How a high cantle and thigh blocks put your horse in an awkward position

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Passive aggressive.

These two words summarize modern equitation, where the rider’s gluts are supported by the saddle’s high cantle and the thighs are stabilized by enormous blocks. The rider is “placed” in a supposedly correct posture without adequate tone of his or her muscular system.

Passive posture leads to aggressive gestures, legs actions, hand movements, shift of the rider’s weight, which, in regard of actual understanding of equine perception, are aggressive to the horse’s senses.

“And, especially, we must respect their integration of exquisite tactile sensitivity with a muscle power that can override any of our commands if we neglect to make our request meaningful, consistent and polite.” (Understanding the Perceptual World of Horses; C. A. Saslow/ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2002)

From the antiquated beliefs that greater amplitude of gaits and performances results from the muscles creating larger angular variations of the limb joints, advanced understanding of equine locomotion and performances demonstrated that instead: “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. Journal of Anatomy. (2005) 206, pp 193-404)

A: Lateral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. B: Ventral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. C: Deep view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy.
A: Lateral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. B: Ventral view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. C: Deep view of extrinsic thoracic limb muscle anatomy. Adapted from König & Liebich, 2004.

Harmonic tensegrity is the true dialogue with the horse. The gestures defined as the rider aids are the crude ends of subtle nuances in muscle tone orchestrated by our brain to create the move. The horse picks up all the nuances in muscle tone before the gesture is completed and is often disturbed by the gesture. Instead of regarding obedience to the rider aids as the finality of the equestrian art, the “aids” should be regarded as teaching techniques describing the subtle nuances in muscle tone that the horse perceives and processes. Our ancestors promoted the refinements of the rider’s aids. Modern science suggests that the dialogue occurs at a more sophisticated level.

“The seeming ability of a well-trained horse to have extrasensory perception for its rider’s intentions, may be instead its response to slight movement or tightening of muscles that the rider makes without awareness.” (C. A. Saslow. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 78 (2002) 209-234)

Horses are comfortable at a highly sophisticated level of perception. They are annoyed and often pushed to resistance and revolt when their senses are overloaded by the shifts of our body weight and other gestures.

“Horses deemed insensitive to the leg (dead-sided) may simply have never had the chance to respond to consistent, light, meaningful signals.” (C. A. Saslow)

Saddles with deep seats and high cantles push the rider into a driving seat, hampering the horse’s ability to subtly orchestrate the work of his back muscles which are set and function in opposite direction.

Whose boot is this?
© Mike Bain
The concept of stimulus response is largely antiquated. A muscle never works alone. Each move is a complex network involving storage and reuse of elastic energy. Fascial tissues are commonly used for a dynamic energy storage, catapult action, during oscillatory movements such as walk, trot or canter.

“During these movements, the supporting skeletal muscle contracts more isometrically while the loaded fascial elements lengthen and shorten like elastic spring.” (Muscle and Tendon Interaction during Human Movements; Fukunaga et al, 2002)

Simplistic concepts such as rushing the horse forward hamper the horse’s ability to function efficiently and soundly. Paraphrasing Margaret Mead, the horse’s brain must not be taught how to think (submission), but what to think (education). Guided by the rider’s subtle language, nuances in muscle tone and energy, the horse’s brain has to orchestrate close kinematics chains.

“Every part of an organism, from the molecular to the gross anatomy, is integrated by a mechanical system into a complete functional unit.” (Dr Stephen Levin, Orthopedic Surgeon.)

Close kinematic chains combine multiple parts into continuous mechanical loops, which allow complex movements to be regulated by structure.

“Close kinematics chains are very energy efficient. In the body, close kinematics chains are nested modular units of various sizes that make up an integrate movement system that extends throughout the whole body and acts in synergy with the nervous system.” (Dr Betsy Uhl, DVM, PhD, Dip, AVCP)

© Lorraine O’Sullivan

Fascia under tension is strong enough to maintain the integrity of the joints. Under tension, fascia protect the cartilages “separating” the two sides of the joints. Muscles leverage against the fascia to optimize tension for each movement to stabilize and prevent overloading of the joints. Lines of force within the fascia change with muscular traction and bone movements. The whole system functions through tension and nuances in muscle tone elastic energy.

Harmonic tensegrity, nuances in muscle tone, are fundamental tenures of the conversation between the horse and the rider. There is no room for slackness and lack of muscle tone. The rider who lets the intervertebral disks support the vertebrae, exposes his or her own vertebral column to damage. Fascia under tension protects the integrity of the vertebral structure, reducing the pressure on the disks. From the gluts, the psoas and the upper thigh muscles, all the way up to the cervical vertebrae, the trapezius, the nuchal ligament, the verticality of the head, the rider’s whole body needs to be under harmonic tension. The conversation with the horse is the nuances in the muscle tones and consequent effect on all the systems allowing elasticity while preserving stability and integrity of the structures.

From its base, the seat, to its orchestrator, the brain, the rider’s body communicates with the horse through harmonic tensegrity. It is basically a conversation at the level of nuances in muscle tone and energy. The saddle needs to be the support of the rider’s tensegrity, not its alternative. Deep seat and high cantle saddles encourage slackness supporting the gluts. When knee pads and thighs blocks create a posture without adequate muscle tone, passivity extends to the vertebral column and the dialogue with the horse is downgraded to the aggressive level of gestures.

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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

One thought on “How a high cantle and thigh blocks put your horse in an awkward position

  • June 26, 2018 at 8:40 pm
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    Total Contact Saddles don’t have cantles (high or low) or blocks (knee or thigh) or even pommels – never have and never will. Horses feel the rider and v.v. and many behavioural ‘issues’ are resolved as well as better riding from the human and better performance form the horse. http://www.total-contact.co.uk or Facebook Total Contact Equine Solutions and no, they don’t cause undue ‘pressure’ 🙂

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