It Feels As If--The Most Neglected Words in Equestrian Literature

Ever since I started reading books on riding I have been trying to puzzle out what the horsemen actually MEANT.  When I got my first horse I had the comforting illusion that I knew at least a little bit about riding (I had 4 years of trail riding as a young kid).  My first horse, a 5 year old just gelded green broke Anglo-Arab gelding quickly taught me that I did not know much at all.  Fortunately a few months after I got him I ran into and quickly adopted the Forward Seat Method of riding, control and schooling maily because my horse moved much better when I rode that way.  It was my great good luck that the main writers in the Forward Seat field whose books I read were very good equestrian writers who had a good way with words.  I made a lot of mistakes but my horse and I progressed.


The first book with dressage riding that I ever read was Seunig's "Horsemanship".  I barely understood a word in that book, and luckily I realized that I was not understanding it.  Then when I got my first horse I was introduced to Muessler's "Riding Logic" and my BHI instructors tried to teach me what it meant.  Since I am not a "natural rider" this meant that until I went to the Forward Seat school my horse was becoming more and more cramped under me.  Poor Hat Tricks!  Due to the reactions of my horse I decided to go with the system that I could understand and to leave dressage and all forms of collected riding to those blessed with greater riding ability than me.  That next Christmas my future husband gave me Podhajsky's "My Horses, My Teachers" which I really enjoyed reading and which finally gave me an idea of what dressage riders were training for, but further convinced me that I would be abusing my horse if I tried to ride that way.  I do not say this to go against dressage, it was just an accurate appraisal of my riding ability.  Through the decades I got a few books on dressage but whenever I tried to do what they said was the correct way to do something my horse would stiffen his lower jaw, become uncooperative and look at me as if I was an utter idiot.  Luckily, after nearly 20 years of riding, I finally ran into two dressage books whose suggestions worked, how do I know they worked?  I know because Hat Tricks, in his late twenties, finally gave me what I asked for cheerfully, promptly, and with a relaxed jaw.  Udo Burger's "The Way to Perfect Horsemanship" finally gave me the key to understanding and my horse Hat Tricks proved it by collecting correctly the first time I asked correctly. 


After decades of riding my horses and being too poor to buy many of the classic riding books my life changed.  As my horses died off I finally had enough money to buy all those horse books I had read about but never gotten to read.  The last 5 years or so I have been on a buying binge of riding books that look like they may be worth reading, mainly FS and dressage with some side trips to Western, the old English Hunt Seat, and Saddle Seat.  After reading the first five of my new dressage books I finally realized a few things.  First that most horsemen are NOT good writers.  Second that many of these literary horsemen, while being top riders, really did not know how their aids were affecting the horse.  I can put up with poor writing (harder with translations) even though I have lost a lot of hair scratching my head trying to figure out what the horsemen were trying to say.  As I gained experience riding some things eventually became clear.  However reading the dressage horsemen who did not accurately describe what their aids were doing to the horse confused me totally.  No matter how hard I tried to replicate what they wrote my horses would stiffen their jaws, curl up into a pretzel and become very unhappy with me.  Only when I went back to riding Forward Seat would my horses go back to being light mouthed and responsive.  At first I thought that this was happening just because I was too klutzy to ever become a high level rider.


Then one day it hit me.  When many of these writters were trying to describe what was happening with the horse, they were instead describing what it FELT like to them.  As an example, many books say the rider using his legs drives the horse into the bit, and then the horse flexes his jaw or poll in response to coming up against the bit.  I tried to think this through logically and what I came up with was that I was supposed to use my leg when the hind leg of the horse was on the ground and pushing, and that I was supposed to use my hand when the horse's nose was reaching forward.  While I could get away with this action when my fingers were relaxed I never got any flexion of the jaw or poll and my horse would tell me I was not riding well at all.  When I read Udo Burger I finally realized that if I use my leg during the support phase of the horse's hind leg and my hand aid when the horse's head was coming up and back (diagonal aids) everything worked perfectly, and that the flexion of the jaw did NOT come from the horse  pushing into the bit by pushing his hind leg against the ground.  I still remember the first time I tried this on Hat Tricks, then in his twenties.  He flexed his poll and stopped square.  This was the first time I had gotten that result to my aids.  


If all these horsemen had just written 'IT FEELS AS IF" before they wrote that the rider uses his leg aids to push the horse into the bit I might have been able to figure this out before I read Burger, but I had naively assumed that what was written was "the truth".  Then I started looking for other descriptions that had misled me because the writer had not put in the "IT FEELS AS IF" before their descriptions of what they did riding.  Take turning, most dressage riders insist that on circles and turns that the horse's spine had to be evenly flexed through its length to comform to the path of his feet.  Even FS writers fell for this until 30 years ago when Littauer self-published his pamphlet "The Rigid Back" where he corrected his earlier writtings about this because he had finally learned that the horse's spine simply COULD NOT DO THIS.  In this pamphlet he corrected the mistakes he had made in almost 40 years of writing riding books.  Now, thirty years later, I still read modern riding authors (mostly dressage and balanced seat) still insisting that the horse's spine should flex evenly, taking the shape of the track his feet are following.  If the horse's spine were this flexible the horses would not be strong enough to carry riders at all.  NONE of these writers had studied the spine of the horse, if they had they would have realized that all those sideways projections from the spine effectively prevent the spine from flexing that much.  Now if these riders had written that IT FEELS AS IF the horse's spine was evenly flexed over the track of the circle you might actually not have horses who are effectively being tortured because their riders are insisting on an anatomical impossibility.  (When the horse's rib cage moves away from the rider's leg to give the inside hind leg room to move forward beneath the center of gravity of the horse it may FEEL like the spine is flexing around the rider's inside leg.)   And the same thing goes for the "arching" of the back over a jump or bucking.  The spine just does not have the flexibility to do what the horsemen FEEL like it is doing.  It is like an optical illusion or a mirage, what the rider "feels" may have nothing  to do with the reality of how the horse moves.


This next example is probably going to get all sorts of dressage riders really, really mad at me.  Collection.  The old masters wrote that collection comes from the engagement of the croup and the flexing of the hind legs.  Through reading the French modern master Racinet I finally realized that this is also an "optical illusion", what Racinet describes is that first the horse raises his forehand (using the inside shoulder muscles we can't see) which results in the whole spine tilting, higher in the front and lower in the back.  When the horse does this his head and neck raise and flex at the poll.  Because of this tilt of the spine the horse's croup is lower, and when the horse uses his psoas muscle (another invisible muscle) there is a SLIGHT flexion of the croup downwards which influences the both the flexion of the hind legs and helps brings the hind legs a little bit more forward underneath the mass of the horse.  Because of how the femur articulates with the pelvis when the horse's forehand is elevated the horse's hind leg cannot move very far back.  The tilted spine and the flexed pelvis limit the backward movement of the horse's hind legs while at the same time encouraging the horse's hind leg to reach further forward, and the joints of the hind leg flex and the movement of the hind leg is more up and down than forward and back.  Because of the old paradigm of the croup lowering only because the croup and hind leg joints flex, completely ignoring the lifting power of the invisible forehand muscles, there have been countless riders concentrating solely on the flexion of the hock joints to bring about collection.  Because they do not understand the necessity of the forehand elevating FIRST they concentrate on MAKING the horse raise its head flexing at the poll (which depresses the front of the spine and puts more weight on the forehand).  The rising of the head and flexion of the poll in correct collection is something that is an inevitable consequence of the raising of the forehand, the rider does not cause it, he just allows it to happen.  At the same time the rider feels the horse's back sink behind the saddle.  How does this apply to IT FEELS AS IF?  Well, when a horse collects IT FEELS AS IF it all comes from the hind end.  People on the ground can see that the croup is lower, with hocks and croup flexing and the hind legs stepping forward further, so IT LOOKS AS IF collection comes only from the hind legs.  All this is written in the dressage books as well as the older Forward Seat books.  A lot of dressage instructors also seem to describe collection this way.  I think that all these people are mistaking the SYMPTOMS of collection (head, neck, back, croup, hind legs) for the CAUSE of collection (the elevation of the forehand by the sling muscles of the inner shoulders.) 


I became a lot happier with dressage when I finally realized that the old masters, when writting their descriptions of the collection of the horse, were MISINTERPRETING WHAT THEY FELT, mainly because the old masters of dressage just did not know enough about the horse's invisible anatomy and how the horse actually moves.  Luckily for us on Barnmice we have Jean Luc Cornille describing the truth of the muscle and bone movements that we cannot see directly and how those above mentioned misinterpretations actively harm the horse.  WE NOW KNOW MORE ABOUT HOW THE HORSE MOVES THAN THE OLD MASTERS OF EQUITATION.  It is time that we apply this knowledge to our riding.


The old dressage masters were excellent riders, there is little doubt about that!  Where they failed was in accurately translating the causes of what they felt into human language, both when teaching and when writting.  Body knowledge is not brain knowledge, and the old dressage masters did not have the brain knowledge to accurately describe the causes of what they felt with their bodies.  Their students who were "born riders" learned from the horses' reactions what worked while the instructor corrected them when they got it wrong.  However most of us lesser mortals have bodies that are just unable to "feel" what is happening under us and we have to try and figure it out.  We try to apply what we learn from listening and reading and we usually get it wrong.  This is how we know we are not "born riders".    


I have been thinking about writting this blog for over a year.  I could not have done written it without reading Jean Luc Cornille's blogs, though he has absolutely no responsbility for how I interpret the knowledge he shares with us.  Finally, after decades of reading and experimentation, I can visualize what the horse is doing with his body when he is moving.  Nowadays when I read riding books and I run across a description I always add  IT FEELS AS IF.  Then I puzzle out what the horse is actually doing and then I try to figure out how I can use my aids to encourage the horse to move naturally when obeying my (hopefully) easily understandable signals.  When I get it right I often find that in many ways the movement does FEEL AS IF the horse is doing what the old riding masters describe.  The old riding masters' feel was spot on, it was their description of cause and affect that doesn't reflect reality.


This is why IT FEELS AS IF are the most neglected words in equestrian literature.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran




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Comment by Jackie Cochran on October 27, 2011 at 4:45pm

Thank you Judi.

Listen to your horse.  If you hear him he will tell you what you are doing wrong.  The horse probably won't tell you how to do it right, that's your responsibility to figure it out, but when you get it right your horse will immediately and almost perfectly do what you ask.

I REALLY recommend "Simplify Your Riding" by Wendy Murdoch, "The Horse in Action" by Henry Wynmallen and, of course, "The Way to Perfect Horsemanship" by Udo Burger if you are going solo.  In the "The Horse in Action" Wynmalen shows drawings of gaits the way they should look like, "Simplify Your Riding" teaches how to time your aids, and Burger's book is about perfect horsemanship.  These books won't lead you wrong so long you listen to your horse.

At least that has been my experience with my horses!

Comment by Judi Daly on October 27, 2011 at 4:12pm
As I begin my journey to train the horse I bought for a summer trail horse into a winter dressage horse with no help other than books (because that is all I can afford), your advice is priceless.  I will keep it in mind with every book I read...
Comment by Jackie Cochran on October 25, 2011 at 9:32am

Hi Allan,

Even if the individual vertebrae have a little side to side flexion, it does not negate the observation that the thoracic spine is MUCH stiffer than the cervical spine or the lumbar spine.  Then we get to the sacrum, which EVERYONE agrees is rigid, with no possibility of flexion in the mature horse (I am talking of the individual vertebrae flexing with their neighboring vertebrae within the sacrum.)  There is no way anatomically that the horse's spine can flex to follow the curve of the circle THROUGHOUT ITS LENGTH.  The neck can flex alot, the thoracic spine may be able to flex a little bit,the lumbar vertebrae can flex some (though their wide sideways processes limit the amount of flexibility), the sacrum vertebrae cannot flex at all in the mature horse, and the tail vertebrae are extremely flexible.

So while IT MAY FEEL LIKE the spine is flexing evenly throughout its length to conform to the curved path, different parts of the spine flex to different degrees, a lot in the neck, almost none for the thorax, somewhat for the lumbar, absolutely none for the sacrum. with the root of the tail pretty stiff during movement.

This is not a bow with an even arc.  This is a necklace with large lumpy beads unevenly distributed on the string.  And then we have the factor that the faster the horse goes the stiffer he makes his spine.  The spine can move quite a bit at the walk (cervical and lumber vertebrae) because the horse does not stiffen it up as much in the walk.  But as soon as suspension enters the picture the horse stiffens his spine so he does not waste energy or accidentally hurt his spine (which then can affect the spinal cord with disastrous results).

Maybe someday someone will rig up an BIG MRI or CAT that we can ride under, and we can SEE what the horse's spine is doing in action, both collected and uncollected, ridden and unridden.  I suspect that the cervical vertebrae will follow the curve, that there will be a much straighter line of the thoracic vertebrae, some sideways flexion in the lumbar vertebrae, and none at all in the sacrum, because that is the way the horse is built.

The horse's spine IS NOT evenly flexed over the path of the curve even though it may feel like it does to the rider.  And that feeling can feel sublime. 

Comment by E. Allan Buck on October 24, 2011 at 9:05pm


Love your infusion of knowledge.

However, I have in my possession, from the Internet, more recent scientific research that contradicts your information.  Egads, all we have to do is search and someone somewhere is going to be contradictory......LOL

I so love this site, we can discuss without offending......


Comment by Jackie Cochran on October 24, 2011 at 11:05am

I got cut off

The sideways flexion of the thoracic spine is ANATOMICALLY IMPOSSIBLE.

It is a very good illusion though.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on October 24, 2011 at 11:04am

Hi Allan, I respectfully disagree with you.

From "The Horse Structure and Movement" by R. H. Smythe, revised by P. C. Goody,  1967, rev. 1972 (my underlining)

p. 16--The Thoracic Vertebrae--"At each side of the articular end on the (vertebral) body, before and behind, is a little concave articular surface termed the coastal facet.  In the way between each pair of thoracic vertebrae there is provided, on either side, a cup-shaped cavity for articulation with the head (capitulum) of a rib.  Transverse processes project from the vertebrael arch on either side each carrying a smooth articular surface which articulates with the tuberculum of the rib."

So the thoracic vertebrae have between each of them a head of a rib.  The top of the rib has both the head (capitulum) and a projection (the tuberculum), it sort of looks bifucated.  With the capitulum articulating with the vertebrael bodies front and back, plus articulating with the thoracic processes to the side maybe an inch away,  there is simply not much room for sideways spinal flexion, each bone is braced against the other with multiple attachments.

p. 17  "There is very limited movement in the thoracic spine of the horse in any direction."

p.20-21  "each neighboring pair of bones is firmly united the one with the other through the articular processes aided by a number of closely binding ligaments.  It follows therefore, that while te neck bones are freely movable the thoracic bones form an almost rigid column."

And further down the page talking about the sideways flexions of the lumbar spine

"At speeds higher than the walk muscular resistance increases making the column as rigid as possible in order to eliminate wasteful sideways movements."

Later on in the section on the ribs and sternum

p. 23--"Between and overlying te ribs are muscles which cause them to rotate in a forward and outwarc direction to induce inspiration....When the ribs rotate in the opposite direction to lie flat against the chest wall air is forced out of the lungs."

Vladimir Littauer's "The Rigid Back", 1980, was based on short of articles published in the Chronicle of the Horse in May 1975 and April 1977

on p. 5-6, quoting J. D. B. Stillman, MD text in E. Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion", 1882, on page 27 and 29, "It will be apparent to the most superficial observer that the motion, eiter lateral or vertical, of the dorsal vertebrae upon each other is very circumscribed, being limited in the vertical direction by the long spinous processes and  their intermediate inelastic ligaments, and in a lateral direction by the transverse processes and the articulating ribs."

On p. 29, in Part III, How The Horse Turns

"The thorax rests in a sling of muscles suspended between the forelegs...Thus the fore part of the trunk rolls in a sling between the scapulae (shoulder blades).  The embracing muscles that form this sling enable the thorax to rise and fall between the horse's shoulders or to lean over a little to one side or another.

p. 25  "A collected horse also leans somewhat to the inside of the turn wile making a volte, his thorax rolling in the muscular sling towards the inside of the turn."

If the rider feels 1) the horse lean into the inside of the curve, 2) with its torso swinging in the muscular cradle with the bottom of the torso to the outside, and 3) the rotation of the ribs backward to the inside, it may well   FEEL AS IF the horse is flexing its spine.  This is an illusion.  This illusion has been felt by the best riders in the history of the world.  However this even flexion of the spine IS ANATOMICALLY IMPO

Comment by E. Allan Buck on October 24, 2011 at 12:12am


As much as I admire your intellect and skills with the written word this piece:

Take turning, most dressage riders insist that on circles and turns that the horse's spine had to be evenly flexed through its length to comform to the path of his feet.  Even FS writers fell for this until 30 years ago when Littauer self-published his pamphlet "The Rigid Back" where he corrected his earlier writtings about this because he had finally learned that the horse's spine simply COULD NOT DO THIS.  In this pamphlet he corrected the mistakes he had made in almost 40 years of writing riding books.

has been scientifically researched and the horse's back does 'bend' in the rib cage through the lateral flexing and the lumbar bends.  The back of the horse is not rigid.  The ribs do compress though not to the extent that ours or other species do.  If there was no 'bend' in the spine I could not walk a horse around a barrel with my leg touching the barrel and the horse's body form an arch from nose to rump.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on October 23, 2011 at 5:03pm
Thank you Geoffrey, it means a lot you saying that!
Comment by Geoffrey Pannell on October 23, 2011 at 4:37pm
VERY well written, Jackie.

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