The waspish ghosts of theological thinking.

Part IV

The Ghost Piaff

A proliferation of, almost piaff, first step of piaff, baby piaff, soon piaff, etc., are drowning youtube, and other social networks. The pictures illustrating these almost piaff, soon piaff, or fist step of piaff, are not piaff at all. They are taken during a up or down trot transition. One was even taken during a down transition from canter to trot. At the instant the picture is taken, the legs might look like being in the position of piaff but the kinematics of the vertebral column, the weight distribution and even the kinematics of the limbs in relation to the body do not match. Theses pictures are fakes. They illustrate what their author believe about the piaff but they show in reality a severe ignorance of the athletic demand of the piaff.

Some are showing a bamboo pole activating the forelegs. The FEI banned the bamboo pole decades ago from the jumping ring. Studies have since demonstrated that hitting the front legs, trainers were hitting the wrong end of the problem. Researches have demonstrated that faults of the forelegs originated in fact from insufficient propulsive activity of the hind legs in the early phase of the take off. Dusting off the bamboo pole from the attic, dressage trainers are showing the same ignorance. The elevation of the front leg results from the capacity of the hind legs to decelerates the horse’s body during the piaff avoiding forward shift of the weight over the forelegs. Perhaps a better use of the bamboo pole would be hitting the ghosts on the head.

Others are showing a horse with the forelegs so backward underneath the horse body that the kinematics of the forelegs is impossible. The most common mistake is the very intense engagement of the hind legs. People who are Piaff experts but never have educated a horse to the piaff believe that the hind legs are coming deeper under the horse’s body. This is a misconception and in fact would make it impossible for the horse to piaff. Others activate the hind legs with a dressage whip. In doing so, they stimulate a reflex that is contrary to the athletic demand of the piaff.

There is the ghost piaff and the real piaff. Here is a segment of the immersion program about forward movement, which approaches the piaff from the perspective of the horse physiology. During the Immersion program, this segment is illustrated by a video of a horse at the piaff. Slow motion and frame by frame sequences are underlining the explanations. The video also compares on the same screen the real piaff and the ghost piaff. We will not play this interesting sequence of the video because this is part of a research study and can be shown only for the purpose of education. We play instead a few steps of piaff executed by a horse educated in respect of actual knowledge of the equine physiology.

Here is the segment of the immersion program treating the concept of forward movement.

The best example is certainly the performance demanding the greatest control of power and balance, the piaff. During piaff, the hind leg on support greatly enhances body deceleration resisting forward displacement of the mass over the forelegs. “The hind legs have a considerable braking activity to avoid forward movement of the body over the forelegs. (...) The forelimbs have a larger propulsive activity.” (Eric Barrey, Sophie Biau, Locomotion of dressage horses. Conference on Equine Sports Medicine and Science, 2002)


Traditionally, piaff is asked by activating the hind legs with a dressage whip. The technique is hampering the horse’s ability to perform since it stimulates a reflex that is contrary to the execution of the performance. The whip increases the hind leg’s propulsive activity when the work of the hind legs is at the contrary, about decelerating the horse’s body keeping the weight off the forelegs.

As the horse performs the piaff, the supporting hind leg alights less forward under the horse’s body than during collected trot. The joints of the supporting hind leg flex during the first half of the stride, resisting forward displacement of the body over the forelegs. While the decelerating phase of the hind leg is largely increased in order to resist forward displacement of the body over the forelegs, the propulsive activity is markedly reduced. A vigorous hind leg extension would lift the croup which in turn would increase the load on the forelegs.

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” (Anna Freud) The mind of numerous horses trained with a dressage whip activating the hind legs is showing great creativity. Many horses find balance shifting the front limbs backward underneath themselves. In the position of a mountain goat on a mountain peak, the front limbs are unable to produce vertical impulse and the piaff quickly degenerates into a rhythmic walk where both, beauty and technical prowess are lost.

Here is a short segment of the video illustrating the discussion,      

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Jean Luc Cornille

Science Of Motion