When I was 12 years old, every morning before school, I cleaned stalls in exchange for riding racehorses. The trainer was a wonderful, man. He respected horses and he respected humans. It was a period where I had no self-confidence. In fact, I regarded myself as a failure. Dysfunctional family, bad at school. I was surprised that the trainer hired me, thinking that he would kick me out in a matter of days.
Instead, the horses and the trainer become my family. It was the only place where I was doing well. At this time, I was allowed to do the warm-up at the trot and the first canter. After that, we were walking in a circle around the trainer. The trainer called the exercise jockey, I dismounted and the jockey jumped on the horse. The trainer was then giving the orders for the morning exercise. One morning, I was riding a horse who had the reputation of being highly spirited and leaning on the bit during fast work. The jockeys were telling me that increasing the tension on the reins was the technique for faster speed as “the horses increases the speed, stiffening the back.” They did not like this horse because they had a hard time holding him.” I did not like the thought of pulling on the reins but I respected their experience.
This morning, the trainer was distracted by some issue and gave me the orders for the morning exercise. I was ecstatic thinking that I just graduated, not realizing that it was an error. I left the group at the canter. Later I was told that they were screaming to halt and come back but I did not hear anything. They were concerned about the horse’s difficulty and intense spirit, afraid that I will be out of control on the track.
I was supposed to go slow, keeping the horse at an easy canter from point A to point B. Then, I was ordered to bring the canter up to medium speed, from point B to point C. I had to slow down the canter from point C to point D, letting the horse recover. Then from point D, I was ordered to accelerate the canter to maximum speed until point E. I was then supposed to slow the canter, letting the horse recover until point F. Then I was ordered walking back toward the group. The first easy canter went well. I was steady with my hands on the neck and the reins relatively long. Exactly as the trainer ordered, I asked the horse to increase the speed, which he did while I was keeping a soft contact with his mouth. I slowed down the canter where the trainer wanted me to do, letting the horse reorganizing his breath for the hard work. I was very concerned approaching the point where I was supposed to ask for the fast canter. I had in mind the advise of the experienced jockeys: “you have to pull on the reins as they need more tension to increase the speed.” I did not want to pull on the reins but I knew that the trainer was watching with his binoculars and measured the horse speed with his stopwatch.
Without really understanding what I was doing, I increased the tone of my back muscles and all my body creating a narrow corridor. I had this thought that if I concentrated in creating a narrower corridor with my body, the horse would canter straighter and faster. It felt to me that we went very fast, as I did not have experience for this type of speed. According to the trainer’s timer, we went very fast. I asked the horse to slow down where the trainer asked and we remained at an easy canter, allowing the horse to recover, as the trainer wanted. As the horse and I walked back toward the group, they were looking at me like if I just landed from another planet. I did exactly what the trainer wanted, the speed of the horse was what the trainer expected but all that with relatively long reins and apparently no pulling on the reins from me toward the horse and the horse toward me. I was afraid to be punished for what I did and I did not say anything about “narrowing the corridor”. Showing great fair play, the jockey who was supposed to exercise the horse told to the trainer, “this guy has magical hands.” My nickname on the race track become, “the hand”.
I graduated as exercise jockey and I used the same technique but never said anything for fear of losing my job. One day, another wonderful man came on the racetrack with a very powerful horse named Kon Tiki. The man was French champion in three-day event. He needed to condition his three-day event horse but had a broken left collar bone and needed an exercise jockey to ride Kon Tiki. He warned that the horse was very powerful and very heavy on the bit at speed, and needed a strong jockey. The trainer told him, “we have the hand” and offered my services. The man was skeptical as I was not very strong but the trainer, who was his friend told him, “believe me.” I did exactly what the man wanted using the same narrow corridor technique. The man asked if I was interested in three-day eventing, and offered to teach me. He even offered me to ride his horse for my first three-day event. This was in the late 1950s.
In 1975, James Rooney wrote in his book Biomechanics of Lameness in Horses: “At speeds higher than the walk, the amplitude of the axial movements are reduced and difficult to discern with the naked eye. Presumably, the muscular resistance increases, making the vertebral column as nearly rigid as possible in order to resist wasteful sidewise, lateral motion.”
Rooney explained that the forces created by the limbs were acting obliquely on the spine and had to be resisted by the back’s epaxial muscles in order to be converted into forward movement. Rooney’s findings contradicted traditional beliefs, promoting a swinging motion of the thoracolumbar spine as well as greater amplitude of the lateral bending. In 1975, Hans Carlson explained that the main function of the back muscles was resisting forces, protecting the thoracolumbar spine from an amplitude of movement that would exceed the thoracolumbar column’s possible range of motion. One year earlier, Ober. et al, talked about the stabilizing mechanism of the spine. “The reflex contractions of the spinal column muscles compensate for the bending of the spinal column. This is a characteristic behavior of the spine stabilizing system during human movement. As a result, even small compensatory difference between the right and left side causes permanent asymmetric, dynamic overloading of the soft tissue.” (Ober J. K. 1974, A dynamic concept for the diagnosis of idiopathic scoliosis.)
Classical equitation as well as therapies theorized at this time that elongating muscles would increase the range of motion. Since, and in line with my “narrow corridor” concept, advanced understanding of equine biomechanics has furthered the thought that back muscles resist and redirect oblique forces induced on the thoracolumbar spine from the limbs. It was also explained that amplitude of movements was much more a matter of muscles ensuring proper tension of tendons and aponeurosis than becoming longer. “Most of the length change required for the work of locomotion, occurs not in the muscle fibers themselves but by elastic recoil of the associated tendons and muscles aponeurosis.” (The role of the extrinsic thoracic limb muscles in equine locomotion. R. C. Payne, P. Veenman and A. M. Wilson. J. Anat. (2005).)
Straightness enhancing speed responds to the same fundamental principles as straightness enhancing balance, control and collection. Intensity of the muscular work and amplitude are different, but forces are always compensated, resisted and redirected.
This diagram that I use in the lecture “How it really works,” explains that thoracic and lumbar spines are always either bent left or right in synchronization with the limb movements. These actions easily induce lateral displacement of the shoulders and haunches as illustrated in the two higher diagrams at right, (larger corridor). Straightness demands narrowing the corridor educating the back muscles in converting the thrust generated by the hind legs into greater upward forces and reducing the amplitude of the lateral movements.