Equine Biomechanics for Dummies

Two weekends ago my instructor asked if I wanted to go to Lexington, KY and audit a Jean Luc Cornille equine biomechanics clinic. My ears perked at biomechanics and I told her I’d love to come along. Then she said we’d have to leave her house by 5am. Hmmm, okay. Now, I live an hour and 20 min away from her house so by the time I figured out the math on that one I knew it was going to be a short night and a loooooong morning.

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We got to Midway College, the hosting venue, and quickly huddled inside the heated kitchen area where we first met Jean Luc and chatted as other auditors arrived. Jean Luc began explaining some of his theory and clinical information. About 20 min into the discussion, my internal monologue was like “Let’s go! Blah blah blah muscles in Latin…I get it. Let’s start the clinic, though!” Well, thank goodness I was at least listening because that discussion presented a really solid foundation of what we would later see in practice.

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Biomechanics Clinic

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I am going to crudely summarize what I internalized from the Jean Luc Cornille clinic. Take a nugget from this oversimplification if you wish-otherwise I would highly recommend auditing or riding in one of his clinics if you are interested in this approach to horsemanship!

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Major takeaways for me:

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– The spine of the horse can only move at most 2¼ inches up and down and the back muscles stiffen and stabilize to protect the spine. Not exactly the “loose, swinging back” we’ve all been told to try and achieve (at least not physically). Consequently, the rider must limit the movement in their spine to match the horse. If the rider’s back is too loose the horse cannot follow the movement and he will stiffen further to protect his back. I routinely fall into the bad habit of allowing a TON of movement in my back because the time spent not engaging my abs feels easier to me and sometimes I start to think that since I’m “following” the motion the of the horse that it feels fine for him too. But, I guess the main point here is that it’s really detrimental to allow your back to move more grossly than it would while you are walking unmounted.

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-The forelegs of the horse are more capable of producing the lift or vertical forces than the hind legs. The hind legs offer more in the way of thrust or horizontal force and a good portion of the braking/balancing capability.

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The forelegs produce 57% of the vertical movement, whereas the hind legs are only capable of producing 43% of vertical forces. The hind legs produce the horizontal force in the direction of travel.

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I didn’t completely get this idea at first. I finally digested the concept when I saw in one of Jean Luc’s presentations that in the middle of a bounce jump, a horse takes off with his front BEFORE the hind legs even land. Not a jumper here. This was a foreign, slightly mind-blowing concept that left me youtubing videos of people schooling bounces to watch frame-by-frame as the extrinsic thoracic limb muscles (front leg and some back muscles) convert horizontal force to vertical force without help from the hind legs.

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-optimum cadence is important for the horse to learn to move more efficiently while carrying a rider. He has to coordinate a lot of things in his body for the system to work optimally and asking for more and more from the hind leg can just make him stiffen his back and dump too much weight on to the forelegs preventing the lift you’re trying to achieve. Slow is not bad. Find the proper cadence for your horse that naturally produces the most “bounce” “loft” and work there.

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-And, of course, straightness. Straightness is everything. Actively pursue straightness ALL THE TIME. Without it, you cannot improve the horse’s way of going.

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Those were my major takeaways and I really enjoyed auditing this clinic. I liked how his theories were always centered around making the horse more comfortable in each moment, and teaching the horse to carry a rider. Too often, they allow us to ride them and do their best to compensate, but we don’t do enough to teach them how to carry us comfortably. Keeping comfort and correctness as primary objectives leads to things like improvement of gait, correct musculature, better performance, reduced injury risk, and longevity of work. Those are all pretty darn nice ribbons to win in my book!

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Last night I got my first chance to put some of these concepts to work during my lesson. As an added bonus, Jen and Connor joined in the fun!! I take weekly lessons at her barn but we hardly ever get to see each other so thanks Indy work training and bootcamp week for the overdue reunion!! You guys are welcome to crash my lesson anytime.

Jen even took this picture of me during our lesson- yes- DURING our lesson. I’m just out there trying not to run into walls and she’s taking photos in shoulder-in.

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It was NOT an easy lesson. I am very sore today and we walked and barely trotted. We did good work though, and I felt moments of good connection with Mc and moments when we fell out of sync. I think it’s important to feel those changes. This detailed, methodical work helped me feel those moments far better than if we had just been rushing around like normal. The speed also gave us both time to make adjustments. It was tiring, and I know it was for Mc too. I tried my best to muddle through achieving poise- After all, I must create self-carriage within my own body before I can ask it of Mc. NOT stiffness, though (ahem, right leg…). We did finish up with some baby half-pass moving back to shoulder-in each time correct bend was lost etc. Good thing there is no video of this exercise since I’m pretty sure we looked like drunken sailors weaving slowly around the arena.

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Also, it should be noted that it was so nice out I wore a short sleeve polo shirt for this lesson. Then my car got stuck in the parking lot- yay mud season!!!

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8 thoughts on “Equine Biomechanics for Dummies

  1. That is an interesting clinic. The write up from you and Jen makes me think that the guy was a leeeeettle too in depth for me. I like understanding general principles, and I’m sure the clinic was fantastic for the right type of learner, but it sounds like information overload.

    But hey, it clearly works for you. Awesome!

    • It was TOTALLY information overload. Maybe I should clarify that what I got from actually witnessing the clinic was a headache, mild frostbite, and a page of illegible notes about vertebral positions. BUT, I did like the general theme enough to do some more studying on my own to try and nail down the concepts I liked 🙂

  2. My friend from my first college did her senior thesis on horse and rider biomechanics, and ever since then, I’ve been FASCINATED with it. Very informative post. I’ll definitely check the bounce videos myself!

  3. Even just your tidbits give me some great stuff to think and read about – thank you! Bet the clinic was awesome 🙂

  4. i love bio-mechanics in general and love reading recaps like this – sounds like a great clinic!! straightness really is key – and is also such a struggle for my crooked crooked mare (and crooked me, too, if we’re being honest haha)

  5. Ohh! Ohh! I went to a seminar and one of the speakers was Dr. Elizabeth Uhl, who has been drinking the Jean Luc kool-aid for a very long time. I found it absolutely fascinating and I’ve (oops) been meaning to get his book, the Science of Motion for like a year now. In case you’re interested in my take-aways, I wrote about it here.

    • That sounds like a great seminar too!! Jean Luc did lightly discuss how correct work prevents or can fix injuries like kissing spine and stifle injuries. It all seems very logical to me and I was fascinated too!!

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