Meaning of Life part 4
The meaning of life
Jean Luc Cornille
“Respect for tradition should not prevent the love of progress.” Colonel Danloux
It was what we call a “straight forward jump.” Well built, massive, no technical difficulty. As we approached, I did not take the jump seriously, I was thinking, why they put jumps that simple on our way. However, the horse was fast. It was the same horse that the one in the previous story. It was just earlier in his career as it was his first three day event Intermediary level. At four strides I realized that the takeoff stride was long but I did not respected the jump. At three strides I woke up taking conscience that the stride was really too long. At two strides I did a “professional” half halt knowing that we had to add a short stride. He did not like it.
As you know, my horse had some rigidity on the right side which hampered his ability to flex the back and shorter the strides. His favored option was fast and faster. When I had to shorten the strides, I had to shorten a little each of the last four strides. This time I shortened a lot the last two strides. I knew that he was angry feeling the way he slammed the ground with his front legs for the takeoff. The jump was just four feet but he flew so high that I had to let the reins slide in order to give the freedom of the neck that he needed. I was somewhere above the saddle and the only reason I was not higher above the saddle was the length of the lather stirrups. The landing was almost vertical but my major problem was that I had my two feet on the same side of the saddle. It was the left side. Then my horse bounced into a very high buck. I was now around the neck but below the neck. I still had one foot on one stirrup and I hold on, hugging the neck as hard as I could, hopping that I would crash after the penalty zone. It was in the mid-seventies and it was at this time a penalty zone around the jumps. Any fall within the penalty zone was penalized sixty points. At the contrary if we fell out of the zone it was no penalty except of course the seconds lost during the game. I crashed finally, out of the penalty zone. I rolled, stand up all in one move anxious to vault back on him but, he was not there anymore. The track was empty. He kept going with the momentum. I started walking back, thinking how am I going to explain to the coach that he ejected me over the easiest jump of the course? I heard him before I could see him. He was coming back. He realized that I was no longer on board and he came back wondering what I was doing. I vaulted on him and we finished the course without more incident. We had time penalties and this is the reason why he did not win the competition. We finished second and this was the only competition that he did not win.
The horse’s performances were so great that the coach started to think about advance level and then the three day event, which at this time was the long format. One of my duties was training the pentathlon team for their equine event. They had to complete a jumping course. As I was talking about the fatigue imposed on the horse’s physique by the two road tracks, they suggested running next to my horse. For them it was easy and they were telling me that with appropriated training I could easily run one or both road tracks next to my horse. I kept my riding paint but I trade my riding boots for lighter sneakers and I started my training. With Quolibet, It was easy since our respective natural frequencies were close. With this horse I struggled. He was tall, 17,1 hands and his long legs covered a lot of ground. We ran and ran next to each other and I made interesting observations. My horse’s natural cadence was faster than my natural frequency. When I run at his cadence, I was quickly tired. This was not a surprise. What was surprising is that when I asked him to trot at my cadence he was more tired at the end of the jog that when I rode him at his own frequency over the same distance.
Years earlier, a steeplechase trainers named René Pignot, trained his horses at a slow and rhythmic trot. I was familiar with the concept of the horse natural cadence as Pignot showed me how to do it. Today, every members of our course, the IHTC, know about the Pignot jog as well as the phenomenon referred to as “stretch-shorten contraction”, (SSC). In their study on human athletes, Paul LaStayo and his partners describe this phenomenon as a situation where “The body behaves like a spring mass system”. (Paul C. LaStayo, PT, PhD. John M. Woolf, PT, MS, ATC. Michael D. Lewek, PT. Lynn Snyde-Mackler, PT, ScD. Trugo Relch, BS. Stan L. Lindstedt, PhD. Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Their contribution to injury, prevention, rehabilitation, and sport. 2003). The reason why my horse worked harder when he was following my natural frequency and therefore slower than his comfortable frequency is now explained. The energy required for locomotion can double when the athlete is asked to perform slower than his optimum frequency. The stretch-shorten phenomenon is also altered when, at the other end of the spectrum, the horse is rushed faster than his natural cadence. The stretch-shorten contraction is the ability for the muscles and tendons to recover and use for the swing phase the elastic strain energy that is produced and store during the stance. This efficient use of stored energy demands that the muscle cells and tendinous components of the muscles are “tuned” to the stride frequency. When the horse is rushed forward at a speed greater than his natural cadence, the used of stored energy is no longer possible and instead of one effort during the stance and sophisticated use of the elastic strain energy for the swing, the horse has to do a second effort for the swing.
The equine locomotor mechanism is a sophisticated model of efficiency. A horse can be rushed forward and give the illusion of moving forward but the horse is then a dysfunctional athlete moving in one direction. At the contrary, when the horse locomotion results from proper coordination between limbs movements and vertebral column mechanism, the horse’s physique is peacefully efficient and the horse’s mind can explores more complex body coordination.
The major problem with conventional equestrian education is that theories are not updated to actual knowledge. Consequently they force the horse into protective reflex reactions. Then, instead of analyzing their errors, theories and professionals professing these theories blame the horse. For instance, rushing the horse forward stimulates protective reflex contraction of the back muscles. Speed hampers consequently the horse’s ability to properly convert into vertical forces the thrust generated by the hind legs. As a result, balanced control is not achieved and these theories promote half halt as a way to rebalance the horse. The problem is that even if in mathematics the multiplication of negatives can lead to positive, in equine biomechanics, the multiplication of negative effects can only lead to lameness.
Running in the sand was taxing for me. I started the jog at my horse’s natural cadence and when fatigue was becoming an issue, I asked him to slow his movement down to my cadence. Often, his solution was keeping the same activity of his hind legs but using the energy for more suspension. His strides were becoming shorter but higher. I had my hand on the pommel of the saddle and the reins were completely loose. I hold the buckle of the reins between my fingers and he was jogging without any contact. If I started the jog at my cadence, he was not comfortable and happy but if I started at his natural frequency asking him later to slow down to my frequency, he was more willing as long as it was not for too long.
I was fascinated watching him taking the decision of higher collection and greater suspension. First time he did it, I lose my breath, which is not comfortable when you run. As he did it again and again, I took conscience that all these submissive theories are keeping us unaware of the horses’ willingness and mental engagement in their work. We were jogging side by side and once I created the conditions for his physical comfort, which was his comfortable frequency, he played with his athletic abilities exploring more sophisticated coordination.
The straightness was the most puzzling observation. When he picked the trot with high suspension, his body was absolutely straight. I had no contact with the reins I just jogged next to him and he was perfectly straight. If he was a horse naturally straight, I would not have noticed the straightness, but he was not; he was naturally crooked, pushing the shoulders and front part of his body to the right. Biomechanically, I did not understood why, but the though crossed my mind that if, this “high flexion” of his thoracolumbar spine was having an effect on his back muscles’ imbalance and consequent rigidity of the right side, I could minimize the problem if I could warm up the horse for the dressage test at this high suspension trot. I had to verify my thought. I vaulted on him and started to work on circles, half passes, right lead canter, and it was definitively better.
All these experiments were done in the forest of Fontainebleau where miles and miles of sand tracks are available. After months of practice, I abandoned the thought that I could run next to the horse for the road track. First, I am not naturally a good runner and the effort was physically taxing raising question on my energy level for the cross country course. However, I recreated the trot with high suspension and slow cadence riding my horse and watching him, the coach asked, “Did he learn to do that watching your elegant strides running next to him?” One of the pentathlon athletes joked back, “If the horse was trotting like he runs, the horse would move like a draft horse.”
From this day, the last 20 minutes of my warm up before the dressage test was this slow and high suspension trot and the presentations in the dressage ring were better. The amusing part is that other riders saw me doing this Pignot jog and wining the test. They imitated my warm up believing that it was the new winning formula. It told them about straightness, slow cadence but I could not explain biomechanically what straightness was really about. Without a horse having such power and stamina, without having observed the whole process, they could only achieve superficial straightness and they did not gained suspension and amplitude.
Retrospectively, I came close from the answer but it was many pieces of the puzzle that were still missing or not updated to actual knowledge. At this time, it was believed that the hind legs engage deep under the body propelling the horse’s body upward. My horse did not engage his hind legs deeper under his body when he was picking up more suspension. Jogging next to him I can feel a difference in the way he was using his vertebral column but looking at him I did not see his back becoming rounder. In terms of geometry, which is kinematics, nothing changed. He did not lower the neck either. Apparently nothing changed but the trot changed considerably. I noticed that shortly after his back felt different, his forelegs were picking up more spring. I also wondered how I could feel it. We were both running facing the same direction. I was not looking at his back but I can feel a different dynamics. When I felt this different dynamics I looked at his back expecting to see some roundness or some swing but nothing changed. The forces changes but it was not more movement. It was a dynamic phenomenon.
I went back to the first dynamics study of the equine vertebral column that has been published in 1964 by Richard Tucker. I have read the study before but did not understand a single word, or more exactly my mind did not want to understand because it was in contradiction with what I have been told. This time, having in mind what my horse was doing, I started to understand Tucker’s statement. “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, Contribution to the Biomechanics of the vertebral Column, Acta Thoeriologica, VOL. IX, 13: 171-192, BIALOWIEZA, 30. XL. 1964) My horse converted through the muscular system of his back the same propulsive activity of the hind legs into greater upward forces.
The “metamorphose” occurred always in the same order. The activity of the hind legs did not change but the back muscles worked differently. I guess, the back muscles were converting the thrust of the hind legs into greater vertical forces. Two or three strides after this feeling, the forelegs were picking up more spring. The suspension of the trot greatly increased. I was trained to think that the hind legs were carrying the horse into lightness. It did not look that way. The thought even crossed my mind that the forelegs were creating greater upward propulsive force but I have been trained to think that the hind legs were creating the vertical forces. I was trained to think the wrong way but it took decades before the explanation surfaced. “In horses, and most other mammalian quadrupeds, 57% of the vertical impulse is applied through the thoracic limbs, and only 43% through the hind limbs.” (H. W. Merkens, H. C. Schamhardt,G. J. van Osch, A. J. van den Bogert, 1993).
According to my classical training, a horse in balance shifts the weight backward carrying more weight over the haunches. My horse did not shift any weight backward. Everything occurred forward but he gained balance? I decided that I had to look at him, study the researches available and try to understand what he was explaining to me without letting my classical education confusing the exploration of new ideas. I decided that I had to understand what my horse was telling me. I realized that as long as I will try to understand his reaction in respect of my classical education, I will miss half of his teaching and I will misinterpret the other half. Helping me through this mental crisis was the fact that nothing in my classical training could explain what my horse was doing.
He had naturally a very good balance, but his balance was incredible when he was coordinating his body for the super trot. He was taller, the spring of the trot was greater but it did not look that he shifted any weight backward. It looked and it felt that the forces created by the hind legs were oriented upward. This was in accordance with my classical training; the hind legs carry the horse upward. However, he did not engage the hind legs further forward under his belly. Because I was running next to his forelegs I can hear the impact forces becoming lighter. One day a strange thought crossed my mind; could it be that the forelegs propel the body upward? The answer came a few years later when James Rooney explained that the forelegs were not pushing the horse forward but instead upward.
On this diagram, which illustrates the different sequences of the forelimbs movement during locomotion, we can clearly see the upward direction of the forelegs’ propulsive activity. Decades later, measurements demonstrated that not only the forelegs were propelling the horse body upward but their upward propulsive activity was greater than the upward propulsive activity of the hind legs.
Then, a picture completely different that the one I have been trained to believe was taking shape in my mind. Balance is not created shifting the weight backward. Instead, a horse master balance converting through the back muscles, the thrust generated by the hind legs into greater upward forces. This was not my idea. Tucker explained that the thrust generated by the hind legs was translated into horizontal and vertical forces which diminish progressively as they pass from one vertebra to the next. The phenomenon occurs back to front. Balance results from the capacity of the back muscles to convert the thrust generated by the hind legs into upward forces. This was what my horse was doing but this was not what I have been trained to believe.
I had to decide if I believed my horse over tradition, or if I ignored my horse’s teaching for the respect of tradition. Then I remembered Colonel Danloux’s beautiful statement, ”Respect for tradition should not prevent the love of progress.” I believed my horses and boy, what a journey. How the horse achieved straightness was the most amazing discovery but I have to tack another horse; his story will help you to understand what straightness is really about.
Jean Luc Cornille
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