What is the Passage
The Passage is a very collected, cadenced trot that is characterised by accentuated flexion of the knees and hocks, as well as a defined engagement of the hindquarters and elasticity of the hind legs. This trot has a prolonged period of suspension. When executed correctly, it is a very graceful movement with power and expression.
In the field you often see a horse, particularly stallions, execute moments of the passage but not for long periods of time as it's very exhausting for the horse, so it's important that the rider takes this into account when training the work. It's imperative that the horse has enough strength before attempting to train the movement and that the horse can already execute the should-in, travers and half pass in their training.
During the movement, the diagonal pair of legs are raised and land on the ground alternatively. There must be a regular rhythm and very clear moments of suspension when one of the diagonal pairs of legs are in the air. The neck should be raised with the poll at the highest point and the horse should remain light and soft in the contact. The toe of the horse should be lifted to at least the level of the cannon bone of the other supporting foreleg. The toe of the hindleg should be raised to at least above the fetlock joint of the other supporting hindleg.
Purpose of the Passage
To demonstrate adequate engagement of the hindquarter and collection and the carrying capacity of the hindquarter.
Introducing the Passage
The Passage can be trained in very short sessions thoughout a horses training career, although it's very important that you don't risk the horse's elasticity and suppleness if you train it too early. The horse must deliver the Passage with expression and a strong push from the hindleg, as well as a swing through the back and introducing the Passage too early may cause tension in the horse. If the top line isn't relaxed, the flexion and the lift of the knees will not be achieved.
To begin the passage, the horse should be ridden in sessions of a shorter trot and the rider should start to gradually ask for cadence by lifting the horse through their seat and achieve a higher lift in the trot whilst maintaining a still seat. It is often a good idea to practice the passage on a hack because you have the horse naturally moving forward so can introduce some steps.
It is imperative with the Passage as with all training that you slowly build up the horse for him to be strong enough. The hind leg needs to create a strong push in order to deliver the movement and a horse with little strength or a poor top line will not achieve this. The neck needs to be lifted but no so much that the back hollows and lowers. Despite the cadence of the movement, the rider must feel that the horse is taking the contact forward and if the horse grabs the bit back into his mouth and isn't truly under the control of the rider, then the movement will not be performed well in the long term.
Quite often you see horses swing their hind legs out to the side, which is often a clear indication that the training of the Passage has started before the horse has truly strengthened and learned how to step underneath them. So the height from the front legs is achieved by the hind legs correctly push underneath the horse when correctly performed.
Common Errors in Execution
The horse's hindquarter hocks are disengaged or trail out behind. The horse is on the forehand and croup too high and becomes tense in the movement. The horse is not straight or swings from left to right and the horse's forelegs cross generally because the horse is not warmed up properly.
Training the transitions
It is important when training the Piaffe and Passage that the transitions in and out of the movements are fluid and performed with ease. During training it is important not to ask too much of the horse at once by training both the movements and the transitions for longer periods at a time, as it becomes very confusing for the horse. The horse should learn to begin a piaffe from the walk steps and exit the movement into a trot and not to a passage straight away.
The horse must be reactive off the aid from your legs. Only when the horse goes straight into a trot from the Piaffe can you then start to ask for Passage after the Piaffe, as the horse will hopefully be forward enough to immediately move off into an expressive Passage. Most riders find the transition from Passage to Piaffe challenging to begin with, as achieving the correct timing is imperative. The horse has to slow the rhythm right down to perform the Piaffe correctly and requires complete trust between horse and rider. In theory one should strive to keep the rhythm the same but the reality is the Piaffe is a slightly quicker movement than the Passage.
The rider has to be careful when riding from Passage to Piaffe to not push the horse into the Piaffe too much, so that the first few steps aren't hurried and it is encouraged that the rider allows their upper body to slightly move with the movement to allow its fluid rhythm. In the Passage, the rider is encouraged to move their upper body back slightly. A lot of the time when training at this level, the connection and bond between rider and horse will really come into play, as the rider will know the small signals they can give their horse to ease and out of the movements with confidence. Praise is key throughout; these are very difficult movements both physically and mentally on horses, so they must enjoy them and feel proud of their achievements as they are learning.