The Little Bird 

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No one forgets their first piaffe. Or, as the French, who invented the term, would say, their first piaffer; to strut. It’s riding the volcano before it erupts; in nature a stallions piaffes to display before a potential mate, and to gather himself before mounting her. When playing or fighting, horses of either sex piaffe to marshal their energy just before exploding forward. To be allowed to sit up there, feeling the energy boil and dance, is euphoric. 

My first time, in a finca in eastern Portugal, atop a half Lusitano, half Arab gelding with a white face and a rhythm so light he seemed to float on the wind, made me cry. Don Pedro, the riding master who had trained the horse and activated the piaffe from the ground for me to feel, smiled and crinkled his eyebrows as I dismounted; one horseman initiating a fellow horseman into the mysteries.  

“Yes,” he said. “To cry the first time is normal. Necessary even. What else can one do when worshipping at the altar of the horse?” 

Later, much later, I learned how to create the piaffer in a horse myself. Again, in Portugal, standing at the shoulder of Master Luis Valenca as he explained how two patterns, done on the ground walking next to the horse, and repeated in combination, placed the horse’s hind feet underneath his centre of gravity so that, if practiced like scales on a piano or guitar, the melody, the piaffer, would eventually reveal itself. 

He was right. Of course, he was. Some months later, back at home with my own horse, the patterns came at last together after my fumbling attempts to reproduce what Master Luis and his daughters Sofia and Filipa had shown m in the riding hall in Lisbon coalesced before my eyes first into the harmonic, kinetic scales and then – miracle, the melody! 

I cried again. Actually, I swore too. I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe that I and the horse had found this together. The dance, the proud strut, the gateway into the deeper enigma of the horse. It seemed unbelievable that I could do such a thing. 

A holy moment. 

There is another meaning to the word piaffe, that encompasses that lightness, that dance, that fleeting, fragile joy, An old French word for a little bird, like a sparrow, light on the breeze. You’ll still hear this word sometimes in Paris to describe a girl who moves with ethereal grace. A little bird on the wing. 

Humble yourself to those two essential patterns, the steps of the dance. Let the scales become melody, and the melody become joy. First strut a little, then, together, take flight. 

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