Advanced Horsemanship 3
Advanced Horsemanship 3
(The danger of not knowing)
Jean Luc Cornille
Dressage and In hand horse trainer
Activating the horse’s hind or front limbs with a dressage whip or a bamboo pole is like teaching passage trotting a horse in shallow water. The horse will lift the knees and the hocks giving to illiterate the illusion of passage. The horse will also arch the back disconnecting limbs kinematics and vertebral column mechanism. Instead of a performance sublimating the horse’s athletic abilities through sophisticated coordination of his physique, the move became a dysfunctional gesture degrading the horse’s talent and exposing the horse’s physique to abnormal stress and consequent injuries. The danger of not knowing was already hampering equine performances at the birth of classical training. François Robichon de la Gueriniere, (1688-1751) regarded lack of knowledge as “ the main reason for the small number of well-trained horses and the lack of ability presently seen in the majority of those people who call themselves horsemen.”
La Gueriniere also distinguished athletic achievements executed with, “ease, balance and grace that are the properties of the good horseman and the result of extensive progressive study of the science,” from dysfunctional imitations where the horse executes the move but is not adequately coordinated and developed for the physical demand of the performance. For centuries, the aim of academic equitation has been restoring the ease balance and grace that the horse possessed before the addition of the rider’s weight. At la Gueriniere’s époque, scientific knowledge was at its infancy and training techniques attempted preparing the horse for unnatural situation, carrying a rider, through the refinement of natural reflexes. With greater knowledge, it became apparent that the rider’s weight was more disturbing than previously believed and that the horse’s vertebral column mechanism as well as limbs kinematics adapted to the burden of the rider’s weight. The problem is that the horse’s adaptation is very likely to be incorrect exposing the horse to abnormal stresses and consequent injuries. The reason is the discord between the search for comfort and the power of old habits that is conflicting in the horse’s brain.
While one side of the horse’s mental processing focus on efficiency, reducing the metabolic cost of locomotion. Another side of the horse’s mental processing is protecting actual morphological flaw, muscles imbalance, or reflex contraction. This conflicting aspect of the horse’s mind is directed by the need for stability. A horse does not work a muscular imbalance to recreate symmetry. Instead, a horse recreates stability compensating for a muscular imbalance through protective reflex contractions. The reason is that while the horse is mentally capable to process sophisticated body coordination, he does not have the capacity of advanced analysis. Only the rider can analyze the horse’s difficulty and identify the root cause. Instead, when the rider interprets the horse’s difficulties as behavioral issues directed by herd dynamics or social order, the rider fails the horse.
With greater knowledge, the fundamental principles of classic equitation as well as natural horsemanship, need to evolve from the refinement of natural reflexes, which is too infantile, to the coordination of a muscular system precisely adapted to the athletic demand of the performance. Gymnastic exercises have been created for such task but the danger of not knowing the body coordination allowing the horse to benefit from these exercises, converts useful gymnastic exercises into harming pantomimes.
Not long ago, I observed a rider practicing halt from canter immediately followed by a few steps of rein back. Hind legs and vertebral column movements during the rein back were painful to watch. The canter was four beat and out of balance and the rider did not prepare the horse for the halt. The halt was brutal letting the horse back heavily contracted. As a result, the horse’s physique was not properly coordinated for the rein back. The move was chaotic. The poor horse moved the limbs backward lifting the hocks and moving both limbs apart. Due to the fact that the horse executed the halt with a thoracolumbar spine crooked to the right, the erratic movement of the right hind legs was even worse than the left one. The horse abducted markedly the right hind leg placing the stifle joint into a compromising angle. With such repetitive stresses on the cruciate ligaments of the right stifle, lameness was around the corner. Once the hind hoof touched the ground, it was a jerking motion of both, the hook and the stifle which makes me grim. Obviously, the rider was not aware of the biomechanics chaos that she was creating. She acted and probably was thinking that she was practicing a useful exercise. I asked to somebody who knew the rider why she was doing what she was doing, and I was told, “this is a horsemanship technique. We always rein back a few step after canter to round the horse’s back.” The danger of not knowing, downgraded a transition, which could have been beneficial if properly executed, into a harming contortion.
“Properly executed” does not refers to the application of the so-called “correct aids.” Properly executed implies a sound understanding of the transition’s physical demands. Even if the scientific knowledge available at the 18th century was elementary, la Gueriniere had enough horse sense to feel the stresses induces on the horse’s physique by the practice of halt. “The halt is only suited to a very small number of horses, due to the fact that there are very few of them who would have enough strength in the loins and hocks to support this action. Therefore the greatest proof of a horse’s strengths and obedience is the execution of a light and steady halt after a last step, which is rare since, to go so quickly from one extreme to the other, it is necessary that the horse has an excellent mouth and haunches. To the extent that these violent halts can ruin and discourage a horse, they are only used as a test.
The rider that I was observing was skilled but lacked understanding of the equine biological mechanism. In her mind, the practice of the transition and the following rein back flexed the horse’s back. What happened within the horse’s body was totally different. The rider believed that “practice makes perfect” but the way the practice was done was reinforcing wrong muscular development and harmful body coordination. Thirty years earlier, human athletes understood the failure of the infamous, “practice makes perfect.” At the contrary, practicing a movement with inadequate body coordination furthers the development of the wrong muscle groups and inappropriate body coordination. The reality check gave birth to the concept of “perfect practice,” where the focus is on the body coordination allowing the athlete to benefit from the gymnastic exercise. The rider that I observed was still thinking at the level of “practice makes perfect.” Hopefully, the rider will evolve from such primitive training technique to an education updated to actual knowledge of the equine physiology. Muhammad Ali wrote, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Most training techniques are based on an element of truth, but this positive element if often compromised or even destroyed by insufficient understanding of the equine biological mechanism. During forward locomotion, iliopsoas muscles are creating forward swing of the protracting hind leg. During rein back, they work harder pulling the body backward. Their work stimulates flexion of the lumbar region and lumbosacral junction. They are not the only muscles involved of course but their situation under the lumbar vertebrae and lumbosacral junction eases our ability to understand how they could participate in longitudinal flexion of the lumbar region. However, this beneficial effect can easily be counteracted and even canceled by overall contraction of thoracolumbar column, or local contraction of the lumbar region, which can be created by lowering of the neck, or lateral bending of the thoracolumbar spine or also if the horse executes the rein back pushing backward with the forelegs instead of adapting the work of the hind legs.
The horse that I observed was excessively bended to the right shifting the croup toward the inside of the bend at the right lead canter. He maintained right lateral bending during the halt demonstrating consistent muscle imbalance of the main back muscles. The horse also halted with the right hip slightly higher than the left one. The expression “tilted” that is often used to describe such transversal rotation of the pelvis is part of an uneducated and meaningless language. The pelvic does not tilt around the sacrum. There is virtually no movement between the pelvic and the sacrum. In fact when abnormal movement occurs, the horse suffers from severe SIJ problem and even so, the range of movement is infinitesimal and cannot be discerned with a naked eye. Pelvic and sacrum turns together. There is no transversal rotation in the lumbosacral junction and therefore, pelvis, sacrum and lumbar vertebrae turn together. There is also no transversal rotation between lumbar and caudal thoracic vertebrae. Transversal rotation occurs between T9 and T14 and therefore the so called tilting of the pelvis is in fact a rotation of the whole thoracolumbar column which originates and therefore needs to be corrected between the ninth and fourteenth thoracic vertebrae.
In the situation of the dysfunctional western horse, the halt was executed with a thoracolumbar spine laterally bend to the right and the lateral bending was associated with an inverted rotation. During rein back, the torsion of the horse’s thoracolumbar column induced the limbs kinematics abnormalities described earlier in this discussion. The horse was not properly coordinated for the stresses imposed on his physique by the rein back. The practice exposed the horse to stifle and other injuries. The failure of the training pyramid is submitting horses to formulas without understanding of the underlying biomechanics factors. The antidote is knowledge and definitively not training techniques proposing a different set of formulas but lacking as well advanced knowledge of equine biomechanics.
Jean Luc Cornille 2013