Crossing the line to a better horse-rider partnership


“Breaking free of public opinion, and staying true to one’s creative vision.” (Paul Gaugin)

“Still others sweep along by the supposed good taste of the public, whose decisions are not always from the oracles and against whom timid truth dares not revolt, find that after a lengthy and diligent pursuit, their only attainment is the flattering and chimeric satisfaction of thinking themselves more expert than others.” (François Robichon de la Gueriniere, Ecole de cavalry,1731)

Today, the tradition continues; Governing bodies draw lines to stay in control and many dare not revolt, remaining below their true potential and their horse’s talent. They find comfort flattering themselves with the satisfaction of being better than the others.

“You can waste your lives drawing lines. You can live your life crossing them.” (Shonda Rhimes)

We can be satisfied as a faithful servant. We can also cross the lines, teaching the horse how to coordinate his physique for the performance, and learn from this partnership, the meaning of life.

“Some are influenced by the love of wealth while others are blindly led on by the mad fever for power and domination, but the finest type of man gives himself up to discovering the meaning and purpose of life itself. He seeks to uncover the secrets of nature.” (Pythagoras c. 570–c. 495 BC)

François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751)
François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751)

We can teach tricks to the horse and justify the emptiness of our equitation with the color of the ribbons. We can also focus on the athletic demand of the performance, modeling, in partnership with the horse, a physique optimally developed and coordinated for the effort. This is equestrian art, the art which learns how the horse’s physique functions and develops and educates such physique for the nature of the effort. Leonardo compared a nude painted by an artist ignoring how muscles connect and work, to a bundle of radishes. As well, a piaffe taught without understanding of the whole muscular system, looks like a shaking bundle of radishes.

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

Muscles leverage against fascia to optimize tension for each movement. Muscles ensure tension of the fascia to stabilize and prevent overloading of the joints. Lines of force within fascia changes with muscular traction and bone movements. Tensegrity structures allow specific reinforcements to the forces generated. This is how the equine physique functions and this is how our body functions. This is where real harmony between the horse and the rider resides. This is what the equestrian art needs to know and understand. The idea that a muscle contracts and the other elongates is infantile. We are no longer there.

The whole system is far more complex and intelligent. The equitation of gestures, the studious application of the correct aids, is fruitless. There is an integrity of our physique that cannot be disrupted. Gestures, shifts of the rider’s weight, moving hands, moving legs, alter the horse and the rider tensegrity. The language matching the horse’s high perception and subtlety, involves harmonic and sophisticated nuances in muscle tone. This very high level of perception is indeed, the horse’s comfort zone. The whole rider’s physique, not just the hands, or the legs, or the seat, talks and listen to the horse. The integrity of the rider’s physique is the clarity of the rider’s language.

So, what should we do with these so-called “correct aids”? We need to place them into their real context. The “aids” are just the vocabulary of a language. They are part of the language, but not the whole language. We shoot words at the horse and expect that the horse will process the syntax, the grammar that is going to convert words into a meaningful sentence. Our body language needs to formulate complete sentences. The seat, the hands, the legs are part of the sentences but in harmony with the whole physique. The aids are teaching techniques; they explain in which direction the muscles of the arms or upper leg or back, have to increase or decrease. The refinement of the equitation goes beyond minimizing the gestures, the aids. The refinement is about nuancing the tone and coordination of different muscles that would, if exaggerated to a gross level, create hand or leg gestures.

Commandant Wattel, Cavalry School, Saumur.
Commandant Wattel, Cavalry School, Saumur.

Nuances in muscle tone are the essence of tensegrity. Harmonic tensegrity is where the dialogue with the horse resides. The dialogue demands integrity of our entire body. Gestures alter our integrity. As we increase the tone in one area of our physique, others area cannot relax or contract. There is a balance, an integrity within our body that renders our nuances in muscle tone comprehensible. Half-halt for instance is a gesture taught many different way but based on the false assumption that the horse improves balance control by shifting some weight backward over the haunches.

“This notion still in use today does not have any scientific meaning from the perspective of the equine biological mechanism.” (Sophie Biau, 2002).

Instead, a horse achieves balance control increasing the duration of the hind leg deceleration phase. For those unfamiliar with equine biomechanics, the stance, which is the time the hoof is on the ground, is divided into two successive phases, the decelerating phase and the pushing phase. The horse increases the decelerating phase which is the phase where the hind leg on support resists gravity and inertia and also, stores elastic energy that is used for the pushing phase and the swing. When the propulsive activity of the hind leg commences, the limb is close to the peak vertical and moving backward behind the horse’s body. The net effect is therefore a force in the direction of the motion. The thrust travels forward through the thoracolumbar spine where it is converted at the level of each vertebrae, and by the back muscles, into horizontal forces, forward movement, and upward force, balance control.

“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 vertebra to the next.” (Richard Tucker, 1964).

While conceived in the 18th century, Monsieur de la Gueriniere’s half-halt is closer to an understanding of equine biomechanics than the modern versions of half-halt.

“The halt is only suited to a very small number of horses, dues to the fact that there are very few of them who would have enough strength in the loins and hocks to support this action. Therefore, the greatest proof of a horse’s strengths and obedience is the execution of a light and steady halt after the last pace, which is rare since to go so quickly from one extreme to the other, it is necessary that the horse have an excellent mouth and haunches. To the extent that these violent halts can ruin and discourage a horse, they are only used as a test. Such is not the same case with the half-halt, where the horse is only held slightly more in hand without being completely halted. This action does not make the horse as anxious and stabilizes his head and haunches with less constraint than does the halt.” (François Robichon de la Gueriniere, 1731)

The concept of filtering the forward motion is more likely to orchestrate the work and coordination of the back muscles than any hand gesture pretending to shift some weight backward.

Captain V. Oppeln-Bronikowski (Germany) and Gimpel, Olympic gold team medalists in 1936.
Captain V. Oppeln-Bronikowski (Germany) and Gimpel, Olympic gold team medalists in 1936. © Sankt Georg

It is improbable that back muscles can be educated to hold the horse slightly more in hand. The flexibility of the cervical vertebrae is more likely to absorb the hand’s resistance over flexing of the poll or the concavity of the lower cervical vertebrae. Since the horse controls balance through the muscular system of the back, filtering through the body is more efficient. However, the capacity of the rider’s back and abdominal muscles to filter the forces coming from the hind legs demands a neutral balance. The driving seat and other shifts of the rider’s weight belong to the equitation of gestures. So are the deep seat, high-cantle saddles encouraging such gross equitation. The neutral balance is a balance over the seat bones where the body weight does not act back to front or front to back. Then, and only then, the horse can concentrate on the rider’s subtle nuances in muscle tone. Basically, it is pure physics and only metaphors can be used to guide the rider’s brain and body toward the proper tensegrity, growing taller, taking a deep breath, but not too deep, etc.

A metaphor which appears to guide the rider’s brain in the right direction is a combination of physics and functional anatomy. Under tension, fascia is strong enough to protect joints, including the vertebrae, from intense pressure. Fascia is kept under tension by muscle work. The muscular work “separating” the vertebrae, is the one placing the rider’s vertebral column and abdominal muscles under proper tension. In a world where relaxation is falsely posed as the antidote of contraction, the terms “tension” might easily be interpreted as contraction. Tension is not contraction. Tension is muscle tone optimizing suppleness and strength.

Commandant Wallon of the Cadre Noir, Saumur, performs passage on Taine.
Commandant Wallon of the Cadre Noir, Saumur, performs passage on Taine.

In their study on eccentric muscle contractions, Paul C. LaStayo, PT, PhD. and colleagues talk about the “elastic-stiffness diversity across vertebrate muscles”.

“Don’t photograph verbs, photograph adverbs. Go beyond making photographs of what is happening and show the emotions behind it. Aim for depth.”

The term “core” is abundantly used to explain proper use of the rider’s body. The term is not wrong but is not right either. Psoas and abdominal muscles have to work in coordination with transversal spinalis in the back and others. Fascia also augments and assist muscle function. It is not a dialogue where muscle power influences muscle power. Fascia augment muscle function and therefore efficiency relies on the subtle adjustment of muscle tone optimizing the work of the fascia. The horse has to create this subtle orchestration and our conversation has to be a more sophisticated than gross gestures. We have to create situation, frequency, balance, stimulating adequate mechanical forces and encouraging the horse’s brain to process an efficient solution.

Ease and effortlessness are the outcome of efficiency. For instance, power absorption, which is the absorption of impact forces, is usually associated with eccentric muscle contraction. The subsequent power production, which is the production of propulsive force, is usually the task of concentric contraction. There is a balance, a frequency, a body coordination, where the muscular work can be reduced by proper use of elastic energy.

“Power absorption is therefore not always associated with eccentric contraction but can also be caused by elastic energy storage in tendons and ligaments. The subsequent power production can originate from the release of elastic energy instead of concentric muscle contraction.” (Mechanical Analysis of Locomotion, Liduin; S. Meershoek and Anton J. van den Bogert).

The equestrian art, but also respect and love for the horse, is about creating conditions allowing the horse to figure out how to use himself most efficiently.

We are no longer at the level of stretching and relaxation, stimulus response, correct aids equal correct movement, reward and punishment, elongation before contraction. Harmonic tensegrity places the conversation with the horse at a much more sophisticated level. Most riders have the skill and the intelligence to apply harmonic tensegrity. They just have to cross the lines that harden their creative mind.

“We are born creative geniuses and the education system dumbs us down.” (Dr. George Land, NASA)

Colonel Decarpentry in passage with his famous thoroughbred Professeur.
Colonel Decarpentry in passage with his famous thoroughbred Professeur.

However, while it is true that the systems are dumbing down equestrian education, perpetuating the equestrian literature without modernising the words of our ancestors, there is a human compliance in accepting simplistic thinking: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” (Charles Darwin)

In fact knowledge is even attacked by the ones choosing ignorance: “The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it.” (Osho)

Monsieur de la Gueriniere warned against the false practice: “Unfortunately, it is easier to turn to false practice than to do what is correct.” (Ecole de cavalry, 1736) Teaching a trick or making the horse do it, is what the father of modern equitation refers to as “false practice.” What is correct is preparing efficiently the horse’s body for the work.

Paraphrasing William Butler Yeats, this is a better world but it is in this world. The difficulty is not the fascinating complexity of the equine physique as we know it today. Most people have the skill and the intelligence to understand and apply it. The real difficulty is having the curiosity to explore beyond the lines created by this world.




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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