I think the pirouette, whether at the walk or the canter, is one of the most technically demanding exercises for the rider in dressage. It requires the utmost precision, feel, and timing from the rider for the horse to be able to carry it out well. However, with adept application of the aids, even horses who have never executed one before can usually pick up the walk pirouette very quickly. The canter pirouette requires more physical capacity from the horse, so it takes much longer to achieve, but the fundamental use of the aids is the same.

It is helpful to think about the three functions of the aids that need to be coordinated in a pirouette: collecting, turning, and bend. When these functions are separated and clear to the horse, the exercise becomes much more simple.

1) Collection
To arrest the forward movement of the horse, we use collection. Just like in the piaffe, we are looking for a continuation of activity and cadence while advancing very little. This takes half-halts that act towards the haunches, asking the horse to carry more weight behind and convert forward pushing power into carrying power and vertical steps. How does this happen? The rider must use an active leg, particularly on the inside, to stimulate the horse into greater activity as the restraining aids of seat and hand are applied intermittently to direct the energy onto the haunches. The outside rein should half-halt away from the neck, just like in half-pass, as this helps shift carrying power to the inside hind.

2) Turning
While the hind end stays active on the spot, we can then lead the forehand around it using basic turning aids. Early on in our horses’ training, we establish that they should follow the inside rein, and we use the outside rein to harness the outside shoulder so that the front feet of the horse follow in the direction that we point their nose. Exactly the same principle applies in pirouettes. It is important to think about where the front feet need to go for the horse to be able to accomplish the movement. Think of a drafter’s compass with its fixed point in the ground under the horse’s hind feet, and its pencil moving in a consistent arc under the front feet. The nose of the horse is making an even bigger arc outside the radius of the front feet. This may sound obvious, but the most common mistake in pirouettes is for riders to bring the nose towards the arc of the front feet, and the front feet too close to the haunches. The horse has no choice then but to fall out with the shoulders and/or haunches.

3) Bend
Again, as we have taught our young horses, they must bend on the arc of a circle so that they take more weight on the inside hind leg, instead of becoming heavy in front and falling onto the inside shoulder. The same applies in a pirouette, except that the horse is no longer following the bend in a forward direction (though should still have forward activity!). A certain degree of bend is important to prevent the horse from falling on the inside shoulder, since the goal is for the horse to carry more weight on the inside hind leg. Just as with any bend, the inside leg acts at the girth to create bend through the ribcage, the inside rein flexes the horse through the poll and neck, and the outside rein and leg limit the degree of bend and help prevent the horse from falling out over its outside shoulder or outside hind.

Note that in none of these three components is the outside leg required to act laterally on the horse. This is another common mistake in pirouettes and can have the effect of pushing the haunches to the inside of the circle and out from under the horse’s center of gravity, with the result that carrying power and activity are diminished. There is a school of thought that uses haunches in to develop the pirouette, but if overdone, this can lead to problems in the pirouette. Care should also be taken not to pull the outside rein across the neck in an effort to drag the shoulders around — this usually results in the shoulders falling in, which drives the haunches out, and so both bend and balance are lost.