The pirouette is an age-old movement that has been in the horse riding profession for hundreds of years, if not more.

They are performed firstly in walk, then a couple of years later in canter, and again years later can also be done in piaffe.

It’s the smallest circle a horse can do still maintaining the same rhythm (in canter = 3 beat + moment of suspension) and tempo (timing/beats per minute) as the remainder of the collected walk or canter (or collected walk for walk pirouettes or trot in piaffe).

The FEI Rules & Judging

It is important to read the FEI rules to see a great picture/diagram of the way that it is to be ridden/judged:   (search for pirouette)

So…when you’re judging, you’re best to really watch the inside hind foot on the ground. You can still see “out of the corner of your eye” all the remainder: on the bit, light contact, poll high, bend of the ribs, bend of the stifles, hocks & fetlocks. If the inside hind marks time perfectly on the spot, then I bet the rest of the horse must have been pretty fantastic to really pull that off!

In the meantime we see…

Major Faults:

  • When a normal circle gets that small the horse normally will cross their back legs to avoid engagement (“sitting”) and just cross their back legs and swing their hind quarters to the outside of the circle – and is highly marked down
  • A pirouette is a jumping, active movement in which the inside hind “marks time”.  A grinding inside hind foot is badly  marked down (normally the circle/pirouette was too small too early)
  • Stepping back (too heavy in the hand/reins)
  • Swinging/stepping out (travers probably not established)
  • Crossing over back legs (too much inside rein)
  • Any kind of major resistance (overfaced)
  • Major loss of speed. (Not really ready for this level – needs more extension and collection transitions)
  • Poll not the highest point (rider’s hands)
  • Lost bend (inside leg too far back, or outside leg too strong, or one elbow/shoulder dropped, leaning in, or outside toe turned out)

Minor Faults:

  • One or two forward steps are allowed at the early stages to encourage the forward thinking of the horse.  Also, larger “turns on the haunches” are encouraged for the younger horse before performing the movement more or less on the spot, and early on if the circle is large, it should not be harshly marked down in the earlier levels.
  • Losing speed a little, coming slightly above the bit, slight confusion or loss of balance. If the problem is not major, then only a few points will be lost.
  • In canter the horse should do 3-4 strides in a half pirouette and 6 to 8 strides in a full pirouette, but I think most judges would forgive a slight variance if the rest of the horse was performing the movement well. There are a lot worse faults than that!

Pirouettes -vs- Reining Spins

Pirouettes have bend – reining spins are straight

There are 2 movements that are similar – the reining spin, and the dressage pirouette. One of the major differences is BEND.  The pirouette has bend, one of the reasons why it isn’t done early in the horse’s training as the horse would not have the muscle development to be able to perform the movement.

 As this is an old military movement, the bend was added for one major reason: to slow down the reining spin to get more control in a military battle. We’ve kept the bend in for the added value of lengthening the outside of the horse for extension.

Just imagine going down a trail, and suddenly coming to the end, or in war having your comrades on the ground, and wanting to turn the horse on the smallest circle possible, but not with speed, but with the collection and bend that will slow the horse down to give you more control. Sitting the horse “down” on a really bent hock helps you turn quickly & lighly getting out of the way of the battle, but still with more control than the reining spin.

In saying that… now, hundreds of years later, we ask that it be performaed at exactly the same speed as the other walk, trot & canter.   However, in Hillary Clayton’s study she found that “… the canter pirouette strides did not maintain the rhythm and timing of the the collected canter strides in any of the 11 horses [studied]”.  This is why a mark of 10 is rarely given, as the no 1. thing the judge is judging is REGULARITY, and unless the speed is identical to the remainder of the pace, they cannot receive a 10.

The International Society of Rider Biomechanics concur with their study showing massive changes in speed between pirouettes and the actual walk – trot – canter.

Pivoting Inside Hind:

Pirouette:  The pirouette is a “jumping” movement. The inside hind jumps around the smallest circle possible, it marks time and does not grind or pivot on the ground.

Reining Spin:  The reining spin plants the inside hind foot hard on the ground, and the horse pivots and spins as fast as possible around it.

How it’s done: SECRET of the MASTERS

Bearing in mind that “the aids must be invisible”, and “without apparent effort”, and “there shall always be harmonious co-operation between horse and rider”, this is how to get the world’s easiest pirouettes:

STEP ONE:  START IN TRAVERS (quarters in).

To get the horse’s REAR end around the tiny little circle is the question. We therefore start with bringing the quarters in, and THEN bringing the shoulders around them.

Travers (or quarters in) is when the ears are straight down the track,  the two front feet point straight down the track, and the horse brings its quarters in off the track.

Here’s how we start IN WALK:

      1. WHAT IS TRAVERS FOR?  The purpose of the travers is to get the bend, the stretching of the outside of the horse, ultimately to help with extensions. Every time the horse brings his quarters in off the track, but keeps the ears and front feet straight on the track, the horse is “opening” its outside armpit and ribs, and stretching the hip away from the shoulder – the ultimate stretch the horse needs for extension – and a great start for pirouettes.
      2. LEG YEILD. One of the major faults  In travers is that the horse looks outside of the arena. They might bring the quarters in OK (in fact even more than is required), but if they’re looking outside the arena, then the horse is pretty much straight, instead of getting that lovely bend/stretch we’re after. We call that straight movement leg yield and it is not performed like that in any test.
      3. EARS.  To make sure the ears are straight and not pointing out of the arena, I play a game of “hide the ears”.  I stand behind the horse on the track and get them to walk away from me, telling the rider that I don’t want to see the ears.  During this movement to keep those ears straight, the rider might need a bit more inside rein, and the indirect rein of opposition (or inside hand towards your belly button) is probably the most successful at keeping the ears straight.
      4. LOOK TO THE OUTSIDE: Standing behind the rider as the rider walks away from me, I ask the rider to keep the ears straight, but turn around to the OUTSIDE of the arena and look at me.
      5. WHAT YOU CAN SEE FROM THE BACK: While standing behind a rider, you probably can’t see the two front legs, as they’re hidden by the two back legs.  As the rider looks around to the outside, and ultimately look at me behind them, the quarters will probably come in, and the outside front foot becomes visible.
      6. WHAT YOU CAN SEE FROM THE FRONT: If the rider is heading toward you, the back legs are normally hidden by the front legs. As the rider looks to the outside, keeping the ears dead straight, then you can suddenly see the horse’s inside hind.

STEP TWO:  NECK REIN (like a cowboy – only with 2 hands!)

Once you’ve got the travers established.  We forget that for a moment to practice neck rein…

      1. NECK REIN LIKE A COWBOY (but with two hands): Go down the long side, and simply neck rein across the school. Without a neck rein, a pirouette is virtually impossible to do with bend. If you just kick the horse around the circle with your outside leg, you’ll lose the bend.
      2. I do this several times until the rider gets used to a “two handed neck-rein”. I only do a 90 degree turn.  I do not completely turn around and go the other way, as it’s too risky – so many problems can occur: swinging out, crossing over, stepping back or behind the vertical/not poll high. We only do the QUARTER turn to start.

STEP THREE:  Travers+Neck Rein around a square

      1. Once we have the two movements practiced, traver and neck rein, we then put them together.  Starting with a travers on the long side, as soon as you feel the quarters come in, then neck rein across the school in a quarter turn.
      2. Then we do it on a big huge square doing travers, then neck rein around each corner.
      3. The square then gets smaller over weeks or months until it is nearly on the spot. We don’t do it on the spot for quite a while for fear of all the major faults above.


      1. Don’t do travers  too often. Horses love going quarters in, and they can get “stuck” in quarters in forever
      2. Travers is never done in canter. Otherwise your canter will stay crooked forever. If they’re ready for more angle, and for canter we take it across the diagonal and call it half pass so the horse doesn’t get used to cantering quarters in and staying that way forever.
      3. Don’t do pirouettes too often, especially with young horses, and especially in canter. It really is terribly bad for the stifle if you do. Often a reason why dressage hocks and stifles are injected!
      4. Don’t do too much angle in travers. You don’t need to do a massive amount every day, just a little bit is fine.
Latest Articles

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Loved your article! Reining horses are not canter when spinning, the are walking fast, there is no moment of suspension. YouTube has some good examples. Looking forward to following your blog. Cheers Colleen


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: