Quolibet Z

(part two)

Jean Luc Cornille



One of the instructors at the school was an older man named Pignot. Like every member of the Cadre Noir, Pignot had some experience in dressage and jumping. However his passion and his specialty was Steeple Chase. He had gained an extraordinary experience in the ability to reeducate horses with tendon and ligament issues. He was quite controversial. For instance, he was riding one of his steeple Chase horses in double bridle and jumping saddle. He was trotting the horse at a very rhythmic and slow cadence. It was like a jog that he sustained for a relatively long period of time.

I asked him about his training technique and he first responded defensively, works for me. Like every precursor, he was frustrated by resistance and skepticism. It took some negotiation skill to convince him that I was not critical but rather genuinely interested. The thought was basically the concept of cells’ specialization. Cells adapt to stress and his work was creating moderated and regular stresses on the tendons and ligaments. The equestrian language is full of expressions that have or don’t have scientific roots. Pignot was using the expression hardening the tendons.

Pignot’s genius was to have furthered this basic concept to high efficacy level. Intuitively, the man had anticipated the concept of the horse’s natural cadence. He comes close from modern understanding of the horse’s vertebral column mechanism. He foresees the spring-like action of the front legs. He sensed the forelegs’ capacity to produce upward propulsive force.

The concept of the horse natural cadence was explained seven years later. In 1975, Pennycuick observed that African migrating animals that were traveling long distances were always and within each gaits, sustaining the same range of speed. The biologist studied the observation for the perspective of oxygen intake. His findings suggested that animals were sustaining an energetically optimum speed. Hayt and Taylor extended the study to horses. They concluded that, “there was a speed where the amount of oxygen used to move a given distance, (rate of oxygen consumption divided by speed,) reached a minimum value.” (Hayt and Richard Taylor, 1975) The two scientists concluded that the horse selected naturally a speed within each gait around the energetically optimal speed. Earlier on, Milton Hildebrand studied the phenomenon form the perspective of muscle fatigue. There is more energy in the cycling leg as a mechanical system when a horse walks fast than when it trots at the same speed.” (Hildebrand, 1987) Basically Pignot observed that greater efficacy was achieved working the horse at its natural cadence.       

Pignot was unable to explain his technique but he agreed to teach me how to do it. Quolibet was doing very well and I was exploring a better way to progressively condition his physique. Riding Quolibet, I was jogging at Pignot’s side. He was telling me when Quolibet was right and when he was wrong. Right or wrong was pretty much the extent of our conversation. Once in a while a longer sentence clarified his thoughts, Pignot told me; a horse will contracts his back if the cadence accelerates. Coming from him, this was a very long sentence. Another day he added, he will also contract his back if he is pushing on the bit. I asked if this was the reason why he was riding his horse in double bridle but I guess the wind blew my sentence before it reaches his ear. Another week he emphasized the importance of straightness, if you don’t have straightness you don’t have the back. I drew a parallel with dressage referring to the classical formula forward, calm and straight but I was immediately lectured. This is real dressage.

In the absolute, Pignot was right. Dressage movements were primarily created as gymnastic exercises. Pignot was in fact working his horse in shoulder-for and at its natural cadence. Gustave Steinbecht, who invented the shoulder-for, did not refer to the shoulder-for as a movement but rather as a concept. Actual judging standards do not respect Steinbrecht’s idea. The German author precisely explained that the shoulder-for will stimulate light lateral bending of the horse’s thoracic spine at the condition that the croup and hind legs remain absolutely straight on the rail. Steinbrecht thought that the shoulder-for prepared the horse for the shoulder-in creating proper coordination between lateral bending and transversal rotation of the horse’s vertebral column. Judging standards, which are not concerned about athleticism but only appearances, deducted that the shoulder-for was a shoulder-in executed at a slighter angle.   


Pignot applied Steinbrecht’s shoulder-for achieving the results observed by the German author. The gymnastic exercise created proper coordination between lateral bending and transversal rotation and consequently greater forward transmission of the hind legs propulsive force through the horse’s body. When Quolibet was right, his back felt round, the trot was effortless. The thrust generated by the hind legs floated through his body creating forward motion and balance control. The point that was noticeable was an increased suspension of the forelegs. As I shared my observation with Pignot, he told me, this is precisely why I am doing it this way. The forelegs are working as spring and the spring action does gently, rhythmically and repetitively stresses the tendons and ligaments. Thirty three years later a group of scientists explained, “The muscular work of galloping in horses is halved by storing and returning elastic strain energy in spring-like muscle-tendon units.” (Alan M. Wilson, M. Polly McGulgan, Anne Su & Anton J. van den Bogert, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Cleveland Clinic Foundation - 2001) Earlier on, Anton van den Bogert worked with another group measuring the upward propulsive activity of the hind and forelegs. The results confirmed Pignot's observations. “In horses, and most other mammalian quadrupeds, 57% of the vertical impulse is applied through the thoracic limbs, and only 43% through the hind limbs.” (H. W. Merkens, H. C. Schamhardt,G. J. van Osch, A. J. van den Bogert, 1993).

As I was jogging Quolibet by hills and valleys, I started to understand Milton Hildebrand’s confusing statement. “The thoracolumbar spine of the horse is kept virtually rigid during locomotion; the small movements that may be seen take place in the lumbosacral joint.” (Hildebrand M.,  Motions of the running cheetah and horse, mammal, 40, 481-495,1959) Like everybody else, I was trained into the belief that the horse’s vertebral column was a flexible structure swinging in large waves in proportion to the strides. When Quolibet was right according to Pignot’s standards, his back felt round. It was a clear increase in the suspension of the strides. The trot was effortless and lightness was not limited to the contact on the bit. The whole horse was light like if his physique was perfectly coordinated for the movement. Yet it was very little dorso-ventral flexion of the thoracolumbar spine.

Twenty years later, as I was listening to James Rooney who was explaining how the coordination of the main back muscles, which are set in mirror image directions, were canceling the attraction of gravity converting the thrust generated by the hind legs into vertical forces, I was thinking about the acuteness and accuracy of Pignot’s vision. Since the back muscles stiffen the horse’s thoracolumbar spine in order to increase the speed, only a work executed at the horse natural cadence allows further control and refinement of the vertebral column mechanism. Asking the horse to slow the cadence by the way the rising trot was done without allowing the horse to lean and therefore find support on the bit was a very cleaver way to concentrate the horse’s brain on the use and coordination of the muscular system designed to resist attraction of gravity. In motion, attraction of gravity becomes acceleration of gravity and asking the horse to sustain a slow cadence without any support of the rider’s hands guides the horse’s brain toward subtle orchestration of the main back muscles.

In 1999, Jean Marie Denoix demonstrated the correlation between lateral bending and transversal rotation. “In the cervical and thoracic vertebral column, rotation is always coupled with lateroflexion and vice versa.” (Jean Marie Denoix, DVM. PhD, Spinal Biomechanics and Functional Anatomy, 1999) Recent studies suggest that transversal rotation is basically a combination of lateral bending and longitudinal flexion. A simplistic but easy way to illustrate the concept is to bend a whip laterally and then rotates the whip until the lateral bending becomes longitudinal flexion. In Pignot’s technique, the lateral bending created by the shoulder-for induced longitudinal flexion of the horse’s throracolumbar column. Longitudinal flexion is written in italic because the feeling of a round back results more from the creation of vertical forces (dynamic) than a market longitudinal flexion of the spine (kinematics). This concept will be elaborated later with the story of another horse.       

My dear Pignot, as you were more than twenty years older than me at the time of these events, I do not know if you are still today enjoying your retirement or riding more steeple chases into heaven. You have been a great influence in Quolibet’s recovery. I did not give you the credit you deserved when Quolibet achieved his great performance at the 1971 Puncheston Three Day Event World Championship. We competed against each other on the steeple chase tracks as well as at home to gain the attention of the cuter chicks. You were a small size man as expected for your specialty but in my mind you are a giant. Thank you. “If I see furthest, it's because I've stood on the shoulders of giants” (Isaac Newton.)   

Jean Luc Cornille


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