas, but to aid the reader in understanding the different procedures of the different grand masters which I shall now discuss.

The difference between the quick piaffer and the slow is that in the quick piaffer the horse's legs, acting in diagonal, fall more quickly to the ground under the pull of gravity. But in any case, the two diagonal legs which support the body are acting only during the time during which the other two are in the air. Evidently, then, if two diagonal members remain longer upon the ground, the other two will have to stay longer in the air, and vice versa.

Now the question is, which requires the greater effort on the part of the horse, to keep its body balanced for the longer time on two feet, or to hold two legs off the ground and flexed?

But the shorter the time the feet remain in the air, the more rapid is the action, as in the quick piaffer. On the other hand, the slower the action, the greater the loss of the original upward impulse. The more powerful, therefore, must be the muscular contraction and the more accurate the equilibrium. Evidently, then, the horse needs more energy for the slow piaffer than for the quick; and more for the quick piaffer than for the passage, trot, or gallop, since in these last the animal, is helped by its own forward motion. Baucher and Fillis put their horses at the passage, and then, by altering the tempo of their attacks in diagonal, they slackened still further the already slow speed of that air. After a time, the horse would continue the cadence of the passage, but without advancing. Then they had the slow piaffer. Given the qualities of their horses, this was a rational method. But even so, there always came a time of defenses, fights, revolts. If I employed this method with the kind of horses that I train, I should kill the animals before they developed the strength of muscle needed for the slow piaffer!

I hold that it is no special obstacle to the piaffer if the horse's neck and legs are a little stiff, provided always that they are strong enough to serve as supports, two at a time. Where, then, is the great center of development of the forces which keep the whole inert weight balanced on two legs, keep the balance, and return two feet to the ground and raise the other two, without advancing or backing? I answer, at the coupling, the sacrum, the ilium, the pelvis, for the rear half of the body; and at the thorax for the front half.

Twenty years ago, E. L. Anderson, in his Modern Horsemanship, wrote: "Master H. L. de Bussigny professes that all the resistance of the horse is located in the posterior half of the horse; he is in contradiction with all the other masters, who find the center of resistance in the neck." I regard the iliac region, from the last lumbar vertebra to the end of the sacrum, as the point of union of the fore hand with the hind hand. Here is the junction of these two parts, where they are united by the muscles. If there were not this union, if the volitional impulse came as far as the last dorsal vertebra and there stopped, quadrupedal locomotion would be quite impossible.

All this is assuming that the horse is free from any human interference. But if the horse's spine is carrying a load, we cannot neglect the influence of this weight upon the two parts of the body, which are, by instinct, a unit and under the same acts of will. Their point of union, in my opinion, is this centrifugal region where the forces are assembled. It is like the mechanical coupling which unites the locomotive to the loaded cars behind it. At this point all the pull of the engine is concentrated against the weight opposed to it. If the cars were not loaded, the coupling between the locomotive and the first car would not need to be so strong.

If a horse, when running or jumping, is watched during a fall, it is easy to discover that the forward part of the body gives way first. This is because the hind legs do not come forward in time to act their part as supports. But the hind legs, of themselves, have no power to come forward below the center of gravity. The failure is in the loins, the back, which have not pulled the legs forward in time to lend their support, and thus to prevent the fall of the whole body. Or note how an athlete does a somersault. He leaps into the air, and then, solely by the action of his loins, he turns his feet up and his head down, and then alights upon his feet. Or suppose a man is running and falls. If, as he fell, he could bring his loins into action sufficiently to bring his legs under him, the fall would not occur.

I have dwelt long on this topic of strength of loins in the saddle horse, because it is my thoroughgoing conviction that the various schools of equitation have emphasized overmuch the correctness of movements of the horse's limbs, to the complete neglect of the muscular development of the coupling, a matter which, in fact, they do not even mention. It is to develop this part of the horse's body that I employ the two piaffers, and especially the slow one, just as soon as my mount has attained to a muscular strength sufficient to begin a movement needing so much power at the loins.

I have asked and obtained the slow piaffer by the methods of Baucher and Fillis; but I have always found that this procedure results in great exertion, great fatigue, and very often irritation and incipient stages of revolt. To obviate these drawbacks, I have developed a procedure which has never failed to secure the result at which I aim.

I do not attempt the piaffer until my horse is at the state of perfect equilibrium during all the movements of the progression up to this stage, and is complete as a park hack. Then I commence the slow piaffer. I prefer to begin this late in the autumn, so as to have a whole winter before me.

First of all, I perfect the manege walk to the point where I can myself determine on which diagonal biped the horse shall start. When I am complete master of either diagonal biped, I begin to carry my horse backward, with the same cadence and tempo. I execute six steps forward and six backward. Then I interpolate a slow trot, which I call the recreation trot, and begin again. I keep my horse always straight, and I take special pains to have the strides of the two diagonal bipeds supple and precisely alike. I realize that my horse will need a great muscular development in order to gain in height what he loses in motion forward. Therefore, I use great moderation, and give a large amount of recreative exercise.

After several days, if the work is well done, it becomes apparent that each diagonal biped is staying in the air a slightly longer time than before. At this point, I need to hold on to myself, and to temper my impatience to begin the tempo of the trot. But I continue, I favor, I protect, I recompense, more and more and patiently.

The time comes, always and quite soon, that the horse walks step by step, so slowly that each diagonal biped, in cadence, stays in the air a longer or shorter time. When this habit is completely fixed, I stop the horse and attack him very gently so that he merely feels the pressure of my spurs. When the horse knows that I have the spurs ready at my disposal, I put him at the manege walk, at the slowest possible gait, step by step. Then I begin to activate the entire mechanism, but not by any quicker action of my legs or fingers. I keep the same tempo, with an even more accurately measured power of my effects, and I incline my body slightly forward, so as to shift the center of gravity and lighten the loins. At the slightest disorder, I stop everything, reestablish calm, and begin again.

It is very seldom that I have to start over more than three times before I obtain one or two movements of the loins. For the rider who has not had the experience, it is a strange sensation that he now receives through the seat. As the horse flexes its haunches and hocks below its pelvis, one feels as if the horse were on the point of kicking, first with one leg and then with the other. It is really nothing of that sort. It is simply the first of the two indications that the croup is lifting higher. If, after this first manifestation, you know how to recompense, to calm, and to rest, it becomes easy to secure two or four or six. Do not accept an odd number of actions, because this will tend to make the horse unequal, with one side more indolent or backward than the other.

The rest is easy, merely a question of time, progression, and moderation, in order for the horse to develop the necessary strength. The slower the action, the more difficult and the more brilliant, so long as the horse does not move either forward or backward.

When the slow piaffer begins to be understood, I prepare myself, and at each repetition of very delicate attacks well cadenced, and in the tempo of each step, I lift my hand a little higher, make my fingering more pronounced and precise, and raise the four legs higher and higher, two by two in diagonal. I caress all the body of the horse a great deal, speak to it in an amiable and encouraging voice, and make my horse like the lesson.

Last of all, I complete the training by shifting my own weight from haunch to haunch, without apparent movement of the upper part of my body, or of my hand, arms, thighs, or legs. At first this shifting of my weight from side to side appears to have no effect. Well, then, I begin the slow piaffer by means of my hands and legs; but when the movement is under way, I cease the effect of hands and legs, and begin the balancing on my seat. I have to try several times; and then success is assured.

After each exercise in the time of the piaffer, I carry my horse forward a few steps, bring him to rest, and either abandon him, or let him be free to stretch his spine and neck.

In brief, then, calculate accurately your effects, develop your equestrian tact, keep in your mind the principles which I have always had before me, my deus ex machina. Labor improbus omnia vincit, and you will have won the ne plus ultra of the scientific equitation, the slow piaffer.

My own horse, " Why-Not," does the slow piaffer at the cadence of the walk, without advancing. But the taller a horse is, the more difficult is the slow piaffer for the horse to execute and for the rider to obtain.

As for the pillars, by means of these a horse can be trained to any sort of trick, to kneel down, to extend the legs, to lie down, and the like. But since these tricks are not recognized by the reasoned equitation, there is no need to touch upon them. It is only to obtain the piaffer that the new school admits the use of the pillars, copying in this the principles of the old school.

The horse is put in the pillars, and by means of the whip, is taught to raise and keep up one leg after the other, beginning with the fore limbs. By touching the chest with the whip, alternately on the right and left sides, the horse will very soon learn to raise his fore feet, by flexing his legs at the knees, first at the walk and then at the trot, as the whip is applied more rapidly.

When this movement is obtained from the front legs, the trainer operates in the same way with the hind legs.

This done, the problem is to get all four legs to act together in diagonal. Repeated touches of the whip upon the haunches, given in the cadence of the movement, tend to make the horse go forward. But since cavesson and reins prevent this, the horse becomes more or less excited, and begins to move in diagonal, up and down on the same spot. At this point the trainer stops the horse, caresses him, and begins again.

It must be evident that, by this method, it is not possible to obtain the slow piaffer at the beginning. The first result is always the quick form. This, however, the trainer slows down by calmness and by spacing the touches of the whip farther and farther apart. Weights or bells may be attached at the pasterns to encourage the horse to carry his knees higher and higher.

There has also been invented, I think by Hanhauser, a special harness for the purpose of obtaining the movement in diagonal. A heavily padded strap is fastened to each pastern, and each pair of straps in diagonal, is buckled to the two ends of a rope. These ropes, in their turn, pass through a pulley which is fastened to a strong surcingle so that it comes close to the body at the middle of the lower side of the chest. The ropes are rather tight, so that, when the horse lifts, for example, its right front foot, the pull comes against the left rear one. Since, in addition, the horse is fixed fast in the pillars, there is nothing it can do except to go up and down in diagonal on the same spot. But the piaffer of horses trained by such mechanical methods is never elegant, supple, or brilliant. It suggests the manequins of Mme. Tussaud.