Putting the ‘class’ back into classical horsemanship


Surfers have up to 22% higher bone density in their arms, ribs and spine than sedentary folks. This is because paddling out and riding uses muscles that cue bones to thicken. However, leg-bone density is only marginally better in surfers.

Superficial thinking would have imagined that on the contrary, surfing would have increased the bone density of the legs. In the same line of thought, one would have believed that the arms and back of the weightlifters are the strongest parts of their body. In reality, the power of a weightlifter is, for a large part, in a high percentage of fast-twitch thigh muscles. The limbs push on the ground to lift the weight. One Olympic weight lifter athlete stated, “Any one of us can easily jump and reach a basketball hoop from a standing position under the hoop.”

Dressage, the real meaning of which is “education,” has deviated from its original purpose. Movements are truly gymnastic exercises, which, if practiced with a physique properly developed and coordinated for the effort, further the athlete’s development and coordination. Unfortunately, movements look spectacular or fancy and they have become finalities. Techniques have then been developed to make the horse execute the appearance of movements without understanding the underlining biomechanics factors.

For instance, the fundamental principle of locomotion is the use during the swing phase, of an elastic strain energy stored in the long tendons, aponeurosis and muscles during the stance. Uneducated trainers try to compensate for the insufficient elastic strain produced during the stance by acting on the hind and front limbs with a whip. They mimic the gesture without understanding the body coordination allowing the horse to perform the move soundly and efficiently. The same can be said with lateral movements. Lateral bending is always coupled with a movement of transversal rotation of the thoracic vertebrae. The rotation can be proper, which is sound, or inverted, which exposes the horse to numerous limb kinematic aberrations. Gimmicks such as moving the horse’s body sideways with a probe mimic the move, creating dysfunctional horses associating lateral bending with an inverted rotation.

Tricking the horse into the move has become the norm.

“Most dressage manuals describe the training of passage and piaff but very few explain how the horses perform them.” (Mikael Holmström Dissertation, Upsalla, 1994)

While advanced research studies offer the opportunity to prepare the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance, many opt for what centuries earlier François Robichon de la Gueriniere denounced as, “The false practice.”

Unfortunately, it is easier to turn to false practice than to do what is correct.” _ Ecole de Cavalerie, 1736

The practical application of actual scientific knowledge offers the unique opportunity to fully understand “how the horse performs the move” and soundly prepare the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the move. Instead, competitive riders buy a better horse expecting that the horse’s talent would compensate for the inaccuracy of the training approach. The classical approach is guilty of the same lack of evolution. Antiquated principles are repeated under the name of tradition, allowing the horse to be physically unprepared for the athletic demands of the move. This is not classical riding; great authors have always been on the cutting edge of available knowledge.

Respect for tradition should not prevent the love of progress.” _ Colonel Danloux

In the forum of our education course, the question came about “half pass” being “haunches in” on the diagonal. Of course, I responded that half pass was absolutely not haunches in on the diagonal. I was surprised to read that this false concept was regularly taught. Members of our course had enough knowledge to be suspicious about the theory but they told me that such comparison was regularly made and taught. In superficial appearance, there might be some similarities, but the biomechanics of the vertebral column and limb kinematics are totally different. This type of superficial education might trick the horse into a move looking like half pass but does not allow the horse to perform with a physique properly coordinated for the athletic demand of the move. The outcome is a performance below the horse’s potential and a horse’s physique exposed to abnormal stress and consequent injuries.

“Science allows us to look at natural processes with a different eye and to understand how things work. (Marc Kaufman)


This picture of a horse practicing haunches in illustrates the problem of inverted rotation commonly associated with the move. Here, right lateral bending is coupled with a rotation shifting of the dorsal spine to the left. The red line starting at the horse’s sternum and passing through the dorsal spine of the wither emphasizes the direction of the rotation. When the dorsal spine is shifted to the left as illustrated, the ventral part of the vertebral bodies is facing right and the rotation is technically referred to as “right rotation”. This is confusing as the rider is seated over the dorsal spine. In this picture, the rider feels a rotation of the dorsal spine toward the left and the scientific terms for such rotation is right rotation.

The proper rotation should be in the other direction. On the contrary, in this picture of haunches in, right lateral bending is coupled with an inverted rotation. Instead, proper rotation associates lateral bending with a rotation shifting the dorsal spine toward the inside of the bend.

“In the cervical and thoracic vertebral column, rotation is always coupled with lateroflexion and vice versa. In the thoracic spine, as is the case during lateroflexion, the spinous processes bend in the concavity.” _ Jean Marie Denoix, DVM, PhD

Denoix’s original drawing illustrates left lateral bending. The picture has been flipped over for easy understanding. This is why the text is inverted.
Denoix’s original drawing illustrates left lateral bending. The picture has been flipped over for easy understanding. This is why the text is inverted.

During half pass right, right lateral bending has to be coupled with a rotation shifting the dorsal spines toward the inside of the bend. Both the picture and the diagram created by Jean Marie Denoix, illustrates the proper direction of the rotation. Right lateral bending is normally coupled with a rotation shifting the dorsal spines toward the inside of the bend, (left rotation.)

The front horse in the below drawing illustrates a half pass executed with inverted rotation of the thoracic spine. This inverted rotation results from the thought that half pass is a haunches in on the diagonal. Based on this erroneous thinking, the horse executes half pass with an inverted rotation. By contrast, the horse pictured above picture executes a correct half pass combining right lateral bending with the proper rotation. Both horses might have the same score in the show ring since transversal rotations associated with lateral bending are not acknowledge in the judging standards.


The difference is that the front horse executes a movement for which his physique is not properly coordinated. The predictable outcome is lameness. This horse will have to have hocks and stifles injected regularly due to the stresses that the move induces on the limbs and vertebral column structure. By contrast, the horse executing a half pass with a physique properly coordinated for the effort will perform at the top of his talent, furthering the strength, suppleness and elasticity of the limbs and vertebral column muscular system. This is the difference between superficial thinking and riding and training and equitation, and an education focusing on the source of the problem.

This is what competitive as well as classical training is about.

In order to attain excellence in this art, it is necessary to be prepared for the difficulties encountered in the practice by a clear and firm theory. _ François Robichon de la Gueriniere, 1688-1751

Competition can be an art. Once in a while a rider and a horse are properly coordinated for the athletic demand of the move. The problem is that if they win the heart of the public, because the horse performs at ease adding his style and personality to the move, they rarely win because judging standards reward superficial appearances. Classical riding rarely goes beyond appearances and asking dysfunctional horses to execute moves for which they are not athletically prepared.

Jean Luc Cornille in action.
Jean Luc Cornille in action.

In terms of soundness and therapy, the difference is considerable. Horses don’t possess inherently the body coordination optimally adapted to the athletic demand of modern performances. This is true for all types of equine athletic performances. A horse does not need to learn how to execute the move; a horse needs to learn how to develop and coordinate his physique for the athletic demands of the move. A horse does not need a trainer or a rider knowing what half pass is supposed to look like. A horse needs a rider and a trainer to understand the biomechanics of half pass, or shoulder in, or flying change, or piaffe, or a jumping performance.

Limbs kinematics and vertebral column kinematics are intimately related and when half pass is executed with inverted rotation of the thoracic vertebrae, repercussions are inducing abnormal stresses on hips, stifles, hocks, fetlocks and even coffin joints of the hind legs. The muscular system of the thoracic spine is altered as well and since balance control and therefore the weight loading of the forelegs is directly related to proper or improper vertebral column mechanism, a half pass executed with an inverted rotation of the thoracic spine is a movement further damaging the physique of a dysfunctional horse.

By contrast, half a pass executed with proper transversal rotation is a gymnastic furthering body control and coordination. This is true classical, which is class.

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

5 thoughts on “Putting the ‘class’ back into classical horsemanship

  • August 19, 2015 at 12:33 am

    Thank you for this article, Jean Luc.

    I never really tried to do these movements since my horses always told me I was giving them the wrong aids. So I decided I did not know what I was doing and stopped asking.

    Now I will have an idea of what I need to do to ask the horse properly!

    Thank you, thank you, from me and the horses I will ride in the future. Now to studying and figuring out what I have to do.

  • August 19, 2015 at 6:23 am

    At the same time, we need to keep this knowledge and the teaching hereof simple and accessible to the average dressage rider. Not everyone can or wants to dive into the intricacies of biomechanics. This is where ‘feel’ comes in. Instructors need to teach riders the proper feel. In a country were properly educated instructors are rare (USA), this becomes an ever increasing challenge as more people are asking for better instruction. Reading the HDV12 German Cavalry Manual is a good start. Understanding the basics leads to the desire to expand knowledge.

  • August 22, 2015 at 5:20 am

    A great article. It is sad that people do not want to take the time to truly understand the movements and especially the time to develop the horse. To me, the basic training is so exciting, as the horse begins to learn to keep contact with the bit on its own – instead of the rider creating the contact. Then the horse learns to follow the bit and everything becomes so light. With the horse’s understanding the movements flow. Without the horse’s understanding little is really correct. I cannot even watch “high level” dressage competitions, filled with horses doing what I call trick Piaffe and Passage, swishing tails, mouths tied shut, crude aids, and the list goes on.

  • August 22, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Your article is confusing, because your first two illustrations (the gray horse from the rear, then the older B&W photograph from the front) show the horse in opposite portions of the stride. When the left hind is in flight (as seen on the gray horse) the spine will always be rotated top-to-the left (what you call right rotation). When the left hind is on the ground and the right hind is in flight, as seen in the B&W photo that follows, and the right hind is in the air, then the top of the spine will rotate to the right. Just as the sacrum rotates with each stride, so does the spine. If you want to illustrate the differences between how the spine rotates in movements done right versus movements done wrong, you need to use photographs (not drawings which may or may not illustrate something physically possible) taken from the same perspective (e.g. front or rear) at the same point in the stride. Only then can you hope to show the difference you are discussing.

  • January 12, 2018 at 3:44 am

    Wonderful article. thank you


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