The horse’s way is always right, unlike some long-held equestrian beliefs


“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”  (Nicolaus Copernicus)

Returning from a successful achievement at the 1970 World Championship of Punchestown, everyone at the French Olympic Center of Fontainebleau was smiling; my horse Quolibet performed better than all expectations and everyone was very supportive except for one man.

Social media did not exist at this time but the man came up with a typical social media-nasty comment. “So, now you can start to learn how to ride.” However, unlike the “keyboard riders” who can’t ride, can’t train, can’t teach, but fantasize on their keyboard about a talent that they don’t have criticizing everybody else, the man was a good rider. Years earlier, he competed with the French Eventing Olympic Team at the Mexico Olympics.

I respected the man because he was the type of rider who worked hard for his achievements. I asked him to further his thoughts. “You did well because you took more risks than the others and your horse kept you alive.”

I told him: “I agree; but that is what we all do; what is your point?” He cited Copernicus, adding that success in the show ring, even at the World Championship, does not necessary mean knowledge. We both came from the same classical school but we followed two different paths; he was erudite in equestrian literature and I was interested in equine science. In his mind knowledge was the classical literature. In my mind knowledge was equine biomechanics.

Quolibet and Jean Luc Cornille during the show jumping at Punchestown in 1970.
Quolibet and Jean Luc Cornille during the show jumping at Punchestown in 1970.

In the early 1970s, equine science was in its infancy but there were already pertinent discoveries questioning previous beliefs. He preached absolute devotion to classical authors. With my background as a gymnast, I have experienced in my own body, the pain and suffering of not having a physique properly coordinated for the athletic demand of the performances. In counterpart, I have also experienced ease and effortlessness executing movements for which my physique was prepared.

The remark of a pro golfer crossed my mind: “Practice makes permanent”. Learning the wrong coordination handicaps both human and equine athletes permanently. Knowledge evolves and with it, the capacity to efficiently coordinate the horse’s physique for the performance. By applying the findings of pertinent research studies, Quolibet improved from being a school horse to a world-class champion. He was a school horse because his mind and body revolted against the rigid principles of conventional thinking. Instead of tailoring classical views to the horse’s needs, the horse was judged in respect of traditional thinking and downgraded to the difficult life of a school horse. He became a world-class horse because I looked out of the box, and the man took umbrage because I had the pertinence to do this. This was 47 years ago and, while social media keyboard riders have not evolved one inch, actual knowledge of equine biomechanics has made considerable progresses.

The main source of our equestrian discord was the belief that lowering the neck and engaging the hind legs, shortening the lower line, would flex the upper line. The “bow and string” concept had been created decades earlier, in 1946 by the Dutch scientist. E. J. Slijper.

“The horse has a very flat shaped bow which is made up of the vertebral column, its epaxial muscles and ligaments. The whole structure is kept rigid and under tension from the string formed by the sternum, abdominal muscles, linea alba and the muscles of the limbs.” (E. J. Slijper, 1946)

My opponent believed that the “core” was responsible for all vertebral column movements. I questioned the thought because it did not fit the very large diversity of complex and minuscule movements that the horse’s back executes during locomotion and performance. The precision of the back movements was better explained by Richard Tucker’s dynamic study.

“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).

The thought that the back muscles were capable of converting the thrust generated by the hind legs into upward forces, balance control, horizontal forces, forward movements and other forces involved in lateral bending and inverted rotation, was more in line with the feeling given by the horse’s back during work and performance.

The cross-country course of the Mexico Olympics was altered by an enormous storm that left the ground saturated with water. The flooding running through the water jump was so deep and so intense that a few horses had to be rescued from drowning. The man had the bad luck of completing the course after the storm. He described the incredible contortions of his horse’s back trying to climb the bank out of the water with a footing so slippery that even with studs on the shoes, the front legs were unable to have any grip.

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 commented, “It does not make sense that large muscles situated below the sternum and muscles such as the rectus abdominis, which have a relatively simple structure, could create such complex throracolumbar column movements. While pectoral and abdominal muscles are likely involved in thoracolumbar spine flexion, bending and extension, the thought that epaxial and hypaxial muscles of the thoracolumbar column are the ones creating vertebral column movements is more in line with what we can feel and observe preparing horses for athletic performances.” The man remained silent. I reminded him that the cranial thoracic vertebrae have 12 articular surfaces. The vertebrae are constructed this way because a large diversity of minuscule movements take place and it is more likely that these microscopic movements are orchestrated by muscles inserted on and around the vertebrae than massive pectoral muscles situate below and around the sternum. The man’s mind was spinning for an answer but he was cornered and pulled out the classical umbrellas: “A thousand years of tradition cannot be wrong.”

I was ready to oppose that, also, thousands of years of tradition had defended the thought that the earth was flat, but in the 1970s as well as today, members of the flat earth society were, and still are, unable to evolve.

But a week later, the man came back saying: “I did not know that you were doing some research. What you told me about the back muscles turned in my mind and it fit what I have always felt.”

The man was truly a horse person. His anger against high competition was not directed against me but against the incapacity of the training techniques to fully prepare the horses. He was frustrated because the equestrian literature does not provide solutions. He was hostile at first because I was, in his mind, another rider ready to take risks and challenge the horse beyond its athletic capacities. He was judging what I was doing from the limits of his world. Paraphrasing James Rooney, the man’s view was restricted by his teleological thinking.

“The waspish ghost of teleological thinking constantly cloud the picture.” (James Rooney, Biomechanics of Lameness in Horses, 1976)

Exploring the thought that back muscles have the capacity to convert the trust generated by the hind legs into horizontal forces, upward forces, and other movements such as lateral bending and associated rotation, implied upgrading riding and training principles to the way the back muscles are designed to function.  Classic authors promoted shifting the rider’s weight: “Undoubtedly any shift of the rider’s weight is important for balancing the horse for controlled movements.” (Etienne Saurel, 1964, Pratique de l’équitation  d’après les maitres français. Flammarion, Paris)

The same year, Richard Tucker explained that the main back muscles were set and working in opposite direction. In the light of Tucker’s explanation, any shift of the rider’s weight can only alter the horse’s ability to properly coordinate the back muscles. The first aim was finding the way to sustain a neutral balance; a balance over the seat bones where the body weight would not be acting front to back or back to front.

The problem was that every weekend I was in the show ring and judges give a score in respect to what they believe and not what new scientific findings suggest.

“There is another world, but it is in this one.” (William Butler Yeats)

I was gradually using my body differently but the look was about the same. I was exploring another world but it looked like this one. Some judges could not see beyond their teleological thinking, scoring me down on my position because I was not on my glutes leaning backward. Better judges regarded the harmony with the horses liking the suspension and cadence. One judge, who had a great sense of humor, loved the horse’s gaits so much that he gave me 11 on the rider position. Normally, the score is from 0 to 10.

Jean Luc Cornville demonstrates how the position of the rider can create a neutral balance, with their body weight acting vertically on the horse's back.
Jean Luc Cornville demonstrates how the position of the rider can create a neutral balance, with their body weight acting vertically on the horse’s back.

Updating riding techniques to actual understanding of equine thoracolumbar spine biomechanics, it is possible to achieve subtle orchestration of the work of the back muscles and consequently improve or modify limbs kinematics. Poor movers became good movers and good movers became great movers.  The same technique allows correcting limbs kinematic abnormalities causing injury.

Jean Luc Cornille and Quolibet.
Jean Luc Cornille and Quolibet.

James Rooney’s “Biomechanics of lameness in horses” can now became the biomechanics of soundness. The missing link was the capacity to correct the limb kinematics abnormality. Both, conventional and veterinary thinking regarded back problems as a consequence of hocks or other limb issues. The thought that back kinematics were controlled by abdominal and pectoral muscles only permitted an approximative coordination of the back muscles. The capacity to correct limb kinematic abnormalities through sophisticated coordination of the thoracolumbar column was not possible.

We name the approach Motion Microscope Therapy because the therapy is done entirely in motion. The therapy is about identifying and correcting the source of aberrant limb kinematics causing injury. The root cause is in most instances is thoracolumbar column dysfunction, and correcting this demands the sophisticated education and coordination of numerous but microscopic movements. Proper motion demands looking at the horse locomotion under the eye of a microscope.

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

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