And so we come to the final part in this series, introducing the basics of in hand work.
Half steps are the beginning of the more advanced work, leading to the ultimate goal: the development of piaffe in hand.
Why do we want to teach half steps/piaffe in hand?
- Piaffe is the ultimate demand on a horse’s ability to carry weight on his hind legs (ignoring high school work such as levade, which is beyond the scope of the everyday horse and rider). It is possible to teach piaffe to any horse if you take sufficient time to build his strength and confidence.
- Half steps are the starting point, asking for short but active hindleg steps which teach your horse to
- close the hind leg forward, underneath himself
- bend the hind leg joints more actively
- lower the croup (weight carriage)
- Doing this in hand as opposed to under saddle is far easier on the horse’s joints and muscular strength, as he is carrying only his own body weight, and not that of a rider as well.
- As such, it can be used to not only strengthen him, but also to teach him what he may be doing under saddle at a later date.
- Half steps and piaffe can be done in hand with a much younger, or less strong, horse than should be attempted under saddle.
The same as for squaring the halt – bandaging the tail up is a great help, as is the addition of a second handler, particularly if your horse tends to either run a little forward, or swing his quarters to the side.
As ever, great care must be taken to always stand beyond the reach of his hind legs in case he should choose to kick out.
This exercise demands a little more of him than the earlier steps, and you may need to use a slightly firmer tap with the whip, which may well result in an irritable kick out until he understands what you are asking. If you are doing this with 2 people, the handler with the whip must take even greater care to stand outside of the range of his hind legs, because she will be positioned closer to the hindquarters than when performing this alone.
I cannot emphasise enough: stay out of his kicking range!
Half steps – what are they?
- In simple terms, half steps are a small, contained, but active jog.
- However, to be productive, correct, half steps, he must bring the hindlegs further forward underneath his body, and not just jog with the hindlegs out behind him, or moving them up and down without bringing them forward.
- Your goal is that his hocks move forward until they are on, or slightly in front of, a perpendicular line drawn through the point of buttock
- You are aiming to increase the speed with which he lifts each hind leg until he breaks from a walk sequence into a trot sequence, but without rushing forward.
Half steps – how to
- By now you will know the best place to touch your horse’s hind leg to get a quick response.
- Using the same technique as you did when asking him to square up his halts, now invite him to move slightly forward at the same time as asking him to lift each leg in turn by tapping his hind legs alternately. This timing takes practice, so don’t worry if you struggle with it to begin with.
- At first, be satisfied when he lifts each leg in response to the whip by moving it a little higher and/or more forward while remaining in walk.
- As always, be quick with your praise – confidence and curiosity to understand lie at the heart of the close interaction developed during in hand work
- Once he is comfortable with this first stage, then speed up your demand – tap him a bit quicker on alternate hindlegs to make him move each leg quicker.
- You may now need to employ more half halts on the reins, as the goal is not to break into a forward big trot! Keep the half halts quick but light – do not make a large tug on his bit: this will only frighten him and may send him into reverse.
- Keep increasing the speed demand until he gives you a couple of jog steps with his hind legs.
- Praise him!
- If, at this stage, he stays in walk with his front legs, that isn’t a problem. Once he starts to understand that you don’t want him to trot away, he will begin to pick up the rhythm in front as well.
- Eventually, these aids – half halts on the reins to keep him from running forward, and the tapping whip to speed his hind legs up into a trot rhythm – will produce the half steps. Developing this further will eventually lead to piaffe, but always remember to take enough time to develop his confidence and understanding, or you may find yourself being either kicked at, or towed around the arena at trot!
- Never be greedy – if he gives you a few nice steps, praise him and end the session. You can build up the number and frequency of steps once he truly understands what it is you are asking him to do.
Case Study #1
In this clip you can see me doing the first little half steps without assistance – much harder to keep the horse straight at the same time as reaching both hind legs with the whip! I also didn’t have his tail up in this video, and again, you can see how this interferes with the accuracy of whip use.
Case Study #2
This time, with two handlers (and the tail up), you can see how much easier it is for me to reach both hind legs. Note where I am positioned with the whip – well beyond his kicking range!
Case Study #3
Half steps on the long reins. With this horse, because he is tricky to keep straight, I find it easier when alone to work the half steps/piaffe on long reins, which is another alternative.
However, I DO NOT RECOMMEND you try this unless you are highly competent at long reining – things can go wrong a LOT more dramatically on long reins, and can become dangerous very quickly.
If you ARE competent and wish to try, please note where I am standing – once again, well beyond kicking range.
Another thing to note here is my use of the whip – through trial and error we have discovered with this individual horse, Alfie, that the best place to touch him is NOT on the hind leg, but on the top of his croup, and I use a short driving whip for this purpose, with a longer lash than the traditional in hand piaffe whip.
Case Study #4
Half steps under saddle.
Following on from the steps above, I would just like to show you how this can be translated into ridden half steps, on the journey towards piaffe.
Note: Alfie is now strong enough to be doing this work under saddle – he is currently working at Prix St. Georges level, although we began his in hand training when he was in Elementary.
You will see my ground helper (thank you Kimberley Battleday) using the same technique with the whip as we used in hand, while I add the aids I will eventually use in piaffe: a still seat in the saddle, legs drawn slightly back, and small, light, quick half halts on the reins. Because he understands what is being asked from the ground, he will soon associate my aids with this response.
Case Study #5
This clip shows Alfie taking his first half steps without ground assistance. I am using a long schooling whip with a leather flap on the end – the extra sound this makes helps motivate him!
I am using the whip on the top of his croup where, as described above, he is most sensitive to touch. This mimics the whip touch of the ground handler even when she is not there.
Going forward I will gradually reduce, and then eventually remove, the whip aid as he becomes accustomed to responding to my leg aids. He will achieve piaffe – forward travelling at first, and only later near the spot – when he is strong enough to manage more than a few steps of this extreme weight carriage. The rhythm in front and the uphill balance will also develop as he strengthens.
PLEASE NOTE how short I keep the sessions.
Obviously we will do several repeats during one training session, but the number of steps should be limited at this stage, so he doesn’t feel the work to be a strain on his joints and muscles, or become anxious because of the restraining nature of the (careful) rein aids.
My end goal with horse training is for my horse to enjoy the work right along with me, and to want to do it because he feels good in his mind and body. This can only be achieved with patience and time, and the gradual development of demands, which should only be increased when he is ready, both mentally and physically.
Always remember: your horse will be his own calendar – meaning that every horse will develop at his own rate, and you should never, ever, try to push his boundaries faster than he is able to comfortably cope with.
If in doubt, if he becomes confused, if he struggles or evades, take a step back to an earlier stage and reconfirm the simpler work before attempting to move forward again. This applies to all aspects of training – handling, in hand work, and ridden.
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