Riding into the horse’s world: Are you ready for it?

Sanneke Rothenberger and Deveraux at the European Dressage Championships last year. 
Sanneke Rothenberger and Deveraux at the European Dressage Championships last year. File image for illustrative purposes. © DigiShot

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

Once, I heard a narcissist saying: “Horses submit because they are impressed by our leadership.” 

Out of control ego is plain stupidity and, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, “There is a limit to knowledge. I’m not sure about stupidity.”

Tom Regan pointed out that we have misperceived who animals are because we have looked at them through our myopic lens of self-importance. As well, we have looked at the horse through our own egos and directed riding and training techniques toward obedience. We have totally missed a partnership that the horse is willing to offer. If properly directed, a horse has the intelligence to process his coordination for the job at hand, and we can educate a horse further than our predecessors because we have a deeper understanding of their locomotor mechanism and other systems.

For a long time, power absorption and power production was attributed to eccentric and concentric muscle contraction. New research demonstrates that the subtle use of elastic energy stored and returned in tendons, aponeurosis, muscles, and fascia, can greatly enhance efficiency, ease, and effortlessness. Through the understanding of equine biomechanics, we have the capacity to guide the horse’s brain toward greater use of elastic energy. However, guiding the horse’s brain implies allowing a research process, including errors. As long as we are locked within the limits of our self-importance, judging errors as disobedience, we downgrade the horse to slavery and a fraction of his talent. Instead, once we start looking at the horse as he is, we conscious of his willingness and capacity for advanced mental processing.

“With rare exception, today’s parents believe discipline is all about the clever manipulation of reward and punishment.” (John Rosemond, Living with Children – 2005)

Reward and punishment is as antiquated for equines as it is for children. Rosemont believes that a leader must have a good sense of future. The future for the horse is the upcoming performance. The rider must have a good sense and therefore, a sound understanding of the horse’s body coordination allowing full expression. Once we start looking at the horse for who he is, instead of through our myopic lens of self-importance, we can partner with the horse’s willingness. Instead of punishing, we start analyzing the cause of difficulties or failure.

“It is possible to defeat failure by analyzing its causes and correcting them, not by studying the conditions of success.” (Henry Greber)

At first, Henry Greber’s quote was received with total incomprehension. “What do you mean by not studying the conditions of success?” There is another world, and a kind and wonderful world, but it is in this one. In this world, injecting the joints is regarded as enhancing the conditions of success. In the other world, success is identifying and correcting the root cause of the problem causing stress on the joints. In this world, mimicking gestures touching the horse limbs with a whip is regarded as furthering the conditions of success. In the other world, gaits and performances are improved, furthering the horse’s ability to store and reuse elastic energy. There is no round pen in the other world because turning in circles around the problem is the trademark of this world. In the other world, the aim is identifying and correcting the root cause.

Thibaut Vallette and Qing Du Briot lead after the first day of dressage at Badminton.
French eventer Thibaut Vallette and Qing Du Briot at Badminton earlier this year. Image for illustrative purposes only. © FEI/Jon Stroud

The other world is the world that great classical masters have tried to describe. Unfortunately, their words have been downgraded to this world by the ones who use “classical” as an umbrella against progress. With his crisp humor, Mark Twain wrote: “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” 

In the forum of our course, I explained how the practical application of advanced scientific discoveries led to a dialogue guiding the horse toward efficient use of elastic energy. The study triggered interesting discussions as members of the course are aware of the elastic strain energy phenomenon, as well as the horse’s willingness to explore beyond natural reflexes. I hesitated publishing the practical application of advanced research studies in our general page because the ones who refuse progress will argue that they are doing that for 45 years, that they can do that just by trimming their barefoot horses, etc., etc. However, Mark Twain also wrote: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” 

I decided in favor of publishing the study for the ones who feel that they can become greater. The ones who believe that the horse submits because he is impressed by their leadership, should not read further. They might experience head hack, palpitation, high blood pressure, fever, or other discomfort. They might then write inane comments, underlining another Mark Twain thought: “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” 

“Progress is built on investigations, analysis of cause to effect, factual documentation of test hypothesis,” a process that Linus Pauling (1954 Nobel Price in Chemistry,) refers to as “the search for truth.” Factual documentation of test hypothesis is real science, in contrast to the science of assumption, which repeats an assumption until it is accepted as true, without ever proving it, through factual documentation. A lot of “scientifically proven” riding and training techniques as well as therapies are just assumptions repeated long enough to look true.

The difficulty is remaining factual when the application is about equine performances. Horse performances can be subjective. I remember giving a lecture, at a vet school, about our approach on navicular syndrome. A professor asked me if I made measurements. I told him that I applied the measurements that he made during his research. My measurements are the horse’s soundness. He did not look at “soundness” as a proof. It is interesting that the purpose of most research studies, is to be applied, but the practical application is not regarded as a real research. It is indeed research and here is how the practical application of research led to an equation and a therapy using elastic energy.

Like everyone, I experience instances of divine harmony where the horse performs effortlessly and brilliantly. We were in the “zone” but no-one could explain how to duplicate the “zone”. The following observations were made in more than 100 horses, but, for the purpose of simplicity I will refer to just one.

Leading Irish showjumper Cian O'Connor and Callisto.
Irish showjumper Cian O’Connor and Callisto. Image for illustrative purposes only. © Stefano Grasso/LGCT

Bebe Blond was naturally an OK mover. He was a very stylized and efficient jumper. As I started educating the coordination of his back muscles, better gaits came out with occasionally a few strides really beautiful, showing greater suspension and amplitude, but also ease and effortlessness. I learned how to bring him to the rhythm, hind leg activity and balance, where his trot was nice, but at times the gait reached a new dimension. The first realization was that these strides to “die for” were the horse’s decision. I was riding the same way. The hind leg activity was the same, the balance was the same. It was just a new dimension.

When scientific studies explain the phenomenon of storage and return of elastic energy, I explored the thought that the secret beyond these superior strides was super orchestration of storage and reuse of elastic energy. This demanded a drastic evolution from conventional thinking. Horses do not perform because they obey but instead because they are interested to do it more efficiently and therefore effortlessly. Riding and training techniques must not be about submitting the horse; on the contrary, riding and training technique must be a partnership encouraging the horse to think beyond his natural reflexes. Everybody believes they have a partnership with the horse but their partnership is nothing more than nice obedience. Frustration and anger was part of the learning process, but I learned to not regard the horse’s anger as directed against me, but simply a frustration of the horse because he could not figure out the solution. Instead, I looked to more advanced studies as the horse needed more educated insights. Also, I needed deeper understanding of the athletic demands that were challenging the horse. A more sophisticated conversation, with constructed sentences and emotion between the lines, was necessary. The “correct aids” felt like words shouted at the horse without syntax or coercion. The “correct aids” were just words; with no syntax, no spirit, no subtlety, no emotion.

At first, I believed that the horse’s capacity to adjust his coordination and physique more than natural reflexes was an application of what William Calvin described in his “Emergence of Human Intelligence”. He wrote: “Sometimes animals find out a novel combination of … movement during play and find a use for it later.” That is probably part of the learning process but it became obvious that a horse is able to think and process at a much more sophisticated level. What Bebe Blond and many other horses did, was an advanced processing that I triggered giving the conditions for further thinking. Bebe Blond and many others went further in their own research because errors were not punished but instead regarded as accurate expression of the horse body state. Through errors, it was possible to provide insight guiding the brain toward a more sophisticated processing.

I taught Bebe Blond how to efficiently coordinate his back muscles and he furthered this beyond what I could possibly influence, because he was interested by the perspective of ease and effortlessness. I created the conditions based on the practical application of advanced research and he processed it further, finding a way to perform at ease, effortlessly, soundly and elegantly.

Every horse can do that. They all are much more intelligent than classical and horsemanship theories want us to believe. We have to upgrade our knowledge and intelligence. Then we can meet them in the other world.


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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