The Root Cause
The root cause
by Jean Luc Cornille
“Sometimes animals try out a novel combination of search image and movement during play and find a use for it later.”
(William H. Calvin, 1994)
Similarities between moves tried out during play and athletic performances have fed the theories that specialized moves such as dressage movements and complex jumping performances were the outcome of natural reflexes.
If we elaborate a little further, we can find similarities with this sequence of the jump and theorize that a horse just has to play in the field to be ready for a jumping course.
The whole sequence of the jump exposes the naivety of the “natural reflexes” theories.
Athletic performances are complex, demanding coordination of the athletes physique far more elaborated than natural reflexes.
Each sequence of the jump demands precise coordination of specific muscle groups. Breeding programs give birth to better athletes and through thousands of years; training techniques have been developed exploit the horses’ athletic abilities.
Decades ago, it was common practice to hit the horses’ front legs with a bamboo pole as they were flying above the jump to teach them respect with the front legs. Greater understanding of equine athletic performances suggested that the practice of poling the horses expecting greater form and respect of the jump with the forelegs was indeed addressing the wrong end of the problem. Hitting the front legs with a bamboo pole, (red circle,) trainers focused on the symptom when the root cause was in fact insufficient propulsive power of the hind legs and back in the early phase of the take off, (Green oval).
The International Equestrian Federation banned the use of the bamboo pole. The move could have led to further understanding of the athletic demand of jumping performances and an education focusing on greater muscular power of the hind legs and back. Instead, training techniques remained concentrated on the symptoms, placing nails or other sharp devices on the poles or in the foam of the protecting booths or creating hyper skin sensitivity with chemical blisters.
For a while, the bamboo poles were stored in the attics but they reappeared in the dressage specialty. It was a different discipline but it was the same archaic thinking, improving the gest by touching the limbs or the body instead of understanding the concept of storage and reuse of energy that is the fundamental principle of locomotion and performances. In 2001, Alan Wilson, Polly Mc Gulgan, Anne Su and Antony van den Bogert wrote a prize wining article entitled, “Horses damper their spring in their stride. “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 Bogertt, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Cleveland Clinic Foundation - 2001) Since all the studies in equine locomotion and performances emphasize the concept of elastic strain energy. In 2003, Paul LaStayo and his team concluded, “The ability of the muscle-tendon units to recover elastic strain energy is apparently energetically so advantageous that the most economical stride frequency in running may be set by this key component alone.” (Paul C. LaStayo, PT, PhD. John M. Woolf, PT, MS, ATC. Michael D. Lewek, PT. Lynn Snyde-Mackler, PT, ScD. Trugo Relch, BS. Stan L. Lindstedt, PhD. Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Their contribution to injury, prevention, rehabilitation, and sport. Journal of Orthopaedic & sports physical therapy. 557-571. Volume 33, NUMBER 10, October 2003)
Acting on the limbs is trying to compensate dysfunctions in the way the horse manages the thrust generated by the hind legs through the complex muscular system of the thoracolumbar column, by acting on the symptom, the limbs, instead of focusing on the root cause, the back. This is popular and common practice because it does not demand much skill and much knowledge to make a horse execute a move without preparing efficiently the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the move. These practices are likely leading horses to lameness because they make dysfunctional horses executing movements for which their physique is not adequately developed and coordinated.
We recently published a cartoon about bending the neck right and left. If the horse stiffens the neck, it is likely because of imbalance on the forelegs or inverted rotation of the thoracic spine that the horse tries to control and compensate. The relation with balance control is easy to understand. A lame horse will lift and freeze the neck at the impact of the painful limb. In the seventies I competed at the higher level of three day event a horse which had a problem of transversal rotation of the thoracic spine. He did have a preferential rotation shifting the dirsal spines toward the right creating resistance against right lateral bending. The knowledge of transversal rotation associated with lateral bending was not available at this time and I tried to resolve the problem through lateral bending. The neck was of course rigid on the right but I knew enough to do not fall in the trap of addressing the symptom, rigidity of the neck, by bending the neck, instead of addressing the root cause. The source of the problem, as far as the knowledge available at this time permitted, was balance and consequent rigidity of the thoracic vertebrae. In the light of today knowledge, it was still another symptom and this is why in spite of regular work I never truly resolved the problem. When thirty years later, Jean Marie Denoix, DVM, PhD, comprehensively explained in 1999 how lateral bending was always coupled with a transversal rotation and how such rotation can be preferential or even inverted, I realized that by focusing on lateral bending I addressed the symptom. The root cause was indeed the transversal rotation. I was also glad that I did not apply the archaic principle of suppling the neck by bending the neck since I would have aggravated the inverted rotation every time I would have bend the neck to the left.
Making the horse executing the move without preparing the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance does not allows full expression of the horse talent and predisposes the horse to injuries. Most training techniques explain how to teach shoulder in or half pass or flying change or piaff, but they do not know how the horse does it, at the least at biomechanical level. Therefore, they cannot prepare efficiently the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance. This is where horses and riders difficulties are created and misinterpreted. Behavior theories accuse the horse of laziness, insubordination and other absurdities. Incapacity to soundly understand the complexity of the athletic demand shatters riders’ confidence and intuition.