Jean Luc Cornille
If a dancer was forced to dance by whip and spikes, he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar conditions.” (Xenophon)
Nodding their head in agreement with the Greek philosopher, riders buckle up their spurs on their riding boots. One peculiarity of the equestrian world is that riders always see themselves above all remarks.
I used to use spurs and I removed my spurs decades ago. This was a decisive step forward into a wonderful and fascinating journey. At this time, the evolution of equine research studies had already demonstrated that behavior, laziness were rarely a problem of hind legs’ activity or lack of activity. Instead, reluctance to move forward and perform, relate to the incapacity of the back muscular system to properly convert the thrust generated by the hind legs into horizontal forces generating forward movement and vertical forces allowing balance control. My thought was that as long as I will have spurs, I will unconsciously increase the hind legs activity instead of properly coordinate the back muscles.
The horses adapted to the absence of spurs incredibly fast; a few days for the more intelligent horses, a few weeks for the ones coming from heavy hands and legs type of riding. As I learned to think in terms of more sophisticated back coordination, I noticed greater involvement of the horses’ intelligence and willingness during the training sessions. Clearly, the horses demonstrated that conventional equitation was about driving a car at the wrong gear and pushing the gas pedal to the floor instead of selecting the proper gear. If powerful enough, a car can deal with such poor driving but below its capacities and not for long.
As you know, in the evolution of knowledge, science and experience progress in parallel. Sometime experience discovers phenomenon that are later scientifically explained. Other times scientific findings come first. Leo Jeffcott wrote in 1980, “The biomechanics of the vertebral column, although very complex, are of vital importance because they form the basis of all body’s movements,” (Leo Jeffcott, Natural rigidity of the horse’s backbone) Focusing on proper vertebral column mechanism, it was possible to uncover suspension and amplitude of the gaits that were never seen before. The quality of the gaits was there all along but burrowed under back muscle dysfunctions that were never previously addressed. Jeffcott underlined the vital importance of the equine vertebral column mechanism but did not concentrate on the practical application of his findings. In fact he aligned himself with the thought that flexion of the back was created by the shortening of the horse’s lower line. “The horse has a very flat shaped bow which is made up of the vertebral column, its epaxial muscles and ligaments. The whole structure is kept rigid and under tension from the string formed by the sternum, abdominal muscles, linea alba and the muscles of the limbs.”(LJ Slijper. 1946)
With the venue of dynamics analysis of the vertebral column mechanism, the thought that abdominal and pectoral muscles have the capacity to flex the back muscles became suspicious. Advanced understanding of the vertebral column mechanism demonstrated that instead, it was the muscles situated above the transverse processes of the vertebrae that were creating thoracolumbar flexions and other movements. “An initial thrust on the column is translated into a series of predominantly vertical and horizontal forces which diminish progressively as they pass from one vertebra to the next”. (Richard Tucker, Contribution to the Biomechanics of the vertebral Column, Acta Thoeriologica, VOL. IX, 13: 171-192, BIALOWIEZA, 30. XL. 1964)
As did Jeffcott, Tucker did not have any reason to question classical equitation and he interpreted his data in line with classical views. It was believed at this time that equine gaits and performances were created through swinging motion of the horses’ thoracolumbar spine. Richad Tucker theorized that due to their attachment on the dorsal spines and insertion on the articular facets, back muscles were creating rotations of the vertebrae. In 1964, the very limited range of motion of the equine thoracolumbar spine was not yet discovered. Also unknown was the fact that the main function of the back muscles was not creating movements but instead preventing the thoracolumbar spine form an amplitude of movement that would exceed its possible range of motion. This discovery was published in 1976 by Hans Carlson. “Electromyographic studies and movements data presented above strongly suggest that the primary function of the back muscles during walking is to control the stiffening of the back rather that to create movement.” (Hans Carlson, Halbertsma J. and Zomlefer, M. !979, Control of the trunk during walking in the cat. Acta physiol. Scand. 105, 251-253)
James Rooney went further. He was aware of Jeffcott research, which measured the “natural rigidity of the horse back bone.” He knew about Hans Carlson study. Rooney explored the thought that instead of moving the vertebrae, the back muscles were creating forces. They were acting between their attachment on the dorsal spines and their insertion on the articular facets of the vertebrae creating horizontal and vertical forces. The fascicles of the longissimus dorsi system bridge about three vertebrae and are oriented oblique down and forward. By contrast, the fascicles of the multfifdius system are oriented oblique down and back. Little by little, science explained what the horses were telling me in the training ring. When instead of urging them forward, I adapted my seat to new knowledge, they refined their capacity to the thrust generated by the hind legs into horizontal and their vertical forces. The horses responded immediately and at a totally new level of communication. They were acting as I finally spoke their language. They were accepting suggestion and guidance rather than protecting their familiar patterns. They were exploring beyond their natural reflexes, they were looking for greater ease figuring coordination of their physique beyond the scope of their natural reflexed and optimally adapted to the athletic demands of the performances.
I already knew that natural reflexes were ill adapted to the task of carrying a rider and never the less, performing with a rider on their back. Prior to removing my spurs, the focus of my training approach was already preparing their physique for the effort but I was doing that in line with classical views, obedience and submission to the rider’s aids. Removing the spurs situated the communication with the horse into a new dimension. Removing the spurs was symbolic. The evolution behind the symbol was thinking more and pushing less. What came as a surprise was that the horses were also thinking more. Some even took initiatives figuring a more efficient way to use their body. A horse will naturally protect whatever morphological flaw, back muscle imbalance or other issue that is part of the “horse’s body state,” at the instant of the demand. I was surprise to realize that once their brain was concentrated on efficiency, which is for them minimum effort for maximum movement, they were capable to conceived coordination of muscles and reflexes refining their efficiency. Albert Einstein wrote, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.” For the horses, moving away from more legs, more hands, more push more vertebral column movement was their true comfort zone. Their real nature is at the level of high sensitivity and subtle refinement.
I realized how much I have underestimated and in fact hampered the horses’ willingness when I was focusing on greater hind legs activity instead of how the back muscles properly manage the thrust generated by the hind legs. I was already out of the mainstream ideas since I did not rush my horses forward and I did not believe than repeating the movement could educate the body. I did not “put the movement on the horse” as it was the norm. Instead, I developed and coordinated my horses’ physique for the athletic demand of the performance. However, I was doing that through the subtle application of discreet aids, using an extra push to get the result. I noticed occasionally their capacity to take initiative for greater efficiency. Removing the spurs, and therefore the physical capacity to give the extra push, liberated the horses’ mental processing. I realized that they wanted ease and comfort and harmony as badly as I wanted it and that given a chance they were capable of thinking and processing for greater efficiency. I become conscious that in many instances my extra push shattered their mental processing.
Could it be that the most fundamental principle of classic equitation, “obedience to the rider aids,” would keep the horses below their true level of intelligence and performance? Pertinent authors hinted on the subject. Etienne Beudant wrote, “Create lightness, prepare the horse’s physique for the movement, request, let the horse execute.” If the horse physique is properly coordinated for the athletic demand of the movement, the horse does not need obedience. Most horses willingly further their own coordination for a better move. Their purpose in life is about physical ease and comfort. They don’t resist a movement; they resist the physical discomfort or even pain that is in their mind associated with the move. Lazy horses are very rare. In most instances, lazy horses are normal horses resisting lousy training. So are horses resisting right bend, or left bend, or canter departure on one lead, or one flying change, or piaff, or passage. They are not athletically developed and coordinated for the athletic demand of the performance and they resist the physical pain resulting from incompetent education. The horse’s normal adaptation to the rider’s weight is increasing the duration of the hind legs decelerating activity. If the training does not allow such adaptation by urging the horse forward and lowering the neck, the horse’s adaptation will likely be increasing the braking activity of the forelegs. A chain reaction will start leading quite logically the horse brain to reduce and even resist propulsive activity of the hind legs. The spurs of the traditional approach or the leadership of the horsemanship approach can only force the horse into greater protective reflex contractions.
A true leader say John Rosemond is a man who have a sound vision of the future. Since the techniques applied in equestrian education are based on antiquated knowledge of the equine physiology, the future in terms of equine athletic training is actual scientific knowledge. The future is also the upcoming performance. A horse does not resist shoulder in but resists the physical pain or discomfort associated in his mind with the move. A horse does not anticipate flying change but anticipates the stress or strains associated in his mind with the flying change. Calmness in action has nothing to do with behavior but everything to do with a sound understanding of the body coordination preparing the horse’s physique for the effort. A true rider does not criticize the horse performance as incorrect obedience to correct aids. A true rider has a sound vision of the body coordination preparing the horse physique for the flying change or other movement. A true rider and therefore a true trainer, orchestrates, during the strides preceding the move, the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the move. The horses can then perform at the best of his talent, expressing his style and charisma.
Jean Luc Cornille 2014