Making contact: When a horse’s talent trumps training

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Jean Luc Cornille and Atoll 2.
Jean Luc Cornille and Atoll 2.

Michel Roche, (1936-2004) and Bon Espoir won the jumping team gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Bon Espoir, also known as “Nènèsse,” was a very unusual horse. His power, stamina, courage were out of the ordinary but so was his style over the jumps. He was quite inverted flying over large oxers. Michel often commented smiling, “It is hard to stay in perfect two-point position when the horse looks at you straight in your eyes over the jump.”

Michel adapted to the horse’s style and succeeded when others tried to change him and failed. Jean d’Orgeix was the other man who believed in the horse. D’Orgeix was the trainer of the French jumping squad and he qualified “Nènèsse,” in spite of his style.

Michel Roche
Michel Roche

When Michel told me, “I have a horse for you. He is an incredible jumper and absolutely fearless, but he is impossible to ride,” I truly believed that the horse was difficult. Coming from a man who had figured out another very complex horse, the warning had to be taken seriously. Michel added, “If you can figure him out, you have your next international three-day event horse. We never ride him between the shows; we only lunge him as he is too crazy. Also, you cannot touch him with the legs.”

The horse was indeed a phenomenal jumper. He was also unusual in many other aspects. He became mine. His name was Atoll 2. At first, he jumped in the sky when he felt my legs but I envisioned a career with him and I could not remain at the level of “managing the defect.” I had to start a complete education.

I walked from the stable to the forest applying my lower thighs just above the knees on the saddle. I don’t usually use this technique as contact of the lower thighs and knees on the saddle tend to move the calf away from the horse’s flanks. I did it this time for that purpose. Once I was in the forest, the very long alleyways of soft sand offered a better environment for eventual fast forward explosion. I placed my lower legs on contact and he reacted like an electroshock. I kept a steady contact with my lower legs and he eventually calmed down but only after serious bounces and other creative moves. We walked a long time in the forest.

Fontainebleau is a dream forest; the footing is excellent and the track is very diversified. There are large rocky elements that are referred to as the “mountains,” because climbers use them for practice. It was a special pleasure to walk through the forest riding a superior athlete. I could not afford to buy an athlete of this caliber if he had been reasonably easy to ride. The next few days, I just walked the horse in the forest, keeping my lower legs in contact. I adjusted the stirrups two holes shorter than my normal dressage length to be able to quickly go into a two-point position if needed.

I decide then to shorten the stirrups another two holes, more as I would for jumping, for some rising trot and even canter work. He just lost his mind. He acted like he did the first day. I squeezed my knees, moved my calves away as he was jumping all over the place and it was impossible to change the stirrups.

I went back to the barn quite disappointed, wondering if it was the trot that triggered such intense reactions. An intuition was telling me that it was the short stirrups that triggered the panic.

The thought was not rational but a word kept coming back in my mind, “He needs a hug.” In his best seller, How we decide, Jonah Lehrer explored the nexus of thought, emotion and feeling in the decision-making process. The next day, I adjusted the stirrups at their original length and Atoll trotted and cantered relatively calmly. In a matter of a week, a horse who could not deal with any contact of the rider’s lower legs was now losing his mind when my lower legs were not giving him a gentle but firm “hug”.

The explanation came decades later with the work of Carol Slaslow. Using stimuli developed for gauging human tactile sensitivity, Slaslow was surprised to find that The horse’s sensitivity on the parts of the body which would be in contact with the rider’s legs is greater than what has been found for the adult human calf or even the more sensitive human fingertip. (Carol A. Saslow. Understanding the perceptual world of horses. Applied Animal Behavior Science 78, 2002, 209-224)

A horse can react to pressures that are too light for the human to feel. This rises the wisdom of our predecessors one step further. True Masters have often hinted about the calming effect of steady legs which is of course the outcome of a steady seat. Early in my education, Colonel Margot commented one day, with his usual cold humour, “Your lower legs move like a whip washer. Improve your seat or buy better riding pants.” He would have never imagined that decades later, buying better riding pants or a deep seat saddle with bigger knee pads or other accessories would be promoted instead of improving the rider’s seat.

As you know, I have a deep respect for highly spirited and unusually powerful horses. I admire their athleticism but also, they are ambassadors for less athletic and less spirited horses. Many incomplete, ineffective or antiquated theories are “accepted” by less spirited horses, not because they prepare their physique for the effort but because horses resigned themselves to submission as the price to pay for food and care. Their tolerance allows riders to believe in the greatness of their leadership when in reality, horses submit in order to survive. Instead, highly spirited horses revolt, exposing the incongruities of riding and training techniques.

All along the history of riding, horses have compensated with their talent and mental processing for the superficiality and even incongruities of the riding and training techniques. In the 19th century, The Prussian cavalry promoted total elevation of the neck. The theory lasted a few decades and was then abandoned completely. Anyone today can easily understand the damages induced on the horses’ thoracolumbar spines and limbs as a result of such a theory.

But during the decades where riders and trainers believed in the total elevation of the neck, some horses managed good performances because of their talent and despite bad training. These horses’ successes have been used to accredit the value of the training system.

Nothing has changed; simplistic theories such as placing the neck with side reins are promoted today and the success of few horses are used to accredit the value of the approach even if actual knowledge clearly explains that proper functioning of the thorcolumbar column can be enhanced by appropriated neck posture but such neck placement is proper to the horse’s morphology, muscular development, nervous impulse, percentage or slow and fast twitch, etc.

In short, neck placement is different for each horse and even varies for the same horse in respect of its muscular development and body coordination. Any technique placing the neck in respect of stereotypes has a 99% chance of placing the neck improperly for the individual horse.

If a riding or training technique is not good enough for top horses, it is not good enough for more compliant horses. Resigned horses accept ineffective riding and training techniques but the techniques fail to prepare their physique for the athletic demand of the performance.

In the thesaurus of my computer, “Resigned” is listed with “Long-suffering.” In the real world, resigned horses are often long-suffering horses. They are dysfunctional athletes performing through sheer talent but with every stride their dysfunction induces abnormal stresses on limbs and vertebral column structures.

© Mike Bain
© Mike Bain

A horse can react to pressures that are too light for the human to feel and therefore the rider’s seat needs mastering study contact of the calves as well as the capacity to nuance subtle pressures.

After two years with Atoll, he entered advanced level in three-day event and his dressage work had greatly evolved. He was very subtle. Very light and truly a pleasure to ride at home, but he was a bomb on the verge of explosion in the dressage arena. After his years of jumping through talent alone and without adequate muscular development and body coordination, Atoll had learned to associated the showring with physical pain. He was manageable in jumping ring, he was incredibly good on cross country course but he was very difficult in dressage. It was an amazing contrast between the horse practicing dressage at home and the horse executing the test in the show ring.

Margit Otto Crepin, who later won the silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Dressage Olympics with her horse Corlandus, liked riding Atoll in dressage at home, He was totally light and subtle and a pleasure to ride.

One day, a rider of high caliber but with a different seat, watched a training session and expressed desire to ride the horse. Considering the quality of the rider I accepted and it was amazing to see Atoll returning almost immediately to the stage of panic in which he lived when I meet him two years earlier. The rider was steady and light but his riding style was having contact of his lower thigh until above the knees and his lower legs were separated from the horse touching him occasionally. The rider was a real horseman.

He stopped immediately saying, “He does not like my riding style. Could you tell me what I am doing wrong?” He had a stable seat, soft and steady hands and I was very surprised by Atoll’s reaction. Remembering my first encounter with Atoll, the only possible explanation was the calves away from the horses and touching and losing contact with Atoll flanks. I suggested the possibility and the rider asked me to show him the difference. I rode Atoll and he came back to the lightness and precision and subtlety that was now his trademark.

The rider told me: Two years ago we had a discussion about this subject and I disagreed with you. Prior to our discussion and since our discussion, I had good results with different horses but today, I meet the horse who shows me the limits of my technique. With the contact of my lower thighs, I have to squeeze my calves in order to touch him and he is too sensitive to deal with this level of pressure. I thank you for letting me ride your horse and I thank your horse for this invaluable lesson. I will definitively think about his teaching.”

A horse can react to pressures that are too light for the human to feel. This is not opinion, this is science. In a study, Carol Slaslow measured the horse’ tactile perception using stimuli developed for gauging human tactile sensitivity. The findings seriously question equestrian practices about the legs and consequently about the seat. The stability of the rider’s lower legs is directly related to the stability of the rider’s seat and therefore pelvis.

In the 17th century, the Duke of Newcastle advocated an unmovable pelvis. Riding and educating a horse is about physics. It is about the mastery of forces but laws of physics are explained through literature. Languages uses paraphrases, metaphors and examples to explain forces and of course words are only approximated. “Unmovable” cannot be taken literally The rider’s pelvis oscillates a little but in a reduced fashion. Riding techniques promoting oscillation of the rider’s pelvis and a relaxed and swinging back also creates unstable lower legs and confused, discouraged, resigned, or anxious and angry horses.

Read more about Jean Luc’s In-hand Therapy Course, in-hand dressage lessons by video where you can progress at your own pace.

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

One thought on “Making contact: When a horse’s talent trumps training

  • November 13, 2015 at 3:10 am

    Very good post, Jean Luc!

    I have a question. I have MS and balance problems and bad proprioception. I have found that the Arabs, the 1/2 Arab and QH I ride do better if I alternate my legs at a walk, at the sitting trot, and use both legs when I sit at the posting trot. I always “open” my hand some when I use a leg on that side. In this I am defying the idea of giving an aid and the horse is supposed to go on without any reinforcement until the next order from me to do something different.

    Supposedly this will “deaden” the horse’s side, but I find it does not “deaden” the horse too much. If I do not ride this way the horses (some of them experienced lesson horses, but also an over-reactive “ruined” Arab) lose impulsion and I get them impression that it makes my seat too unstable for their comfort.

    I came to the conclusion that using my legs this way stabilizes my seat in the saddle, freeing the horse’s back.

    How do I do this in the canter, the leg aid/leg hug that can stabilize my seat without telling the horse to accelerate? Right now, because of my MS, my seat is not as stable as it used to be decades ago. The last few times I tried the canter I had to use my inner leg a lot, pulsing the inner leg once a stride, to keep the canter going but the horse told me my seat, whether three point or two point, was too unstable to be comfortable. I hope you can tell me how I can use my lower leg at the canter to stabilize my seat without hopelessly confusing the horses.

    I love reading your posts. They have helped me refine my riding (Forward Seat) so that the horses I ride are happier with me. Thank you so much for your wonderful work.

    Jackie Cochran


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