The meaning of life PT3
The meaning of life
"Why has elegance found so little following?" Edsger Dijkstra
I was on the top of the world. I was ready to sign lucrative contracts with sponsors. I was considering a date with Brigit Bardot. I just won the dressage test of a major three day event selection trial. Adding spice to the victory, the president of the jury was Colonel Margot. My horse was a phenomenal athlete. He was one of the best horses that I ever had the privilege to ride and train. He was great in dressage, fast on the cross country course and respectful on the stadium jumping. However, he did all that with a marked rigidity on the right side of his thoracolumbar spine. I have tried everything that I knew to supple him. I worked hours and hours on circles and shoulder in. Many high level riders came at the Fontainebleau Olympic center for training and I discussed about my difficulties with many of them. Some rode my horse, others helped me working my horse but not one could figure the source of the difficulty. “He does have some rigidity on the right side but I can’t put my finger on where the problem comes from. It does not feel like it is due to lateral bending but it is related to lateral bending. Truly I don’t know.” They all added, “You should not worry too much; he wins all the time.” Effectively, we have won five of the six competitions that we entered. I covered up the rigidity during the dressage test and the thought that I might have lured the most acute judge in the world was quite sweet.
Once the dressage competition was over, Margot came and we walked as we did many times. It was the time where he was telling me what I did wrong or what I could have done better. He demolished me in a few words. “Your horse is very rigid on the right side.” I tried to explain but you don’t explain to colonel Margot. You keep your mouth shut and you listen. “Instead of using your skill to make it look good, you should use your skill to make him feel good” All in his thoughts, Margot continued, “Tomorrow, I have no doubt that he will do well on the cross country course because he is a good horse, but with such muscle imbalance, he will have to work harder than he would have if you had resolved his muscular problem. The morning after the cross country course, you should be the first walking him out of his stall. You should look at his muscular soreness and you should take the blame.” He left, leaving me destroyed watching my feet. A grasshopper jumped off my boots into the grass. Ten minutes earlier I was on the top of the world and now, even a grasshopper does not want to have anything to do with me. Margot turned back with one finger lifted. He was wearing a black cape and the cape flew around him. I saw a matador coming back for the kill. I even lowered my head between my shoulders anticipating the penetration of the epee. Margot told me, “There is no glory in a victory gained at the expenses of the horse’s soundness.”
The explanation came twenty five years later. “In the cervical and thoracic vertebral column, rotation is always coupled with lateroflexion and vice versa. In the thoracic spine, as is the case during lateroflexion, the spinous processes bend in the concavity.” (Jean Marie Denoix, DVM PhD, Spinal biomechanics and functional anatomy, 1999) This is quite easy to figure. At the walk, for instance, the thoracic vertebrae bend laterally to the right when the right front leg is on the stance. The thoracic spine bends then laterally to the left when the left foreleg is on the support phase and so on. With each lateral bending is associated a rotation that is turning the tip of the dorsal spine toward the inside of the bend. Theoretically, the rotation should be equal right and left. Realistically, the rotation is always preferential right or left. In some cases, the imbalance between one rotation and the other alters the horse ability to perform lateral bending in one side and even the gaits. Unless this muscular imbalance is specifically addressed and corrected by appropriated gymnastic, the horse’ brain executes gait and performances protecting it. I treated my horse rigidity as a lack of suppleness when it was in fact a back muscles imbalance altering transversal rotations. The more I tried to increase his suppleness, the more he protected his back muscles imbalance aggravating the discrepancy between right and left rotation. Often I wondered why I did not figure that earlier, but Galileo Galilei softened my guilt. “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
One year later, the horse strained his right superficial flexor tendon. I was no longer the rider. My partnership with this wonderful athlete ended when I ended my military career deciding to explore a civilian life. Key board riders would be prompt in pointing their finger on the horse’s new rider and this is why keyboard riders should learn how to ride; this would made them better persons. The man who partnered with the horse was a very good rider. I truly believe that the horse would have broken down even if I have been the rider. Margot was right when he said that with such back muscle imbalance the horse will have to work harder over the jumps. I do believe that the break down was due to abnormal stresses that were loading the right foreleg as a result of the thoracolumbar dysfunction. Each stride, the thrust generated by the hind legs induced greater force on the right front leg. It was insignificant at the level of a single stride but it became lethal thousands strides later. The new rider managed the horse’s problem as well as I did. He won major competitions with the horse. Neither he, nor I, had enough knowledge to identify the source of the problem. We both attempted to resolve the horse’s difficulty within the limits of what we knew and we did not know enough.
If I had the horse today, I would directly focus on correcting the problem of transversal rotation. I would not lose my time concentrating on peripheral approaches. I would be sure that every angles of the horse care are properly ensure, but I would not hope that auxiliary approaches would substitute for my responsibility which is identifying and correcting the root cause. The horse has been a decisive influence on my evolution. One can inject one horse’s hock and be able to perform again, but as long as one does not identify and address the source of the kinematics abnormality inducing abnormal stress on the hock, one and one’s horse will became dependent on “Hyaluronic acid “ and other drugs until the drugs will no longer manage the problem.
It does not mean anything to win a major event or make a horse execute advanced movements if we are not capable to prepare efficiently the horse physique for the athletic demand of the performance. We are just a skilled rider failing good horses. There is no success without soundness and there is no soundness without knowledge. In my search for identifying the root cause of limbs kinematics abnormalities I ended with observations that were in contradiction with common veterinary practices. It is not the hocks that cause back problems; it is the back that causes hocks problems. Interestingly these observations were in line with veterinary researches. ” As a profession, our task is to acknowledge that primary back problems do exist in horses.” (Kevin Hausler DVM, DC, PhD, 1999Preface, Veterinry Clinics of North America) I refer to the hocks as an example but my observations were not limited to the hocks. Most cases of navicular syndrome that we have rehabilitated were about correcting back muscles dysfunction creating limbs kinematics abnormalities inducing abnormal stress on the distal sesamoid bone and deep digital flexor tendon. Whatever is the limb problem, the source of the limb kinematic abnormality is, in a very large percentage of the cases in vertebral dysfunction.
This is where, in his own style, Margot provided the answer. It was an unusual elegance in the way his horse executed the half pass. I asked him, how do you make him do that?” He responded, “I don’t make him do that. I invite him to think about it.” Let think about it. There are 185 separate synovial and fibrocartilaginous articulations in the equine vertebral column. Since each articulation consists of 2 or 3 opposing articular surfaces, there are approximately 344 hyaline-covered surfaces in the horse vertebral column. Do you seriously think that you are going to orchestrate this highly complex structure between greater engagement of the hind legs at one end of the thoracolumbar spine and a round neck or a firm contact on the bit at the other end?
Only the horse brain can efficiently coordinate the sophisticate muscular system mobilizing the thoracolumbar spine. Athletic performances demand an orchestration of the muscular system that the horse does not have naturally. Important neurological pathways involved in body control are referred to as “Pyramidal” for sophisticated body movement and “Extrapyramidal” for grosser movements. On this diagram, Pyramidal pathways are illustrated in plain red line and extrapyramidal are illustrated in red dotted line. In human, pyramidal pathways
spread through the entire body. In dog, pyramidal pathways are through the entire body but more developed in the head and neck. In equine, pyramidal pathways are only in the head and neck. The movements of the horse body are of the mass type. This does not mean that the horse is not capable of sophisticated movements. It means that sophisticated movements are executed through different motor pathways than human and have to be educated. Natural training can only go as far as natural reflexes. Once the performance is asking for sophisticated body coordination, the education needs to achieve progressive development of the body control.
“Animals try out novel combinations of search image and movement during play and find a use for it later.” (William Calvin, The Emergence of Intelligence – 1994) This is the fundamental principle of mental education. A horse can apply for other purpose, a combination of reflexes that he has learned while playing or through exercise. This does not mean that a horse can figure a complex body coordination repeating a movement. This is the baloney of simplistic equitation. Educating the horse physique for the athletic demand of the performance is a process that is created step by step. One reflex combination can be taught using a specific gait and/or exercise. A simple combination of reflexes combined with another simple combination of reflexes became an elaborated combination of reflexes, which combined with another elaborate combination of reflexes became sophisticated body coordination. All along, the rider needs to be aware of the underlining biomechanics factors. At each level of the education, the horse reacts first protecting familiar locomotor patterns or muscle imbalance. If properly guided by the rider, the horse brain explores a new reflex combination. It is scary first from the horse point of view but also intriguing as the reflex combination renders the move or the gait, less uncomfortable or even easier.
The brain is simultaneously scared and interested. The brain is interested because of the physical comfort that the reflex combination provides. Basal nuclei, olivary nuclei, cerebellum, which are components of the brain monitoring the body situation, have registered the physical comfort associated with the move. The brain is simultaneously scared because the sensation is not familiar. At this point, the rider easily encourages or destroys the horse mental involvement. If the rider thinks in terms of submission, leadership, obedience to the aids, the rider annihilates the horse mental development. At the contrary, if the rider respects the horse’s mental processing and gives to the horse some processing time, let the horse explores errors and use the horse’s errors to reformulate the question, the rider develops the horse’s intelligence.
Remember; the biomechanics of the vertebral column forms the basis of all the body movements. Only the horse brain can coordinate this extremely complex structure. The more sophisticated the performance, the more complex the orchestration of the thoracolumbar spine. The horse can learn orchestration of the vertebral column mechanism far more sophisticated than natural reflexes but the horse can only succeed if the rider does have the knowledge of the coordination that the horse needs to achieve and the intelligence to understand that sophisticated orchestrations of the horse’s physique can only be achieved through respect, education and partnership with the horse intelligence.
Jean Luc Cornille