Stuck in the past: are we listening to equine back research?



Since the inception of the Immersion Programs I have observed that going through the history of equine research studies has better helped riders, trainers and therapists to understand how the horse’s vertebral column effectively functions.

This history affords the participants a greater accuracy as well as an evolution from the simplicity of past theories to the complexity of actual knowledge. Studying the past reveals the origin of theories that still promoted today, and just how long it has been since they have progressed.

This text is, of course, just a brief summary of the original lecture.

It is true that the fascicles of the main back muscles are inserted obliquely on the dorsal spines. The fascicles of the longissimus dorsi muscles are oriented oblique, down and forward while the fascicles of the spinaleus dorsi and more exactly the multifidius, are oriented oblique, down and backward. Their action induces rotary forces on the dorsal spines and correspondent vertebrae.

This was explained by E. J. Slijper in 1946.

The Dutch scientist also described the horse’s vertebral column functioning as a “bow” that can be flexed by the action of the “string”, which is composed of pectoral and abdominal muscles. The theory was referred to as the “bow and string concept.”

With some variables, this is basically the concept behind most actual riding techniques as well as the concept supported in the video that started the discussion.

The problem is that the concept was presented in 1946. Scientific findings and therefore knowledge has greatly evolved since 1946. In 1964 Richard Tucker explored the thought that acting on the dorsal spines, the back muscles were allowing the vertebrae to transmit the thrust generated by the hind legs into horizontal forces, (forward movement), and to create vertical forces resisting gravity and therefore permitting balance control.

horse-backTucker furthered Slijper’s description explaining how, through their insertion on the dorsal spines, the muscles were compressing the vertebrae against each other favoring forward transmission of horizontal forces, (forward movement.) Simultaneously back muscles are inducing rotary movements of the vertebrae creating vertical forces, (resistance to gravity and balance control.)

Tucker moved away from the simplistic idea that the thoracoumbar column was flexing and extending as a whole. The Polish scientist pointed out that due to the curvature that characterizes the shape of the horse’s thoracolumbar spine, the vertebrae and muscles situated on the ascending side of the curvature were working in the opposite way than the vertebrae and muscles situated on the descending side of the thoracolumbar curvature.

In 1969, James Rooney demonstrated that the work of these muscle groups, which are arranged in mirror images, has to be perfectly synchronized to ensure proper locomotion. If the fascicles of the longissimus muscles contract first, the thoracic spine extends. If the fascicles of the spinaleus dorsi contract first, the lumbar spine stiffens.

Rooney basically demonstrated the damage created by the shifts of the rider’s weight, which is a theory that is still emphasized in modern days. If the rider’s weight is acting back to front, as emphasized in the driving seat theory, the rider stiffens the horse’s thoracic vertebrae. By contrast, if the rider’s weight is acting front to back, the rider stiffens the horse’s lumbar vertebrae.

Rooney’s findings suggested an equitation based on a rider’s body maintained constantly on a neutral balance, which is exactly vertical over the seat bones.

One of the defenders of the long and low theory referred to “Pilates.” If this person really knew Joseph Pilates’ approach, she would have realized that maintaining the rider’s body in perfect neutral balance and therefore with the vertebral column almost straight is Pilates’ real teaching. Her perception of Pilates for the horse is that the abdominal muscles flex the thoracolumbar spine.

This is not Pilates’ teaching. The real Pilates idea is to balance the work of both abdominal and back muscles to straighten the spine.

Rooney’s work also suggested that the real relation between the horse’s vertebral column and the rider’s back was more at the level of subtle movements of the rider’s back instead of shifts of the rider’s weight. In relation to the work of the back muscles, Rooney’s explanation differed from Tucker’s view.

However, understanding how the horse’s vertebral column converts the thrust generated by the hind legs, which is basically a horizontal force, into forces resisting gravity, which are vertical forces, is easier to visualize mentally with Tucker’s explanation. This does not mean that Tucker’s explanation should be taken word for word.

All these explanations are attempting to describe forces, which is an abstract concept. True understanding demands several ideas aiming toward the same concept. Rooney’s insight was that the creation of upward vertical forces through the spine was achieved by the direction of the muscles’ work without inducing much movement of the vertebrae.

The pathologist explained that in order to create horizontal forces, (forward movement,) and vertical forces, (resistance to gravity and balance control), two muscles are needed, one acting horizontally and one acting vertically, or, a single muscle acting in an oblique manner. Such insertion allows the same muscle to create both horizontal and vertical forces. This is exactly how the fascicles of the main back muscles are oriented and function.

This was the beginning of a long series of research aiming toward a functioning of the horse’s back muscles based on the subtle management of forces instead of increasing the movements of the vertebrae.

This was 1969 and we were, at that time, already far away from the infantile idea that a single action such as lowering the neck could flex the whole thoracolumbar spine and also that gaits and performances can be improved by increasing the range of motion of the horse’s thoracolumbar column.

Rooney also questioned the veracity of the bow and string concept. As a pathologist, Rooney observed firsthand the discrepancy between the large mass and power of the back muscles and small mass and limited power of the abdominal muscles. We have recently published a picture showing a cut-away of the back muscles and by comparison a cut-away of the abdominal muscles executed at the same vertical plain. Rooney basically demonstrated that abdominal muscles do not have the capacity to flex the back muscles. Longitudinal flexion of the horse’s thoracolumbar spine is instead, created by the precise coordination of the main back muscles that are situated above the vertebral bodies.

Rooney’s work suggested that the contraction of abdominal muscles would assist the flexion of the back but not create it. Instead of lowering the horse’s neck and stimulating hind legs engagement, the flexion of the horse’s thoracolumbar column is more likely to occur through harmonic motion of the rider’s back influencing the work of the horse’s back muscles.

Three and half decades later, uneducated trainers and riders are promoting the lowering of the neck as a new way to engage the horse’s back. Even if equine research studies were brought to a complete halt, the practical application of available knowledge would considerably enhance the horse’s performances and in particular the horse’s soundness.

Very few of today’s advanced scientific discoveries benefit the horse through better training and riding techniques. The reason is that instead of questioning old ideas in the light of new findings trainers, riders and judges are integrating new discoveries to old beliefs.

Considering the cost of raising, maintaining and training a horse, it is incomprehensible that the practical application of modern science, which could greatly prolong and further the horse’s career, preserve the horse’s soundness and consequently cut the vet bills, is rejected in favor of archaic but familiar approaches.

The horse’ vertebral column functions within the limits of a very limited range of motion.
The horse’ vertebral column functions within the limits of a very limited range of motion.

In1976 Hans Carlson demonstrated that the main function of the back muscles was not to increase the range of movement of the horse’s vertebral column, but at the contrary, to protect the vertebral column from movements exceeding the thoracolumbar spine’s possible range of motion.

Uneducated riders argue that the study was made on cats. Carlson’s study was effectively effectuated on cats, which demonstrates that visual impressions can easily lead to the wrong perception.

Multiple studies have then been done duplicating the same protocol and the findings were similar with horses and most terrestrial mammals.

Basically, all the theories promoting better performances and gaits through stretching and greater amplitude of the horse’s vertebral column movements are in direct contradiction with the way the horse’s vertebral column and surrounding muscles are designed to work.

In 1980, Leo Jeffcott measured the range of possible movement of the horse’s vertebral column. Many studies after Jeffcott found differences in the location of vertebral column movements but they all found a limited range of motion.

Basically, the back muscles do not increase the vertebral column range of movement but, at the contrary, resist forces induced on the horse’s vertebral column in order to maintain the vertebral column movements within the limits of its possible range of motion. This was 1980 and it was already demonstrated that theories such as the swinging back and stretching were in plain contradiction with the way the horse’s vertebral column and back muscles operate.

At this point of knowledge, the thought that the horse’s thoracolumbar column was flexing longitudinally and laterally as a whole was totally blown away.

All investigations clearly demonstrated that while greater movements were possible between T9 and mostly T14, while some horses show mobility until T16, the rest of the horse thoracolumbar spine was quite rigid. Movements occur but within the limits of a restricted ranged of motion.

In 1999, Jean Marie Denoix published a comprehensive study on the functioning of the horse’s vertebral column. Among the pertinent discoveries was the way each vertebra rotates in relation to the other. Denoix’s research presented a work of the back muscles quite different than previously believed.

Tucker for instance, theorized that lateral bending induced pressure on the inside side of the vertebrae. Denoix demonstrated that in fact lateral bending was created by a rotation of one vertebrae around the other. He was the first to present a comprehensive study about the fact that lateral bending is always coupled with a movement of transversal rotation and that rotation is, also, always associated with lateral bending. In line with James Rooney, Denoix’s work demonstrated that gaits and performances were the outcome of back muscles creating and orchestrating forces instead of inducing greater range of motion of the vertebrae.

Before the birth of the 21st century, scientific research had already demonstrated that all forms of equitation based on increasing the horse’s vertebral column range of motion was not only antiquated but contrary to the way the horse’s vertebral column effectively works.

rollkur2Muscle function and architecture is now also understood at a much deeper level. The involvement of the horse’s vertebral column into gaits and performances is more about muscles creating and orchestrating forces than muscles moving vertebrae.

For centuries, horses have been forced to execute movements of the back that their vertebral column was not designed to create. In fact, they did not increase the range of motion of their vertebral column for the very simple reason that their vertebral column mechanism does not allow greater movement. Instead, they found ways to compensate for the incongruity of their riders’ demand. The best horses did not increase the amplitude of their vertebral column’s movement but instead, the subtle coordination of forces, giving to the rider an impression of ease that the
rider interpreted as relaxation, stretching, swinging back and other misconceptions.

Some horses have succeeded to figure, within the incoherency of the rider’s stimulus, how to orchestrate more or less appropriately their physique for the athletic demand of the performance. Many others have tried as hard as their talented peers but nature did not give them the same athletic and mental abilities and they succumbed to lameness.

One of the most common deceptions is the belief that the lowering of the neck flexes the lumbar vertebrae and increases their range of motion. The optical illusion was explained in 1986 by Jean Marie Denoix. The lowering of the neck reduces the mobility of the lumbar vertebrae. This is true for every horse. Stiffening of the lumbar vertebrae hampers proper dorso-ventral rotation of the pelvis and therefore sound kinematics of the hind legs.

In order to compensate for the stiffening of the lumbar vertebrae, the horse increases the work of the iliopsoas muscles, which swings the hind limbs forward. Since the iliopsoas is placed under the lumbosacral junction, increased work of the iliopsoas muscle does induce greater rotation of the lumbosacral junction. This lumbosacral rotation does give the optical illusion that the whole lumbar region moves. In fact, the lumbar vertebrae do not flex. Instead, the horse compensates for the rigidity of the lumbar spine, that was created by the lowering of the neck, with greater intensity in the lumbosacral junction that is situated behind the lumbar vertebrae.

The theories of relaxation, stretching and greater mobility of the vertebral column are naïve interpretations of a mechanism which in fact, is working exactly the opposite way.

Today’s knowledge allows returning the favor to the horse. The practical application of advanced scientific knowledge permits us to understand how the horse’s back effectively functions and how the rider can guide the horse’s brain toward efficient coordination of the vertebral column mechanism. This is done by reducing the range of motion of the rider’s back and matching the range of motion of the horse’s back.

Through a subtle body language, the rider guides the horse’s brain toward the body coordination appropriate for the effort. This is classical training.

In the 17th century The Duke of Newcastle talked about the stability of the rider’s pelvis. The classic author uses the terms “unmovable pelvis.”

The practical application of pertinent scientific discoveries commences by questioning old theories in the light of new knowledge. It is astounding that instead of upgrading their training and riding techniques to the findings of modern research studies, trainers deliberately refuse new knowledge under the name of tradition. They submit their horses to the same incongruities and suffering as the horses of previous generations. It is equally astounding that riders follow and even protect these primitive ideas.

Fortunately, there are also trainers who evolve, upgrading their techniques with true knowledge. In the same line of thought, there are riders who do not let their horses be damaged by submissive and uneducated training techniques.

One of the great horses that we have in training right now had the luck to belong to a rider who refused poor training techniques. The rider stood up for her horse and the horse, which was born as a good horse has evolved into a great horse. We have today, the capacity to prepare efficiently the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance. We owe this knowledge to the horse.

Refusing progress and perpetuating old and heretic beliefs is not classic; it is archaic. If one wants to protect the horse from rollkur, draw reins, deep work and other exploitations, one needs to evolve from the common denominator of all these poor training techniques, which is ignorance. A real classic trainer learns how the horse’s body effectively works and then applies the motto of the most classical school of riding.

“Respect for tradition should not prevent the love of progress.” (Colonel Danloux, Cadre Noir de Saumur, 1931)

Simplistic representations illustrate the longissimus system as a long and thick bungee cord stretching from the sacrum to the fourth cervical vertebra. Based on such schematic illustration simplistic thoughts deducted that the lowering of the neck elongated the horse’s whole top line.
Simplistic representations illustrate the longissimus system as a long and thick bungee cord stretching from the sacrum to the fourth cervical vertebra. Based on such schematic illustration simplistic thoughts deducted that the lowering of the neck elongated the horse’s whole top line.


E. J. SLijper. Comparative biologic-anayomical investigations on the vertebral column and spinal muscles. Verhandelingen der kononklijke Nederlandsche Akademia van Wetenschappen, AFD, Natuurkunde. Tweede Sectie, deel XLII, #5

Richard Tucker, Contribution to the Biomechanics of the vertebral column. Rotary system induced in the thoraco-lumbar curvature by the epacial musculature. Acta Theriologica, Vol. IX, 12: 171-193. Bialowieza. 30. XI. 1964

James R. Rooney DVM, Biomechanics of lameness in horses. The William and Wilkins company, Baltimore, 1969

Hans Carlson, Halbertsma J. and Zomlefer, M. 1979, Control of the trunk during walking in the cat. Acta physiol. Scand. 105, 251-253 – Leo B. Jeffcott, Natural Rigidity of the horse’s backbone, 1980. Equine vet J. 1980, 12 (3) , 101-108

Jean Marie Denoix, DVM. PhD, Spinal Biomechanics and Functional Anatomy, 1999 000229442

Jean Luc Cornille

Jean Luc Cornille M.A.(M.Phil) has gained worldwide recognition by applying practical science to the training of the equine athlete. Influenced by his background as a gymnast, Jean Luc deeply understands how equine training can be enhanced by contemporary scientific research. A unique combination of riding skill, training experience and extensive knowledge of the equine physiology enables Jean Luc to "translate" scientific insights into a language comprehensible to both horse and rider. This approach has been the trademark of his training. - read more about Jean Luc

20 thoughts on “Stuck in the past: are we listening to equine back research?

  • August 17, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    This is a very comprehensive article, although if not science based may go over the head of the very people you wish to reach. I would love to reproduce this in my magazine. I have one question: When you talk of stretching do you mean that of extreme stretching as in roll kur or do you mean all stretching? Is it no longer beneficial to stretch the horse?

    • August 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      Gloria — a sound knowledge of equine anatomy and biomechanics are the very things that are so critical for riders, teachers and trainers (and even breeders) to understand. Without that scientific information, we remain in the dark ages.
      The key to reproducing this in your magazine would be to submit it to your readership as an article about the importance of the science behind how the horse’s vertebral mechanism functions. That would be a way to get people thinking about why we do what we do when we ride, teach and train. From there, we might begin to question which parts of our theories are valid and to ask if our beliefs are based on results from valid studies and pathology rooms in veterinary hospitals across the country, or are based on tradition.
      It is time that we not take everything horse at the face value of “it has been done that way for hundreds of years” and help our equine partners be the best they can be.
      Encourage your readership to be brave and stretch themselves!
      Good luck and hope to see this article in other forums and publications.

      • September 11, 2013 at 4:29 am

        And it would also be good to have more illustrations so that the folks who do not know all the technical body terms would not be in the dark while reading!

    • August 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm

      The horse’s muscular system does not work under the concept of stretching or muscle release. The muscular work is about nuance in muscle tone. The Rollkur is not a hyper stretching. it is a flexion that create excessive stress in the upper part of the funicular element of the nuchal ligament which does not have the capacity to support such strain. Rollkur is an abuse. JLC

  • August 18, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Because a rider describes something as “stretching” or the back “swings” this does not make the great riders of the past “ignorant ” .

    • August 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Actually, it does make the great riders of the past ignorant. Ignorance simply means that someone does not know something. With the limited technology available, they could not have known what we know today.

      I think what is so great about the information we have now have at hand, is that we have the opportunity to learn and understand precisely why a number training practices are damaging. Understanding the mechanism of the equine vertebral column by way of studying anatomy and biomechanics gives valuable insight to the disruptions we cause with a driving seat or a holding hand. We can begin to see that if a horse is driven forward faster than it’s natural cadence, it cannot possibly manage the forces necessary to coordinate its back muscles and vertebrae for the athletic effort demanded. So many riding and training theories can be put to rest if professionals, riders, amateurs and judges would take the time to keep up with research. The research is there. The necropsy room does not lie. Fortunately, there are intelligent articles like this one that give solid detailed explanations and keep me from having to locate and read the vast body of work out there or bribe someone to let me observe in a wet lab at the veterinary hospital.

      We can find that there is a better way. We can improve upon the great masters of the past. If the great riders of the past were with us today, they would be leading this effort just as they did in their day. Now it is up to us to carry their work forward — by improving it, not necessarily repeating it. With the greatest respect, we can say, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

      However, if we continue to draw our knowledge only from the past and refuse to be open to any possibilities that may improve our relationships with our equine friends and further our training abilities, then we are not even ignorant — we are merely foolish.

  • August 18, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Wow- amazed the article never addressed the role of the nuchal and supraspinous ligament- as the nuchal ligament over the cervicals is flexed, it pulls the supraspinous ligament, which extends over the thoracolumbar spine, upwards- add a downward tilt to the sacrum (created by the illiopspas and abdominal muscles attached beneath the pelvis) from hind limb engagement and you get collection. The article stated that the lumbar was thought to create the downward tilt, but it isn’t- it’s always been the sacrum that can flex up and down, never the lumbar- the lumbar is fixed- can’t even hardly move side to side let alone up and down. Odd the article only discussed the muscular structures- muscular structures can’t do diddly without the support of their tendons and ligaments- Hmmmm……….

    • August 19, 2013 at 12:36 am

      Knowledge of the functional anatomy of the horse should be a requirement of all trainers and body workers. Having such knowledge is key to understanding how we can better school our horses as well as our clients’. Despite the incredible amount of information contained within this article it is still only just one article and as such cannot be totally comprehensive in its scope. That said I suggest it be re-read several times so that what it does offer is not missed – that being that even though each individual body part performs differently it is the whole of the horse that must function together – for example each vertebrae transmits information and energy to the next – this is only one piece but a very important piece to understand and what has been completely misunderstood in all past training methods.

      • August 19, 2013 at 12:43 am

        In addition to my previous comment – Jean Luc Cornille has so much more to offer. This article is only a small insight to all he has to offer the horse world. For a complete understanding of the functional anatomy of the horse as it applies to riding today I would not hesitate to visit the Science of Motion web site and explore – you will be amazed at how much new research has to offer our riding.

    • August 19, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      Christie. You are completely off. The nuchal ligament is on the neck between T4 and the skull. On the thoracolumbar spine is the supraspinous ligament which is the continuation of the nucjhal ligament but is not elastic. The sacrum is composed of 5 vertebrae that are fused and there is no movement between the sacrum and the pelvis. The rotation is effectuated at the lumbosacral junction which can rotate between 21 an 13 degrees. Sorry but you are dead wrong. JLC

  • August 18, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Thank you for publishing this well written article! I’ve been rehabilitating horses with backproblems for more than 10 years now in The Netherlands. It’s my experience as a veterinarian that all horses that have been trained roll kur suffer from serious backproblems especially in the lumbar region. When we do thermografic examination we find severe reactions in this region, but also in the neck from C1 to C6-7 and first thoracal vertebrae. However it is my experience that lowering the neck with the nose going forward is beneficial for the horse, but let the horse tell you how low he wants to go. So invite the horse to stretch, but don’t force him. By letting him pull on the riders hand towards a stretch the nose will stay forward, the hind legs go correctly forward, the sternum (wither)will lift and the horse balances his body. We train our rehabilitation horses this way and use this technique also in higher positions of the neck/ head (the frame). Always keeping the nose going forward. Thermografic controls show great results als well as the horses themselves.

    • August 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

      Karin. There is no stretching of the upper neck muscles when the horse lower the neck. This has been clearly explained and demonstrated on our on line program. The nose moving forward does not have any stretching effect there are two naib upper neck muscles. The splenius that is not attached on the skull and the semispinalis capitis that is comparimented. The element that is involve extending the nose forward does not stretch but at the contrary contract concentrically pulling of the crest of the skull backwward. There are 21 pairs of muscles moving the head. They are not the muscles resisting lowering of the neck. When the neck goes lower, the upper neck muscles do not stretch but at the contrary resist the effect of gravity that is pulling the head and neck down. JLC

  • August 18, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    After foaling many over the years I realised watching them grow into adults & then seeing them a few years later that there is a lot of damage done when ridden. I don’t remember a foal that wasn’t born with beautiful plump back muscles. THis has created a huge drive for me to learn how to minimize the damages done. Our horses are not maturing strong & sound, instead they are often broken at a young age & then replaced as though it were the normal thing to do. Horses are screaming & riders are punishing them for it. It is time to move forward past the conventional way which is leaving our horses crippled.
    Jean Luc Cornille is amazing! He provides evidence that cannot be disputed when the knowledge is grasped. (there is a lot to grasp!) This artivcle is only a tiny minute portion the knowledge this man has to offer. We don’t have to look far to see the massive amount of horses competing that are unsound at an early age……. WHY? Science of Motion is the beginning of a massive paradigm shift in our equine industries! It may take a while, but rest assured the knowledge is here 😀

  • August 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Excellent article. Articulate, concise, and succinct.

  • August 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Great article. And a summary only! Let’s hope trainers and riders start to see that there is much more to discover than previously known and that correct biomechanics involve a lot more than simplistic stretching theories based on flawed riding and training techniques. Looking forward to more!

  • August 18, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Fascinating article which stimulates further research and thought.
    Thank you.

  • August 20, 2013 at 4:41 am

    As I think it was Karin mentioned before, listening to the horse is how things should be. In my experience, studying with Jean Luc the horse clearly flourishes with this work. At times because of previous damage the horse resists but soon realizes that he/she can more easily move its body and carry the rider and they become EXTREMELY willing partners. This is the bottom line to me in any training with horses–they tell me what makes sense, what works and what makes them feel better.

  • August 20, 2013 at 4:54 am

    PS This work also addresses mental and emotional issues as well as physical issues–something in my experience with past training techniques is sorely missing. Horses love when they are listened to and not just an object. Truly amazing in some horses how different they become.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.