Jean Luc Cornille shares strategies for creating suspension and improved gait
By Lindsay Street
Photo by Dylan Ray
“Be ready to be shocked,” Jean Luc Cornille told the audience gathered at Unbroke Grounds Equine Training Center in Peletier, North Carolina. And it wasn’t long before they were just that—shocked.
In a laden French accent, Jean Luc unveiled his horsemanship philosophy, something he called “intelligent equitation.” It is based on equine muscular and skeletal biomechanics, or the science of motion, the namesake of this clinic and his website, http://www.scienceofmotion.com.
“A lot of people are doing it (intelligent equitation) —the really good riders are … but they cannot explain it because it is so non-conventional,” Jean Luc said. “I’m not the only one who’s doing it but probably the only one who explains it.”
Jean Luc uses research data acquired over the past half century to improve the equitation of the rider and the performance of the horse.
On day one of his three-day clinic in Peletier, Jean Luc lectured to auditors and riders. Days two and three were for the riders to put his theories to practical use.
At first, Jean Luc’s concepts seem alien. He discredited many ideas riders learn from the first day of their riding careers.
“The way we know how they move today is completely different,” he said. “The (training) pyramid is a tomb—it’s a grave.” Murmurs echoed under the indoor arena. He elaborated that the tomb is for the horse. In accordance with his research, Jean Luc believes 90 percent of injuries the competitive horse endures are due to training techniques steeped in tradition.
“What we have done for thousands and thousands of years is submit the horse to a system,” he continued. “Let’s stand for the horse … let’s progress.”
Those are bold statements. But stay with him; these are concepts grounded in years of modern research.
To understand what he means, let’s look at the horse mechanically, specifically the roles of the hind legs and forelegs.
The hind leg does not and cannot carry the horse during the pushing phase. They do so during the breaking phase, which is about the first half of the time the hoof is on the ground. Jean Luc described the process that equestrians phrase as the horse carrying himself on his hind legs as an optical illusion.
According to Jean Luc, the pushing force of the hind legs is in the direction of the motion. The hind legs only produce 43 percent of the vertical movement. Meanwhile, the forelegs produce the greater upward vertical forces. The traditional view of asking the horse to carry himself by rocking back is biomechanically impossible and, in light of that concept, asking for more forward movement does nothing to raise the horse’s back or set his weight over his hind legs.
“The more we push, the less they will be able to do it,” Jean Luc said. More exertion from the hind legs pushing causes the croup to rise and the back to stiffen, defeating the ultimate goal of a light, responsive horse.
While the hind legs exert horizontal force, it is the forelegs that exert the greatest percentage of vertical force. The forelegs produce 57 percent of the vertical movement. In other words, the forelegs create lift.
“The forelegs’ action is like a pogo stick,” Jean Luc said. “The forelegs do not push the horse forward; they push the horse upward … the hind legs create the force horizontal, the forelegs create the force vertical. The combination creates the optical illusion that the hind legs carry the horse.”
The legs are designed to move with suspension. Horses are designed for “minimum effort, maximum movement,” Jean Luc explained. A flat-gaited horse showing no suspension—or spring—has a problem that should be addressed.
Often as the weight over the forelegs is increased past the normal weight-bearing load of the horse’s body weight, suspension is lost and gait abnormalities occur.
The addition of a rider adds to the weight to the forelegs. As more weight is transferred to the forehand, cadence issues and flat gaits result.
To understand how to ride the horse and prevent too much weight on the forelegs, preserving the integrity of the gait, the rider must understand the movement of the horse’s back.
Biomechanically, the horse’s spine can only move 2.25 inches in the dorsoventral (topline and underline) direction, redefining the loose, relaxed and swinging back.
“If the spine moves more than two inch and a quarter, the horse is dead,” Jean Luc said.
For the rider to effectively communicate to the horse and not interfere with his back, she must limit her movement to 2.25 inches and remain centered over her seat bones.
Jean Luc called this concept “dancing the same dance.”
If the rider’s back is too loose, the horse’s back will stiffen since he cannot follow the movement. The same concept applies to a rider who is too stiff; the horse will be unable to move to his full extent.
According to Jean Luc, riders should open their chests and hold in their stomachs to help reduce movement. Staying vertical is a must.
“The more you stay vertical, then your body weight does not disturb the back muscles,” Jean Luc said. “If you lean backward, you will open the horse’s thoracic spine (inverting the horse).”
Why does staying vertical and limiting movement work for the horse?
Minute changes to the rider’s body create changes in the horse “because he wants to stay with you,” Jean Luc said. “The horse already knows it’s good because he feels good (when he moves with you) … They can feel any change you are doing in your back.”
That includes working from the ground with just a hand touching the horse. To demonstrate, Jean Luc had an auditor press a finger against his (think: E.T.). He alternately relaxed and tensed his outstretched arm. Then, he tensed his back. The auditor felt that through the tip of his finger.
“If they feel it from the ground, you can imagine how they feel when you’re on their back,” he said.
Sounding less foreign? Let’s put these concepts to use. First, we’ll explore cadence and straightness as necessary building blocks to improve any horse. And to wrap up, we will look at two exercises designed to lift a horse’s shoulders to improve the walk, trot and canter.
Have a stiff-backed horse? Here’s what not to do:
• Go faster. “The faster they go, the stiffer the back,” Jean Luc said. “Speed is your worst enemy.”
• Weight on the bit. “If the horse push(es) on the bit, he will stiffen his back,” he said.
Find optimum cadence
If the horse is too fast or too slow, the back will stiffen. To get the maximum gait out of every horse, the rider must work with that horse’s cadence. Cadence is regular rhythm and it can usually be achieved by slowing the horse down.
“He should not go faster than his natural cadence,” Jean Luc said.” You have to resist accelerating.”
But there is such a thing as too slow.
“They continue moving the same way—pressing on the bit. You know you don’t have it,” Jean Luc said.
How do you know if you’ve achieved the horse’s natural cadence? Look for the bounce.
“If they don’t bounce, they do too much work and they become uncomfortable,” Jean Luc said.
Working within the horse’s natural cadence, the rider can eventually go into extended trots or piaffes.
“The length of the stride will change, the poll will change, but the metronome will remain about the same,” Jean Luc said.
To visualize the proper cadence out of the saddle, the croup and the shoulder should move at the same bounce at the trot.
Straightness of the horse is pivotal for improving gait, and it is one of the hardest feats to accomplish. Straightness is proper alignment of the vertebral column. In motion, since the vertebral column moves laterally at the walk and at the trot, straightness implies reducing as much as possible the spine lateral bending.
Like the concept of “dancing the same dance,” the rider is largely responsible for the straightness of her horse.
“Your straightness is in correlation to the hind legs,” Jean Luc said. “You just think you are a corridor.”
In other words, resist against movement that is not straight and forward, but do not push. The horse should be active, light on the bit and straight.
“Even if he goes a little bit too slow, that’s not bad,” Jean Luc said. “There is nothing more difficult than keeping a horse straight.”
Once the rider has the horse walking straight, she should ask for him to pick up the trot, maintaining that same straightness.
“I cannot do it,” Jean Luc said, voicing the opinion of the horse. But, he said, the rider must ask the same refrain: “Can you do that at the trot?”
With proper rider alignment, cadence and straightness explained, Jean Luc went through troubleshooting exercises for riders during the clinic. Those exercises included two geared toward improving walk, trot and canter by lifting the base of the horse’s neck.
“Lifting the base of the neck resolves many issues because the coordination reduces the load on the forelegs and also orchestrates the spine for better longitudinal flexion. Longitudinal flexion of the spine enhances dorsoventral rotations of the pelvis and, consequently, the kinematics of the hind legs,” Jean Luc said.
Improve walk and trot with lift
Sarah Kale Langham rode her 9-year-old Hanoverian, Harley, in the clinic. Jean Luc eyed the horse and rider carefully as they walked and trotted.
“He looks like he pulls with the forelegs,” Jean Luc said. But since the forelegs are not designed to “pull,” he concluded it was an optical illusion created by the horse’s crooked spine and stiffness through the neck.
To help Harley regain his lift and suspension, Jean Luc had Sarah ride him on a circle at the walk. He asked her to tip Harley’s nose to the outside of the circle (“The position of the neck is very straight; just bend at the poll,” he instructed) and then push Harley’s haunches outside of the circle, almost like a variation of both a counter bend and renvers. However, unlike the counter bend, the rider must rely on her pelvis to continue to steer the horse and not ask for the bend to the outside. And unlike renvers, the poll is tipped slightly to the outside. If the rider creates too much bend to the outside, the horse will fall on his inside shoulder, making it impossible for him to lift.
As Harley worked in his new parameters, Sarah waited for him to feel taller, wider or lifted. After a few strides in this lifted gait, Jean Luc instructed Sarah to put Harley on a bend to the inside, only to feel his lift disappear in a few strides.
“The spring—boom! That is the way they need to move,” Jean Luc praised when Harley momentarily gained suspension in his forelegs. When Harley lost his lift, Jean Luc asked Sarah to start a new circle in the opposite direction, again pushing his haunches out and tipping his poll slightly out.
After accomplishing the exercise at the walk a few times each direction, the rider should pick up the trot from the walk established with the poll tipped and haunches to the outside. The rider should maintain the exercise at the trot.
The exercise lifts the base of the neck and is for horses not executing enough lift with their forelegs already, according to Jean Luc.
After performing the exercise, Sarah found “a release that I’ve been waiting to happen,” she said.
“I have been incorrectly told how to make this horse move,” Sarah said of trying to increase a horse’s gait by increasing forward movement. “All that does is lock them up.”
Step-by-step: improving walk with lift
1. On a circle, Sarah Langham tips Harley’s poll to the outside and pushes his haunches out. She uses her pelvis to steer the horse and is careful not to ask for too much bend.
2. Harley lifts his shoulders. Sarah waits several strides before asking for a slight bend back to the inside of the circle. If he loses his lift, she will start a new circle the opposite direction, tipping his poll and pushing his haunches to the outside.
Improve canter with lift
Valerie Russell rode her two Oldenburg geldings in the clinic. Regal, 10 years old, and Sport, 18 years old, both were having problems with their lead changes, preventing a move up to Prix St. George and a string of one tempis.
“(Regal’s) changes are very explosive—that’s a nice way of saying naughty,” Valerie said. The problem cropped up with single changes, especially left to right, and he always led off with his hind, changing his front late. Sport would lose his one tempis after three changes.
“At six strides, you have less balance and he’s on the bit,” Jean Luc said. “You tell him, ‘The only canter you can do is a good one.’”
To create a good canter, Jean Luc had Valerie ask for the shoulder-in on both of her horses during the two separate sessions.
For this exercise, do not over bend on the shoulder-in; it will throw the horse’s weight to the inside shoulder. The rider should feel in the middle of the horse’s back.
“Wait until the shoulder-in is good,” Jean Luc coached. “Prepare the body for the movement.”
Like the previous exercise, the shoulder-in lifts the base of the neck for the horse. It also asks the horse to reach deeper underneath himself with the inside hind leg.
“It was balance control—not enough engagement on the hind end,” Jean Luc said of the horses needing this exercise.
When Valerie felt the lift (the same lift Sarah felt on her circles), she asked for the canter. Jean Luc explained that after the canter departure she should ride two or three strides and then ask for the flying lead change to keep the horses’ canters “through.”
A through canter can be defined as a three bit canter with proper functioning of the vertebral column, in balance and without pushing on the bit.
However, developing a through canter takes time, and Jean Luc only had Valerie practice the shoulder-in to the canter departure.
“When you train, you do not manage the defect,” Jean Luc said. It may take weeks before Valerie’s two horses become ready for the flying change after the departure.
“If he’s capable of picking up canter straight and through, then he can do the flying change,” he said. “You have to wait a few weeks before you ask for the change.”
After the sessions with Valerie, Jean Luc explained this exercise is mainly for the rider.
“That is what the rider need(s) to know and create,” he said.
During the shoulder-in, if the horse stops, unsure of how to proceed, Jean Luc said the rider should create a 90-degree turn on the haunches and the proceed on a new line while performing shoulder-in. This should be repeated any time the horse stops on shoulder-in.
Step-by-step: creating a through canter
1. On the rails of the arena, Valerie Russell asks Sport for a shoulder-in without over bending him. Jean Luc said the shoulder-in prepares the horse for the canter by lifting the shoulders and asking him to step underneath himself.
2. As Sport lifts his shoulders, Valerie asks for the canter departure.
3. Valerie allows a few nice canter strides before bringing Sport out of canter. Jean Luc demanded that the only canter a horse executes be a perfect canter. In weeks to come, Valerie should start to ask Sport for a flying lead change after a few strides to help him keep a through canter.
About Jean Luc
Spend any time around Jean Luc Cornille and you are bound to hear the story that led him to research the science of motion. The story doesn’t begin with horses, but with gymnastics—landing a triple somersault in the air, to be precise.
A former gymnast, Jean Luc learned early about the ways trainers try to fix biomechanical problems with traditional methods, and he applies the lessons to his equestrian endeavors.
Now living in Florida, he teaches clinics around the nation. Jean Luc combines the science of motion with his experience in the equestrian performance world. He works with all levels of riders, from beginners to international competitors.
He is a FEI-level trainer, instructor and international competitor. He has medal-winning expertise in dressage, show jumping, three-day eventing, steeplechase and also work in-hand.
Jean Luc graduated from the French equestrian training school Le Cadre Noir de Saumur and had the opportunity to train with riders including Joseph Neckerman and Willy Schulteis in dressage, Hans Winkler in jumping and Michel Cochenet in three-day eventing.
Margit Otto Crepin, French Olympic competitor, is one of his dressage students.
Jean Luc specializes in establishing better performances, on the flat and over fences, resolving idiopathic lameness, educating how to avoid rider-induced lameness, improving the quality of the horse’s daily life, and educating on specific syndromes like navicular, club foot, kissing spine and muscle imbalances.