Response to the waspish ghosts of theological thinking.
A three day event rider, who is a friend and also a vet, once looked at a horse’s small problem and said, “If I do something he will be fine in two days: if I don’t do anything he will be fine in 48 hours”.
Horses “do better” by the basic nature of…nature. Bone and muscle cells constantly remodel, which repairs damage. Unfortunately, in terms of therapy, “doing better” is in most instances a long journey toward failure. The real solution is in first finding the body coordination that no longer causes lameness, or at least reduces considerably the intensity of the lameness and then focuses on educating the horse to sustain the coordination effortlessly. It is not always easy to identify the source of the kinematics abnormalities that cause injury and the reeducation process usually takes some time. However, without identifying the root cause of the problem, the horse may be “doing better” but is never cured.
This phenomenon is also true for training techniques. One year of continuous training and the horse is “doing better” but still cannot do the piaff, or more simply a clean canter departure. For those who are familiar with Chazot Thoughts, there is no need to explain. For those who do not know the story, Chazot Thoughts is a series of brief stories where Chazot, who is a Thoroughbred and his friend Manchester, who is a Warmblood, discuss their lives and experiences. (I am currently rewriting the 51 episodes as we have been asked to publish Chazot thoughts as a book.)
The following story is a segment of Chazot Thoughts’ second installment. Manchester is telling his story to Chazot. He was lame since the day he was backed, but he was “doing better”. Manchester discovered, 7 years later, the feeling of soundness.
Manchester begins, I believed for a while that “doing better” was my name. I was placed in the hands of numerous trainers and they all convinced themselves that I was “doing better.” Truly I never felt any difference. Each one had personal nuances, but they were basically all doing the same things. They rushed me forward, they bend my neck right and left, they drove me onto the bit asking for more contact. Some did it holding my neck higher. Others believed that I was “doing better” with my neck lower. Others placed my neck deeper. It was always very little science and a lot of imagination and that is true for most therapies. Gaius Julius Caesar said, “Men willingly believe what they wish”, I experienced this thought first hand. Each trainer saw or felt what they wanted to believe because I never felt any improvement. I was “doing better” until they decided that I was a lost cause and I was trailered to yet another trainer.
I became lame when they backed me. I think that I was three years old. Since then I have been lame but “doing better”. I am now eleven years old and I do not remember what it feels like to be sound. I do have sickle hocks and a kyphosis in my back, in the lumbar region. There is a vet in England, I think that his name is Leo Jeffcott, who studied, in depth, our vertebral column mechanism. Jeffcott observed a strong correlation between kyphosis, which is also referred to as roach back, and stifle problems. I have always been weak on my left stifle and I could not deal with the rider’s weight. I remember shifting my croup to the left trying to ease the strain on my stifle. This did not help much but it was less painful than traveling straight. Later I felt pain in my right hock and both fetlocks. I sometimes wondered if my vertebral column deviation could have anything to do with these new strains but no one ever addressed my spine deviation. Trainers, veterinarians and therapists were all activating my hind legs, injecting my hocks, massaging my hind limbs’ muscles and I was supposed to be “doing better”. It was even suggested that “it was all in my mind”. No one ever focused on my vertebral column.
When I saw him for the first time it was in Canada. He rode me and my first surprise was that he did not wear spurs. I interrupted and asked Manchester what is that? His response was more a reflection than an explanation. They are instruments that riders have on their heels to push us forward. Spurs are often equipped with small wheels, which have teeth. I would not hesitate to state that as a rule of thumb, the size of the spurs is inversely proportional to the size of the rider’s brain, the bigger the wheels the smaller the brain.
Manchester often has sarcastic thoughts like that. However, I noticed brief spasms or contractions in his abdominal muscles as if the thoughts crossing his mind triggered physical pain. Then, as he was recalling his first encounter with he, Manchester’s facial expression changed. I was thinking how could I describe his facial expression and one word crossed my mind, hope. He asked me to slow my walk experimenting different lateral bending of my vertebral column. First I was thinking that he did not even notice my left stifle and right hock and left front leg. In fact my owner must have had the same impression. I heard him telling to he, “he does have a problem with the left stifle.” He responded, “yes, as well as the right hock and the left front hoof, but these just are symptoms. I am looking for the root cause of these problems.” A few minutes later my owner told him, “usually he is ridden more forward.” He smiled kindly but continued his work in slow motion. At one moment, I felt my spine almost straight. It was not painful. In fact I almost felt some relief but I was so surprised that I froze dead; immobile. He patted my neck saying. “That must be where it all started.”
A few weeks later I was told that I was moving to he’s place because he thinks that my problem can be fixed. There was a little bit of sarcasm in my owners’ voice. They did not truly believe it but they were intrigued enough to try. In fact I learned that they have donated me to he. They were so desperate with my chronic lameness that they were ready to give me a last chance. It was a long trip and I had plenty of time to think about these brief seconds of straightness. Retrospectively, it was not painful at all. I wondered if in fact what I had felt was the feeling of soundness. During the whole trip I was balanced between hope and depression. When the sun was warming up my back through the trailer window, I was excited to be traveling toward soundness. When the vibrations of the truck were rough, I was thinking that I will just be “doing better”.
The greatest adjustment that I have had to make is that he expects me to think. He does not want me to obey. He challenges my body and lets my mind figure the solution. This is an enormous adjustment for me. I am a dumblood and all my education has always been about obedience. As I was not capable to fit the system, I was declared too dumb and I believed it. Instead, he believes that I can think and expects me to explore in my brain a way to better coordinate my body. He does guide my research but more like a supporting actor. When I was frustrated, waiting for him to tell me what to do, he instead told me “The star is you. I am just here to support your talent”. I did not want to be the star. Obedience had become my comfort zone. I obeyed and I did not think. I gave up thinking early in my education. The training principles were all painful for me. They did not make any sense. At first, I spent my nights thinking about it and never figured any correlation with the way my physique is designed to function. I realized that the only way I could survive was to shut off my brain. Do what they ask and do not try to understand.
At first, his insistence to make me explore outside of my comfort zone, made me mad. I realized then that I could not have figured the source of the problem by myself and that he was guiding my mental processing toward a body coordination that could engender soundness. I remember one day in the ring, I was quite frustrated and I asked him angrily, who you think I am, Einstein? He responded, “just be Manchester and you will succeed”. At first I was surprised, thinking that he can read my thoughts. I realized then that it was just coincidence. However, his words sounded loudly in my mind. Nobody before he ever asked me to be who I am. They all wanted me to fit the system that they believe in.
His confidence in me broke my resistance. Instead of reacting to his suggestions by protecting my muscular imbalance and weaknesses, I explored ways to work out my defects. I did not know that I have the mental capacity to do that. Once I evolved from my defensive state of mind to exploring new reflex combinations, my reeducation took a very different direction. I was curious because he encouraged me to explore but I was still cautious because for years I was told that I should just obey. One day, I was on the edge of succeeding with a movement that I had never been able to complete before. It was simply a half pass to the right at the trot, but due to the crookedness of my spine I was never able to execute the move. I was balanced between curiosity and fear. My spine was almost properly bent to the right. I was waiting for him to push me, but he did not. Fear won over curiosity and I walked toward the barn a little frustrated. He did not help me and I was so close. Then he told me, “you were very close and it was hard for me not to intervene, but only your mind can coordinate all the many and minuscule contractions and compensatory contractions efficiently. If I had interfered, you would have only obeyed. You would have gotten an ephemeral success, half pass right, but you would have missed the real coordination. The purpose is not that you execute the movement but instead that the movement helps you to further coordinate your body. The goal is not the movement. The goal is your soundness and your soundness relies on your capacity to move away from a body coordination that stresses your left stifle and other joints. I will not inject your hocks, wasting my time and your life, playing with the symptoms instead of the problem. You have to reeducate your vertebral column. I can guide you but you have to explore beyond instinctive reflexes. Today, you were very close but you did not believe in yourself enough. You will succeed tomorrow or the day after or the following day, but it will be the product of your mental processing and not obedience.”
“Doing better” is a mental game that one plays with oneself in order to believe that the training technique that one has selected, by emotion more than reason, is working. Most of the time, the horse is not doing better but the trainer has simply figure how to manage the defect. The horse’s initial education, as well as reeducation, needs to rely on science, which is a sound understanding of the horse’s locomotor mechanism. Any faith involved should be faith in the horse; belief and understanding that the horse does possess the intelligence and willingness to process proper athletic coordination beyond the scope of natural reflexes. The athletic demands of modern performances demand specific muscular development and coordination from the horse’s physique. Actual understanding of equine physiology provides the necessary knowledge to better prepare our horses for such. However, any benefit of pertinent discoveries is destroyed when the findings are integrated into conventional thinking. New findings, instead, need to be used to question and further conventional views. As well, those that hold onto the myth of classicism, as relevant to today’s performances, need to realize that science prevails over even such ancient and trusted wisdom. As early as 1949, General Decarpentry, author of Academic Equitation, made the following statement with regard to the different levels of performance required by the varying disciplines of riding, “The officer who decides to prepare a horse for international dressage tests is going beyond the limits of his equestrian education.” So too do those that refuse to acknowledge that science provides the answers to our riding questions.
Jean Luc Cornille