Love the horse or love the win? A rider’s dilemma of value versus success

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Jean-Jacques Guyon and Pitou winning eventing gold at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
Jean-Jacques Guyon and Pitou winning eventing gold at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

“I believe that there are two categories of riders. Those who while skilled, use the horse as a tool, and those who love him and allow him to express the brilliance of which he is capable.

“The former are not less expert than the latter. During a dressage test they may even triumph although never taking the risk of making mistake when the opportunity to yield with the hands occurs and lightness presents itself. The latter always risk being the damned poets of this art. They are misunderstood by the masses of riders who cannot distinguish between the means used by the former and those of the later.

“Only the latter enjoy the true pleasure of feeling how a creature collaborates without constraint, as a friend.”  _ Nuno Olivera

In the early seventies, the late Commandant Durand, who later become Colonel and then General, delighted the spectators of the famous “Grand Parquet” jumping courses in Fontainebleau, France.

Durand teamed with a horse name Pitou. Years earlier in 1968, Pitou was the winner of Three-day Eventing individual Olympic gold in Mexico with Jean-Jacques Guyon. Pitou started a second career in show jumping with his new partner, Commandant Durand. Durand was very well known for the beauty of his stadium jumping courses and he was a delight to watch; the discretion of his rebalancing, the subtle adjustment of the take off stride, the fluidity of the course. Each jump was a demonstration. It was like a dressage freestyle over the jumps.

As competitors, we are slaves to success.

It was the jump-off and Durand approached the last jump. The distance was a little long and Durand rebalanced the horse, finding the perfect take off place. He cleared the jump and passed the finish line half a second slower than his opponent. I was watching next to the coach of the French jumping team and the coach commented, “Damned poet; he could have taken the long stride. The horse is powerful enough to make it and he would have won.”

He would have won but he would have placed the horse in front of an unfair challenge. I kept my thoughts to myself but looking around, I saw a new dimension of the conflict that was in my mind. Competitors criticized Durand for choosing value over success. He was admired and criticized for being an artist more than a competitor. The jumping coach did not want Durand on the team because the career of a jumping coach relies on successes.

As competitors, we are slaves to success; We believe that success is what spectators expect from us and we push our horses beyond their limits. Applauding the winner is part of the norm, but the next day, spectators don’t even remember who was the winner, but as competitors we believe, or want to believe, that the applause is personally directed to us. Durand offered respect for the horse. He took the risk of giving to his horse the liberty of adding his style to the accuracy of the performance. He was a poet indeed and a damned good one.

I was at this time assisting the French National Eventing coach, riding and training world class and Olympic horses. We were applying fancy techniques to make the horses perform, and the team veterinarian checked every day how the horses were coping with the training program. But there was no in depth analysis of how the performances challenged the horses’ physique and how we could specifically develop and coordinate each horse’s physique for the demands of the performance.

Colonet Margot
Colonet Margot

We believed in the efficiency of what we were doing but earlier as a young gymnast, I experienced the difference between a regional coach focusing on the problem and a more advanced coach focusing the source of the problem. I had difficulties with the landing of the somersault and the regional coach focused on the landing. I did not improve and started to think that I was not good enough. But the better coach instead analyzed my problem and identified the root cause, which was an imbalance in my back muscles. The national coach did not let me practice the move as I was using the wrong muscles, but instead developed a gymnastic program to correct my back muscles. Once he felt that my back was functional, the coach let me try the somersault and I landed perfectly square. I expected the same level of analysis with equine athletes, but both training and therapeutic concerns were about the problem, not the source of the kinematic abnormality, causing the problem.

I dreamed that one could be a winning poet. I wanted to win but I totally agreed with Colonel Margot when he told me: “There is no glory in a victory gained at the expenses of the horse’s soundness.”

Equine researches were at this time in their infancy, but pertinent thoughts were coming to the fore. Richard Tucker suggested that it was the back muscles that lifted the back instead of the abdominal muscles, the core, as commonly emphasized.

“An initial thrust on the column is translated into a series of predominantly vertical and horizontal forces which diminish progressively as they pass from one vertebrae to the next”.  _ Richard Tucker, 1964.

It was obvious that abdominal muscles could not create the sophisticated coordination of the back muscles converting the thrust generated by the hind legs into horizontal and vertical forces. Shortening the horse’s lower line could only create an overall flexion of the horse’s thoracolumbar spine. I always have found this traditional explanation overly simplistic; The flexibility of the whole thoracolumbar spine is not even – vertebrae situated in the cranial thoracic vertebrae have 12 articular facets while vertebrae situated further back only have six articular surfaces; Lateral bending occurs within the ninth and 16th thoracic vertebrae, transversal rotation is located mostly between the ninth and 14th thoracic vertebrae, etc. It never appeared accurate that such a diversity of motion could be precisely orchestrated from a contraction of the abdominal and pectoral muscles. The thought that such refinement was made by the back muscles was more in line with the anatomy of the equine back.

The problem is that conventional riding principles promoted concept such as shifts of the rider weight that were in contradiction with the construction and setting of the back muscles and therefore ineffective in creating subtle muscular coordination. It was then necessary to reconsider the teaching of our predecessors in the light of new knowledge. As I further understood how the horse’s physique functions, it became increasingly difficult to combine value and success. Techniques that I had successfully applied for success were no longer acceptable from the perspective of ethics and values as they did not efficiently prepare the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance. These techniques were making the horse do it but failed to provide adequate muscular development and orchestration. Even worse, some of these techniques induced damaging stresses on the vertebral column and limbs joints.

I came to the realization that even if I believed that I loved the horses, what I was doing, and have been trained to believe, was about loving to win more than loving the horse. It was a crisis; my business demanded that I won, or at the less I was brainwashed to believe it.

General Durand proved otherwise. He had a successful career placing respect of the horse and therefore value above success. I decided that using the horse as a tool was not a way I wanted to live my equestrian life. I decided that I would not make the horse do it but instead I would further study how the function of the horse and, damned poet, I will never ask for a movement without first preparing the horse for it with athletic development and coordination, allowing the expression of his full potential and style and soundness.

Interestingly, the percentage of success did not diminish. Some judges did not like it, but the ones with greater experience and sound intuition did. The soundness was a major result. Horses remained sound, performing better and for a longer period of time. The problem was to explain. It was no doubt that many riders had the intuition and the skill and the will to further their equitation but all the words had already been used for the wrong feeling, the wrong coordination, the wrong meaning and the wrong picture. When I was using the term “collection” I was thinking about proper education of the back muscles but the word was understood according to the definition promoted in the training pyramid and other schools. The solution was explaining the practical application of advanced research studies through a clear explanation of the way the horse physique effectively functions.

The ones who continue to believe in simplistic and false theories such as stretching and relaxation, will continue to believe in stretching and relaxation even if the horse’s body functions at the level of subtle nuances in muscle tone instead of lack of muscle tone. They confound equitation and religion. They want the horse to embrace their faith instead of questioning their faith in the light of factual documentation of test analysis, which is Linus Paulin’s definition of science. Those are the former. The latter, instead, upgrade the wisdom of our ancestors to actual knowledge and enjoy the true pleasure of feeling how a creature collaborates without constraint, as a friend.

Jean Luc’s Inhand Therapy Course

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

6 thoughts on “Love the horse or love the win? A rider’s dilemma of value versus success

  • January 21, 2017 at 11:04 pm

    Thank you for this article. It answers a question that I have been grappling with. As I watch my horses move naturally, the whole ‘upside down curve’ of downward stretch we insist is healthy for them just seems wrong! I am just horrified that this thinking has been around for so many years and still most people choose winning over value.

  • January 22, 2017 at 5:37 am

    BRAVO! An treatise to memorize word for word and think of every time we are preparing the horses in our lives for what we ask as partners of them in our equestrian expression. THANK YOU!

  • January 22, 2017 at 8:46 am

    Thank you for a very inspiring article. It is so much better to love the horse than love the win ; the horse deserves it, and the rider can feel much better about his relationship with his partner.

  • January 22, 2017 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for the excellent article. It is indeed a dilemma. I do Horse Agility (10 obstacles to negotiate together each month), which is on the ground with my horse, and the difference between being tuned in to each other and one of us being a bit off key colors the outcome. :-).


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