Imitation vs Intelligence
Imitation versus Intelligence
Jean Luc Cornille
Dressage and In hand horse trainer
When the technology of embryo transplant started, the idea of utilizing draft breed as surrogate mares was attractive. Babies would have more room for gestation and birth. Soon, stories surfaces that babies having the blood line for world class movement exhibited short strides lifting the knees like mommy. A foal imitates his mother as he will, years later imitate his trainer in the round pen. If the trainer spent enough time in the round pen, the horse will lift the knees, pick up the canter, raises the head imitating the trainer gestures. There is little intelligence involved in the process and once wired for imitation, the horse’s brain has great difficulties processing the complex body coordination orchestrating efficiently the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performances. The value of an educative technique is not teaching the gesture but instead, instructing the body coordination preparing efficiently the horse’s physique for the gesture. Round pen techniques are teaching gestures and when the horse physique pays the price for executing movements without proper coordination of his physique, this type of imitative education hampers the horse’s mental capacity to process adequate body coordination.
James Rooney wrote, “A major cause of lameness is lameness.” A move executed without adequate body coordination induces abnormal stresses on limbs joints or back structures. Over a period of time, repetitive abnormal stresses cause injury. The best therapy is of course correcting the kinematics abnormality inducing abnormal stress. This is one application of the science of motion. Such education engages the horse’s intelligence. The horse’s mind is always under two contradictory influences. One is explorative, the other is conservative. In spite of a large size and weight, a horse cans run faster and further than most of his predators. In order to overcome the contradiction between speed and weight, nature created sophisticated adaptations such as small muscles and long tendons. The distal limb of the horse has been shown to function like a pogo stick, storing and returning energy in long, spring-like tendons throughout the gait cycle (Biewener, 1998; Wilson et al., 2001). Down to the filaments composing the connective tissue inside the muscle belly, the horse’s physique is a model of energy saving and recycling energy. This aspect of the horse’s physiology as well as neurophysiology is working in our favor. Asked the right question, the horse’s brain looks for the most efficient possible response.
The other aspect of the horse’s mental processing works against proper coordination. The horse lives in the moment. He instinctively protects muscle imbalance, or morphological flew, or protective reflex contraction or other issue. Basically, a horse protects a problem or a memory instead of working it. The horse’s initial reaction is always executing the move protecting his physical condition or bad memories. This aspect of the horse’s mental processing works against sound education and when the training technique does not address specifically the horse’s issue, the horse executes the move protecting his physical handicap or bad habit. If for instance, the horse does have an inverted rotation of the thoracic vertebrae, which is very common, he will have difficulties bending in one direction. He will lean more toward the inside of the bend, or he will shift the croup toward the outside or other solution that the horse’s mind will have imagine in order to protect his condition. Training techniques which believe that a circle does bend the horse are very naïve. So are training techniques which limit the rider’s task to the studious application of the correct aids. The horse will initially respond to the “correct aids” protecting his physical condition or bad habit. Mimicking the trainer lifting her knees in the round pen, the horse does not perform the “passage.” Instead, the horse is a dysfunctional athlete executing a pantomime for which his physique is improperly coordinated. Even greater are the damages created in the horse’s mental processing. Wired for imitation and gestures, the horse’s brain will have great difficulties focusing on the body coordination optimally adapted to the athletic demand of the performance.
I saw recently several cases where the physical damages caused by this type of round pen work could have been easily corrected addressing the vertebral column dysfunction leading to the limb ‘injury, but the horse’s mind was wired for imitation and not capable of thinking about properly coordinating his vertebral column mechanism. One of the cases exhibited stifle lameness. The horse mimicked the handler. When the handler cantered next to the horse, the horse picked up the canter. When the handler trotted, the horse trotted too. When the handler lifted her knees, the horse executed a pseudo passage. It was a parody of passage. The horse lifted the knees but the back was arched and contracted and the hind legs did not increase their decelerating activity. Basically, it was circus tricks.
What I saw right away was a problem with the right stifle. The horse’s owner was aware of the problem and asked for a gymnastic program that could fix the problem. In itself, the stifle problem would not have been very difficult to fix, but this type of training exposed then its irreversible damages. The handler was hoping that with her “advanced” round pen type of training, the in hand reeducation would be easy. The bad effect of teaching to the horse to do tricks without educating properly the physique for the athletic demand of the performance was the cause of the stifle problem and the fact that the horse was trained to execute all kind of moves without learning how orchestrating properly his physique compromised the reeducation through in hand work. Whatever the woman was doing, the horse executed one of the moves that he knew. I suggested that she tries riding the horse hoping that the horse’s memories would not translate too much the tricks that he had learn in the round pen with the riding situation. Effectively, the horse’s mind was less focused on executing all kind of moves once under the saddle. However, as soon as the horse recognized the movement, shoulder in, or half pass, or canter departure, the horse executed the move as he learned with this type of training and therefore, the horse remained dysfunctional further hurting himself.
Since centuries great masters have warned against what they refer to as the false practice. “Unfortunately, it is definitively much easier to turn to false practice than to achieve what is correct.” (François Robichon de la Gueriniere, Ecole de Cavalerie, 1731) The question is, WHAT IS CORRECT? Classical trainers think that they are correct. Competitive riders believe that they are correct. The German school thinks that it is the only correct way, so does the British, French or Spanish school. They all miss the point. What is correct is the ability of educating and coordinating efficiently the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance and since knowledge of the equine physiology evolves, “what is correct” does evolve. In terms of collection for instance, “what was correct” fifty years ago is archaic in the light of new knowledge.
Through better understanding of the horse’s gaits and performances, we can correctly develop and coordinate the horse’s physique for the effort. Prior to François Baucher, classical masters regarded the flying change as a difficult performance. Executing the flying change in the balance required for the “levade,” is effectively difficult. Baucher understood that working the horse into a more horizontal balance rendered the flying change easier for the horse. Thanks to his faculty to regard dressage movements in respect of their physical challenge instead of simply the gesture, Baucher was the first to perform the tempi-changes. The ones who refer about themselves as Baucherist, do not truly understand Baucher. They talk about flexion of the jaws because it does not require any skill to move the hands, but they miss the master’s true teaching. Baucher was indeed a precursor in many aspects but the most important part of his work is the ability to prepare efficiently the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance. With greater knowledge of the horse’s physique, the ability to create a functional athlete is much greater today than it was before and training techniques promoting the education of gestures without focusing on the coordination of the athlete’s physique precisely adapted to the nature of the effort are truly a return to the dark ages.
The flying change is a great subject. Superficial equitation teaches the “correct aids” and eventually the timing. If the horse does not execute the change properly, simplistic equitation places the guilt on the rider and if the problem persists, the horse became the culprit. “He is lazy, he does not want to do it, he does not have the talent, etc.” The lesson finishes with the classical statement, “your horse is not good, I have a better one here for sale that will allow you to execute the flying change in the show ring.” Not at one moment, the horse’s difficulty is treated for what it is really, which is the outcome of incorrect body coordination. Not at one instant, the horse is given a chance of success. The horse responds to the rider’s aids protecting back muscle imbalance, morphological flaw or other issue and the over simplicity of the training technique is not capable to identify the source of the horse’s difficulty.
Exposing a large discrepancy between the level of advanced knowledge and the over-simplicity of the training techniques, Nancy Deuel identified in 1990 the peculiarities which during the stride preceding the flying change, were constantly associated with superior performances. “Preceding a lead change, the higher-scoring horses increased their contact duration of the hind limbs and decreased the length of step and time between forelimb impacts to prepare to execute the lead change in the succeeding airborne phase.” (N. R. Deuel, PhD: J. Park, PhD, 1990) Basically, Deuel and Park discovered the recipe for better flying change. The findings never entered the equestrian world. Not because they were not available, Nancy Deuel published the results, but because riding and training techniques acting on the limbs, are unable to modify the duration of the hind legs’ decelerating phase. Since the horse is at the canter, touching the hind legs with a dressage whip or even worse, with a bamboo pole from the ground is quite difficult and the ones who were naïve enough to try stimulated a reflex of panic from the horse. On the saddle touching the hind legs with the whip is impossible; the timing is faster than the speed of our feedback correction. Therefore, the time to feel the first half of the hind leg’s stance, the hind limb is already into the pushing phase.
Jeffcott explained in 1980 that the biomechanics of the horse’s vertebral column were the basis of all body movement. Jeffcott’s statement did not intrigued conventional equitation which promotes flexion of the back through greater engagement of the hind legs and lowering or flexion of the neck. At this level of primitivism, it is effectively impossible to modify the hind legs’ kinematics through specific orchestration of the vertebral column mechanism. Instead, following the evolution of science, and therefore sound understanding of the vertebral column mechanism as well as equine mental processing, it is not difficult at all guiding the horse’s brain toward greater deceleration of the hind legs via specific orchestration of the back muscles. Members of the IHTC follow me through this explanation without difficulties because they are now familiar with actual functioning of the horse’s back muscles as well as mental processing.
In the light of what can be done updating riding and training principles to actual knowledge of the equine physiology, the primitivism of the round pen training is fully apparent. Even if the belief that the application of the “correct aids” guarantees a correct movement is very naïve, at an elementary level the rider’s legs and seat and hands might stimulate some reflex in line with the athletic demand of the performance. Mimicking techniques do not even provide such basic help. The horse has no chance to figure the body coordination specifically adapted to the effort. Hence, the horse is condemned to a performance far below is athletic abilities and creating abnormal stresses on his limbs or back structure or both. The predictable outcome of repetitive abnormal stresses is injury.