July8collage.jpgEtienne Leroy introduced Zelador to the Spanish Walk and the piaffe this past winter. He returned to France April 29th and was back here in the middle of June for three days to work with Z and Z. During his first ride on Zelador he said, “Have you worked on the Spanish Walk and the piaffe?”

I replied, “No, I didn’t want to mess up. I only did the Spanish Walk once and there was that one half-hearted attempt at the piaffe.”

I don’t know how much of what I said was understood. My French and his English are neither of our strong suits. In fact, I was born many years before the words “French Immersion” were dreamed up. And, it’s my guess that if someone had said “French Immersion” in 1952, people would have wondered if someone from France had drowned.

When Etienne headed back to Europe I knew I’d better spend some time on the Spanish Walk and the piaffe. My first attempts had Zelador pawing the ground vigorously with one impressively raised leg. Obviously I was doing something WRONG. Perhaps too many signals at once. Most likely I’d slowed him down too much. He needed to WALK very slowly while performing the high leg raise. But we were stuck at a standstill… thus the pawing issue.

I had a few more things to think about in addition to “impulsion”. I knew I needed to cue with the opposite leg I wanted raised and that the hand on the leg-raising side was to be lifted. Probably the rest of my body should be relatively still, but I was guessing on that one.

I got him out of his pawing (he was thoroughly enjoying this new game) and decided I needed to introduce him and me to the Spanish Walk from the ground. The next time I led Zelador to the arena I whoaed him, then tapped in front of his left leg with the Guider Whip (soft green ball on the end of it) that I got from Allen Pogue. Zelador moved the foot…just a smidgeon. I said, “Good boy,” and we walked together in a big circle and stopped when we reached our original spot. I asked again with the Guider Whip and added, “Big Step.”

Well, he loved those words. That left front leg flew into the air. We walked, again, and after a few more “Big Step” repetitions we went on to other things. I was wondering why the words, “Big” and “Step” were such a hit with Zelador. Then I realized that “Big” was always associated with “Smile” and “Big Smile” invariably received a treat. The word “step” is used when I want “one” step. I indicate which foot I want moved and the direction of movement with the Guider Whip. Zelador has always enjoyed showing me that he understood where each of his feet are and that moving them is right up his alley.

After a few short sessions on the ground I tried saying “Big Step” in the saddle. He responded correctly and instantly. I’ve watched people schooling the Spanish Walk from the saddle and often a whip is used in front of the shoulder, aiming at the horse’s foot. I found out that this method helped create a BIG step. The work on the ground helped Zelador go from doing an occasional big step with only one foreleg (where my guider whip was) to step after alternating step with no whip for help.

I finally figured out just the right speed for our walk. I always said “Go Slow”, raised both hands slightly, sat in the saddle and alternated my leg pressure. After a few sessions all I needed to do was say, “Go Slow” and we were into the Spanish Walk. In fact, if I offered up any of the WALK cues he leapt (well, not exactly leapt, thank goodness!) at the opportunity to show off. I’d set him up for going laterally across the pole on the ground and he did the WALK.

(And I thought that I was totally aware of what my body was doing!) Obviously some movement I was making was being miss-interpreted. Or, could it be that Zelador was delighting in the Spanish Walk game?

Having these youngsters is very exciting. Together we’re developing the walk, trot, canter, leg yield, half-pass, pirouettes,… Each session with the horses teaches me…probably more than I realize.

Now onto the piaffe conundrum! Etienne had instructed me to bend my knees, thus placing my lower leg further back. I’m thinking this was to engage the hind end and perhaps be such a totally different aid that the horse felt it as a “call to attention” and would prepare for the piaffe. Etienne said, “Sit in the saddle and raise your hands slightly. You can move your reins slightly laterally to loosen up the shoulders.” Although Etienne directed me and Zelador into a lovely piaffe (for a four-year-old) while he was here, things didn’t go all that well with him back in France. It seemed that my piaffe cues were screaming for Zelador to do the biggest Spanish Walk in the world!

Time to think. I’d seen Etienne time and again move his hands left and right. As the training continued, the cue became invisible and the horse went from swaying to piaffing. I remembered one of the first times I was trying the piaffe on him with Etienne on the ground, helping. I inadvertently used my legs to push the horse. This brought a huge rebuke from the Frenchman. “That is not MY equitation! You are to sit quietly. Don’t push with your legs. Bend your knees. Raise your hands slightly. The reins are soft, a very light contact. Now, here’s the piaffe.” I wish I could have seen Zelador and me. I could only feel the lightness, the huge energy, the horse like a ball rolling into the piaffe and I was literally doing nothing. The horse knew from TRAINING what the cues meant. He didn’t need driving aids from me. He had the impulsion and energy to carry both of us. And if I had DRIVEN him I probably would have interfered and the piaffe would have disintegrated or become mundane.

Back to Zelador and our piaffe (minus Etienne!!!) My ride today provided a piece of the puzzle. I’d just finished the Spanish Walk and I started on the piaffe. I got a huge Spanish Walk. I slowed things down. Another Spanish Walk. I sat there, thinking. Then it HIT me. I was asking for the piaffe with the same cadence I used when I asked for the Spanish Walk. The two aren’t performed at the same speed. Sure, the piaffe doesn’t go forward, but that’s not because it’s done super slow like the WALK. Ah, HA!!!!

I placed Zelador along the wall, slowed down the walk, bent my knees, raised my hands slightly, sat in the saddle and rather quickly moved my hands back and forth over the withers. Zelador responded with the neatest, tiniest hint of a piaffe. Perfect! I dismounted and praised the daylights out of him.

As we left the arena, Zelador took the opportunity to inspect his new bridge and for once, he didn’t rearrange the polos decorating the sides!