Chazot Thoughts 50

Guessing Game

Horses can react to pressures that are too light for the human to feel. This raises the possibility that human instability in the saddle results in inadvertent delivery of tactile signals to the horse and a consequent failure in teaching the horse with signals that are meaningful. Horses deemed insensitive to the leg, (dead-sided) may never have the chance to respond to consistent, light, meaningful signals. Similarly, the seeming ability of well-trained horses to have extra sensory perception for its rider’s intentions may be instead his response to slight movement or tightening of muscles that the rider makes without awareness. “ (Understanding the perceptual world of horses, Carol A Saslow, 2002)

I often wondered if he was not the one with extra sensory perception as he always knows in which direction I am going to blow up. I throw myself to the right and he is there in balance over both stirrups. Feedback corrections are not fast enough.  He told me one day that the speed of feedback correction was about 1/8 of a second. I swear I move faster than that but he appears to know in which direction I am going to jump. He often tells me, “Study as much as you can and one day science provides the explanation.” Richard Tucker did in 1964 with the first dynamics analysis of the equine thoracolumbar spine. Rabbits, cats, tigers, leopard, turn at the landing of a jump. Instead, us horses, as well as giraffes, hippopotamus and other mammals, we turn at the takeoff. We execute the turn as we fly above the jump but we coordinate our body for the turn before our hind legs leave the ground. I guess, as I am preparing myself for a creative move I tighten some muscles giving him signals of what I am going to do.

Caesar smiled thinking; I lost my rider once because of that.  In the jumping world, riders believe that we turn above the jump. They face during the fly, the direction where they want us to turn and land. Unconsciously, but fortunately, they prepare their body before the takeoff. We feel their adjustment and we coordinate our own body for the turn before the push off. This is part of the guessing game that directs most of our responses to their so-called aids. In many instances we respond as they expect because we figure by experience what we are supposed to do. In fact, we have to guess most of the time. They overload our senses with their moving hands, moving legs, moving back, shifts of their body weight, etc. It is chaos and we have to select in the middle or hundred stimuli, which ones are supposed to be the directive.

The event was the jump off of a jumping class. My rider was all excited by the chronometer. He was moving a lot in the saddle and I interpreted his instability as a signal for a right landing. I coordinated my body just before my hind legs left the ground and I turned right during the flight. It was a large oxer and I realized while I was following my planed trajectory, that my rider’s mind and body were aiming for a left turn. We landed separately. Of course I get blamed for my “disobedience.” A few days later, he came with a fishing probe telling me that it was an “extension of his hand. In his mind, his hand extension will refine my senses. ” This is classical; instead of learning how to ride, they come up with more utensils. I looked at his fishing probe thinking, I already have to deal with his moving legs, moving hands, moving back, shifts of his body weight and now I am going to have to deal with his “hand extension!” There is enough chaos like that with all his gestures and I really don’t need to be disturbed by other stimuli. I kicked the probe and it flew away in two pieces. My rider screamed that I almost brooked his hand. It was a surgical kick. I nailed the probe because I aimed for the probe, not because I missed his hand.

Humans like to underestimate our sharpness, both mental and physical. Old theories are often kept alive to justify old beliefs. In the late seventies James Rooney stated that due to absence of direct pyramidal pathways the movements of our body were of the mass type. Many used Rooney’s statement to believe in our low intelligence and limited body control. Research evolve and new studies expose a tactile perception in the area of our flanks situated under the rider’s legs that has more subtle perception of humans’ finger tips. We might not have direct pyramidal pathways but we have other ways to perceive sophisticated stimuli and achieve sophisticated body control. You can imagine the confusion that your moving legs, kicking of the heels and never the less spurs create in our senses. We can work with study contact of your legs and nuances in their pressures but we have to protect ourselves from your sweeping legs, kicks of your heels and never the less your spurs.

We have indeed the capacity of sophisticated body control but not through the same neurological pathways than humans. This is why comparisons to humans are irrelevant and also why our natural reflexes are too primitive for modern performances. Benjamin Franklin wrote, "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid." We all have the “material” within our physique and brain for great improvements, but we have to learn how to refine our body control.  This is exactly the difference between training techniques making us executing the move and the education that he promotes, focusing on developing our physique for the athletic demand of the performance.

This education cannot be achieved through simplistic formulas such as “correct aids equal correct movement.” Indeed, obedience to the correct aids demeans our intelligence. Teaching techniques such as “the aids” are not the finality of the equestrian education. They are just the words of a language which includes many other components. There is a moment where the words are no longer the focus; they remodel into a language and the language refines itself into subtle nuances. Gestures are metaphors explaining how muscles need to work and their work is about managing forces. It is energy; it is dynamics. Postures and other teaching techniques are just part of a more elaborated education. “Ultimately, you must forget about technique. The further you progress, the fewer teaching there are. The great path is really no path.”(Morihei Ueshiba,1987) Founder of Aikido

If we can guess what riders want, even when their stimuli are opposed to the athletic coordination that we have to achieve for the move, we can learn reflex coordination far beyond the limits of our natural reflexes. We don’t need mimicking someone’s legs movements; this is not intelligence; this is imitation. We need instead to think about our neurological and muscular system in search of greatest efficiency. There is a cadence of instance where the elastic strain energy stored within our aponeurosis, internal tendons and even muscles belly, during the stance, is almost enough for the following sequence of the stride, which is the swing phase. The phenomenon is known as “stretch-shorten contraction.” If you slow down our motion until we reach our personal frequency, we master this economical game of storage and reuse of elastic strain energy. We enjoy this cadence where we achieve greater movement for minimum muscular work and we gradually learn how to keep it. We need your help at first and in fact we need your help all the time, but less and less as we became more and more aware of our muscular and neurological system.

Where we really don’t need your help is when your so-called aids and theories are confusing our senses. I remember my former rider had so many cues for a single canter departure that I had to preserve my sanity by shutting off my brain and guessing which lead I was supposed to pick up. It was like the check list of a Boeing 767. It was shifts of his body weight, one hand lifting, the other moving forward, one leg back, the other at the girth and he was moving his upper body and turning his head, plus a tap of the whip. I have naturally no problem with the canter but this complex preparation annoyed me and I started anticipating the canter departure. I know that a note accompanied me when I came here, saying, “difficulties with the canter departure.”  He prepared my physique for the canter, exerted a minuscule pressure with the calf of his inside leg and I picked up the canter. He patted me saying, “I guess, you learned the canter departure from the inside leg” I did not, I learned from a confusing network of stimuli. He prepared my physique and when I was ready for the canter and I felt a very discreet a simple cue. It was so obvious and so simple.