I am therefore I think
Chazot & Jean Luc Cornille
Edited by Susan Hopf
When I left my racetrack barn, everybody told me, if you go into dressage you have to read the classics. I did, I read Balzac, Shakespeare, Paine, but I am not sure if they were the classics that I was supposed to read. However, I found good ideas. Thomas Pain for instance seems to have perfectly understood the origins of most equestrian theories, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” He, regards the practical application of scientific knowledge as a science in itself. Well, I found in Balzac a thought that I am applying every morning. “Friendships last when each friend thinks he has a slight superiority over the other.” (Honore de Balzac, 1799 – 1850) He, is always coming in the morning with two carrots. He breaks one into three or sometimes four pieces for me. I eat the three parts and wait for the fourth one, when there is a fourth one. Sometimes he thinks, gosh you can count? Well not really but I have a nose. Then, I follow him, looking very intense, as he walks through the barn toward my friend Manchester. It works every time. He gives me one piece of Manchester’s carrot.
I try to trick him the same way when we are working in the ring but this is more challenging. He can use past experiences to better prepare the future. He can juggle images or hypothesis. By contrast, I am more confined to literal and immediate perception. However, even if I am using different neurological pathways, I can be creative. The only problem we have in our present relationship is my past. It all started at the racetrack. I felt sharp pains in my back muscles just under the rider. I reared because being taller than everybody else, going straight up in the air was my natural defense. When I came back on four legs, the rider was no longer on my back. I guess, rearing allowed me to get rid of one problem. Then they beat me, so I reared again, higher. The beating intensified and I reared harder, stronger, I fought with my forelegs.
William Calvin wrote, “Sometimes animals try out a novel combination of search image and movement during play and find a use for it later.” (Williwm H. Calvin, The Emergence of Intelligence, scientific America, October 1994) This was definitively not play but I found a use for it. I reared out of pain, frustration anger, it become the way I reacted to every event in my life, even the events that I did like. I am naturally combative, I do not like control, I do not accept unfair or dim discipline. I am concerned about the possibility of pain in my back, and I know that I have the power to get rid of any rider if I need to. Basically, I am totally unsuited for the equestrian education.
Curiously this does not seem to be an issue in my work with him. He does not try to manipulate my physique through neck posture or other restraints. He challenges my brain. He makes me think and lets me explore solutions. Each solution brings me closer to a body coordination giving me ease, control and amazing possibilities. One day, he was passing his hand on my back thinking, you have 185 separate synovial and fibrocartilaginous articulations in your vertebral column. Your spine is subjected to a large diversity of movements but a very narrow range of motion, particularly in the dorso-ventral direction. I often wonder how you are capable of orchestrating such a complex mechanism. Tell me about it. I was ready to reply, well, a man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd. But I realized that he already had. Besides, the thought belongs to James Crook.
Manchester comes from a more conventional school of thought and his perception is interesting. They were taking care of my condition from a medical point of view. I have been subjected to many treatments but, even if there were some nuances from one trainer to the other, the bottom line was always hoping that my condition would support the training system. No one ever adapted the training system to my condition. This was not related only to my case as a lame horse. My colleagues, who were sound, were talking about repeating the movements trying to find compromises easing as much as possible their morphological flaws, muscle imbalances, or other issues. I did exactly the same thing. In some instances the therapies were giving me some relief but as long as I went back to work using the same locomotor patterns, I was lame again in a few hours. This guy is different. He does not repeat the movement hoping that I will find the most appropriate body coordination. Instead, he coordinates very specifically my physique. If I am not capable of maintaining the body coordination at the trot, he reorganizes me again at the walk and asks me for the trot when I am ready.
I guess; he is following the same approach with me, although he is using the trot much more than the walk. The reason came one day as he was responding to a student’s question. The forces that the limbs are imposing on the horse’s vertebral column are different not only in intensity but also in direction from one gait to the other. At the walk, the hind and front limbs are acting as lever. The accepted terminology is “inverted pendulum.” At the trot, the limbs’ action is more like a spring. At the canter, hind and front legs are combining inverted pendulum and spring action. Each gait does impose different forces on the spine. At one moment of the horse’s reeducation the walk might be effective. At another moment, the trot might be more appropriate.
I am comfortable with the tone of the conversation I am having with he. I am glad that we communicate through body language. The first time he said carrot I understood parrot. I was looking for a bird and then realized that he was holding a carrot in his hand. I was ready to translate in my mind that parrot means carrot but he broke the carrot in pieces and I recognized the noise immediately. Curiously, he breaks carrots without accent. The changes in his back muscles adjustments are always progressive and subtle. We, equines, have a very high level of perception which makes us react negatively to any shift of the rider’s weight, large swings of the rider’s vertebral column as well as all excessive movements. On the contrary, subtle adjustments of the rider’s back and abdominal muscles situate the conversation within our comfort zone. Personally, my response to any kind of intensity is aggressiveness. Whenever I perceive intensity from the handler or the rider, my initial impulse is aggression. Manchester told me, that in such circumstances he spooks. If I feel intensity, or pain or even anticipation of pain, I spook. I don’t know why but everything became spooky for me, even things that I knew perfectly well.
I saw him in action. Manchester is very funny to watch. Suddenly, he moves both front legs apart. I cannot believe how fast he does that. I remember, one day, there was a woman in the barn who was carrying an era of tension around her. He, was polite but obviously did not like her. Manchester and I were intense. There was something rickety about this person. Manchester was in the crossties and as she walked by him, he spooked smashing her toes with his left front hoof. She screamed so loud, I could not believe that so much noise could come out of such a small body. I did not know what she said but the sound resembled the words that the jockeys were screaming at me when they were angry with me. As the woman limped out of the barn on one leg, I told to Manchester, nice move and he responded, pure luck.
One morning, he was late for breakfast, hirsute, murmuring words like late, sorry, read this study last night, did not wake up. You should have seen his hairs. He looked like Einstein. I mean I am talking about the hairs only. After taking care of us, he leaned a few minutes on my stall door thinking, this might be your problem. In freedom, I have a breathtaking trot but under the saddle I am only a shadow of what I can be. He explored the thought that for whatever reason and in spite of my size I could be disturbed by his weight. Even on the racetrack, I heard about the phenomena of gait deterioration due to the rider’s weight. Studies have demonstrated that our performances were altered when the rider’s weight, including the saddle, was more than 20% of our body mass. I weigh 1800 pounds. Even if he has gained some weight with the holidays, he is no more than 200 pounds with the saddle. Basically, he is 160 pounds below the limit. I knew that this was not the problem but he was considering all possibilities. The study he was thinking about was in reference to Calcium Regulation Tie Up. The condition, which is also referred to a (RER,) creates violent spasms of the back extensor muscles. I froze. I almost reared thinking about these violent pains that made me blow up in the air. His thought went further. The condition can be genetic. Two of my ancestors are known to carry the problem. The condition causes diarrhea, which I used to have. The issue causes spasmodic colic, which was one of my problems. I was waiting for the death sentence; the condition cannot be cured. But on the contrary, he was thinking, no big deal. 10 to 15% of the thoroughbreds have the problem. The condition can be resolved with proper nutrition and sound development of the back muscles. I rested my chin on his shoulder and tried to recover from so much anticipation. He placed his hand on my nose thinking that he must have done something wrong; he is very kind.
The problem of living in the moment is that it is sometimes difficult to discern memories from reality. The pain is so alive in my memory that I protect myself against any muscular work that could trigger the pain. Then I react against any demand that would challenge my protective reflex contractions. I do not know really if I still have the pain but I am not willing to experiment. This is where many common stretching and relaxation theories do not work. I will not automatically let go of my protective reflex contraction. In fact, if such was his approach, I would impulsively protect myself from any stretching exercise he would attempt.
I must be doing well with my suspensory problem as he has been riding me for three or four days now. This afternoon, as we were working at a slow trot, he asked me to bend laterally, my vertebral column, to the right. I am nervous about making this effort as it is associated in my memory with violent pain. I kind of expressed my concerns and he listened, asking me the same lateral bending at the walk. I am more confident that this is not going to hurt at the walk. I bend my spine laterally and then he asks me to keep the lateral bending at the trot. I do and the feeling is good. Then memories flashed back in my mind and I contract some. The feeling deteriorates and I start to worry about pain. I decide to stop. He asks me to walk with his legs and I refuse. I am ready to react and step up the tension. He touches me with the whip. Can you believe that? I am ready to blow up and he touches me with the whip! The fact is; this is just a touch. The touch will barely disturb a fly. I dig my heels in the ground like humans like to say. He touches me again. The same light touch. Even if I am thinking negatively, I cannot fight such gentle touch. At the fourth touch I cannot even remember why I had stopped in the first place and I walk on in shoulder in. The feeling is comfortable. He asks me to trot, which I do. The trot feels great and I concentrate to keep it that way.
During the evolution of our work at first I only knew that I was right because he rewarded me. Soon, I noticed in my cerebellum and other parts of my brain, which are monitoring my body, that the muscular coordination stimulating reward was also creating ease and physical comfort. When I realized that, I was more willing to let him guide me. In fact, today I even experiment. When I feel that I am close to forming the muscular coordination that is associated in my brain with comfort, I try a combination of reflexes that I would never have had the curiosity to try earlier on. But! Wait one minute!!! I just said that I was experimenting when two paragraphs earlier I said that I was not willing to experiment. I told you, sometimes he really annoys me.
Jean Luc Cornille
Science Of Motion
Jean Luc Cornille Copyright©2011