The dressage equation: Putting together training knowledge, rider aids, and equine biomechanics

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German rider Beatrice Buchwald and Victoria's Secret, winners of the Five-year-old Finals at the FEI 2016 World Young Horse Championships. 
German rider Beatrice Buchwald and Victoria’s Secret, winners of the Five-year-old Finals at the FEI 2016 World Young Horse Championships. © Lynn van Woudenbergh

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” (Voltaire)

The questions are the rider’s aids and the answers are the horse’s obedience to those aids. When the horse’s response contradicts the rider’s prejudgment, the horse is judged instead of advised.

Believing that properly applied, the rider’s aids should trigger the perfect response in the horse, is utterly simplistic and contradicted by equine biomechanics and neurophysiology. The horse’s response is always influenced by memory, which recognizes the rider’s aids, and the horse’s body state, which determines how the horse executes the move. A horse does not analyze a dysfunction to better execute a performance. Rather, a horse executes the performance protecting the dysfunction.

The horse’s response might contradict the rider’s prejudgment and good riders are the ones who, through appropriate questions, lead the horse’s brain toward the coordination of its physique precisely adapted to the performance. Instead, poor riders judge the horse’s answer is respect of their beliefs. Biomechanical facts contradicting prejudgments are dismissed, reasons are not heard, factual documentation is ignored, irrefutable explanations of equine functional anatomy are pushed aside as inconsequential. Ignorance is leading and there is a self-satisfaction arising from ignorance.

“My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” (Isaac Asimov)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer went one step further. His thoughts aim at the political world but there are similarities with the insistence of the equestrian world to protect old theories even if they are contradicted by actual knowledge. “Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protest, nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moment the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945)

Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to became better.” (Bill Bradley)

The first point is believing in the student’s potential, the horse, as well as the rider. The horse is not there to serve us; we are there to serve him, providing the capacity of analysis that the horse does not have. The rider has intuition that has been marred by formulas, rules and regulations. Instead of believing the fallacy that the horse naturally has the appropriate reflexes, we need to think through the athletic demand of the performance and how the horse’s physique has to be developed and coordinated for the this. Teaching is about believing in the rider’s intuition and creating self-confidence. If the horse responds to one aid of the rider and not another aid, it is because it is prepared for one aid and not the other. Leadership is not obedience to the rider’s aids but instead the capacity to analyze the horse’s difficulties.

“Management is efficiently in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” (Stephen R. Covey)

We have explained many times that lateral bending is always coupled with a transversal rotation, shifting the dorsal spine toward the inside of the bend. Scientific literature complicates the matter, naming the rotation by the direction faced by the ventral part of the vertebrae. When the dorsal spine turned toward the left, the ventral part of the vertebral body faces right and the rotation is labeled as “right rotation.” This is confusing as the rider, who is seat on the top of the dorsal spines, does feel a left rotation.

Jean Luc Cornille and Bebe Blond.
Jean Luc Cornille and Bebe Blond.

If, as a result of back muscle imbalance, a horse couples left lateral bending with a rotation shifting the dorsal spines to the right, (left rotation), the horse creates a situation referred to as “inverted rotation.” The inverted rotation will likely alter left lateral bending. If the rider “manages the defect,” using different gimmicks to improve lateral bending – reins effect, carrot stretch, etc. – he or she might believe they are climbing the ladder of success as there will be some progress, but the ladder is leaning on the wrong wall. Instead, leadership is having enough knowledge to understand that the rotation is inverted and needs to be corrected. Inverted rotation can also alter the other lateral bending as it usually induces greater rotation than normal. The horse expresses difficulties on one lateral bending and it is the rider’s responsibility and knowledge, to lean the ladder on the right wall by identifying the root cause.

Riders as well as horses’ potentials are often locked in a body coordination that is not appropriate for the move.

“Premier athletes can be dysfunctional. In fact, many of the most gifted athletes are incredibly dysfunctional … The potential benefits of innovative techniques, advanced technology and new training methods cannot – and do not – compensate for dysfunctional athletes’ inability to perform to their fullest potential.” (Pete Egoscue, Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain)

Techniques pretending to apply advanced scientific findings without upgrading the rider’s equitation to actual knowledge, may try compensating any fundamental dysfunction with innovative techniques, advanced technology and new training methods. But these can’t help unlock the horse’s potential as long as they are aligned with antiquated beliefs. “Scientifically proven,” is a label used to make riders believe that they climb the ladder of success but, there is a difference between factual documentation of test hypothesis, which is real science, and “assumptions,” which are marketed as science.

“Peoples who are truly strong lift others up.” (Michelle Obama).

Instead, teachers who do not have enough knowledge to be truly strong, demean their students’ potential. They use emotional or psychological techniques to secure their control. They push aside irrefutable facts as being inconsequential or incidental. A teacher who does not “own” the concept of transversal rotation associated with lateral bending, cannot unlock the potential of a horse trapped in inverted rotation. The term “own” emphasizes the fact that teaching demands a deep understanding of the subject. Inverted rotation is mostly due to back muscle imbalance but there are many reasons that can trigger back muscle imbalance. Without advanced understanding of equine biomechanics and equine psychology, one cannot tailor the approach and unlock the potential of the horse and rider.

Sanneke Rothenberger and Deveraux at the European Dressage Championships last year. 
Sanneke Rothenberger and Deveraux at the European Dressage Championships last year. © DigiShot

Before asking the right question, the rider must master a language that fits the understanding of equine biomechanics. There is no rein effect or leg action that can correct inverted rotation. Transversal rotations of the horse’s thoracic spine occur between T9 and T14, which is exactly between the rider’s upper thighs. If the rider is in neutral balance exactly over the seat bones, if the oscillations of the rider pelvis are reduced to the minimum, if the rider sustains a sturdy contact with the calf, if the stirrups are under the vertical of the rider’s seat bones, then the rider’s upper thighs hug the horse’s thoracic vertebrae inducing right lateral bending – if the rider’s pelvis, back, shoulders and head, face right, or left lateral bending if the rider’s pelvis, trunk, shoulders and head as a whole face left.

Instead, if the rider is seated back on the gluteus medius, with the thighs above the knee pressing against the saddle, their upper thighs will have no effect on bending the horse’s thoracic vertebrae. Furthermore, if the rider shifts his own weight over one seat bone or the other, the rider will likely aggravate existing inverted rotation. Concepts such as shifts of the rider’s weight, driving seat, or looking in the direction of the turn, were conceived when the knowledge of equine biomechanics was in its infancy. It is the tone and the integrity of the rider’s body facing one direction that is perceived by the horse between the rider’s upper thighs. If the integrity of the rider’s muscle tone, and consequent energy, is altered by a twisted vertebral column, as the rider’s shoulders are more turned than the pelvis, tone and energy are dissipated and the horse just guesses in which direction he is supposed to turn. The horse might obey but with a dysfunctional thoracolumbar spine. The same inefficiency occurs if the rider cervical vertebrae are twisted in relation to the direction of the whole vertebral column.

There are different ways to correct inverted rotation but, there are no formulas. Our “course” explains in details the concept of transversal rotation coupled with lateral bending. Understanding proper functioning of the horse’s thoracolumbar spine allows tailoring the education to the individual horse. The dialogue is then about asking questions, leading the horse’s mental processing toward the appropriated rotation, and reformulating the question based on the information provided by the horse’s answers.

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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