As we set our sights on high school equitation and the schooling of the high school horse, development of the piaffe takes center stage. In a classical sense, the piaffe is not an end in and of itself – it is not a “trick” we are trying to teach the horse. Properly executed, it is merely a checkpoint which indicates we have successfully taught the beginning horse two difficult concepts:
1. Gait, impulsion, and speed are separate and modifiable notions. Of course, prior to achieving the piaffe, we will have broached this with many variations of the trot and lateral work, but the piaffe in place means we have hit an important milestone.
2. Rhythm and suspension are also modifiable.
There are a variety of techniques, and they result in different “piaffes”. There are certain morons in Mexico who will teach the horse to “dance” by whipping his legs while he is in the pillars. You can teach humans the same way I presume, and probably get the same freakish (but certain) result, which is terrified and, obviously, highly contracted and forced. When you see it, there will be no mistake about the means used to develop it – much like the means used to develop the action of gaited horses exhibited in the US and, I dare say, more than none of the “dressage” horses we see exhibited in FEI competition with surprisingly “park-like” goose-stepping extended trots. I am not saying Walker trainers use whips to get their action (applying chemicals that burn the horses feet allow them to install an auto-whip every time the horse puts his foot down), nor that GP-level “dressage” trainers are (in order their horses to move like Saddlebred, they use ankle chains and high tech shoeing – like Saddlebred trainers), but that the means are not ‘academic’, per se: they are not the result of fine communication between the horse and rider – they are instead the result of a trick which compels the horse to behave a certain way because he is tricked into it, versus reasoned into it using the hand and heel – and (crucially) bearing in mind concepts we will teach or further refine in the future.
Such methods at their worst are thoughtless and cruel. At best, they are merely unproductive presuming your objective is a classical notion of high school equitation.
In teaching the piaffe the right way – ideally, but not necessarily, from the saddle – we not only arrive at a technically, functionally correct piaffe, but in doing so have confirmed and refined our control over the two diagonals. We have simultaneously – and substantially – moved the needle on what I call fidelity, particularly with respect to our legs. This degree of fidelity will make our future flying changes much easier to effect and teach. These are essential indirect effects we forfeit when we teach the piaffe using the whip – and worse, we typically fail to create a correct piaffe – instead creating the “two men in a horse suit” imitation of a piaffe.