The American magazine ‘Dressage Today’ has so far published one article co-written by myself and Functional Anatomist Tom Myers. It was an American Pilates teacher who originally showed me Tom’s beautiful set of posters. (Big thanks to her!) These show how muscles and connective tissue work in linked chains, and one look at them was enough to convince me that I had found the research that could validate my own intuitions.
I started to study Tom’s work, and we have met a number of times. He was able to come and watch a clinic that Heather Blitz taught at my place, giving him a great insight into the differences between reasonably organised riders, and an exceptional rider! Even though he does not ride himself, his knowledge of the working body is such that he comes up with amazing ways of talking about the skill-base of good biomechanics. There will be more articles based on the various muscle chains, and the muscle-chain-to-muscle-chain interaction through which either we straighten and organise the horse, or through which he kinks and disorganises us! This is a great way to think about riding – the most accurate, accessible, and practical ‘map’ that we have.
Another recent set of understandings have come through learning about the work of Australian horse trainer Andrew McLean. Andrew was a Zoologist, and an event rider who represented Australia. After he had the blinding insight that the way he rode and trained horses bore no resemblance to the ‘learning theory’ that he knew from the Zoology lab, he set about doing a PhD that delineated ‘Equine Learning Theory’. This has resulted in practical ways of teaching horses to understand the signals for go, stop, right, left, and yield. This begins on the ground, but differs from most approaches to ‘Natural Horsemanship’ in that it ensures the horse does not know what to do by following your feet. This is important as your feet will not be on the ground when you are riding!
The horse learns the correct responses through trial and error, and this is known as operant conditioning. It is, apparently, the most powerful way of learning, creating responses that are not forgotten. (Actually, this is pretty much how we coach riders, especially in the early stages of learning.) In this way of thinking, most training problems boil down to a lack of clear response to one or more of go, stop, right, left and yield, and therefore they are not solved by repeating a certain exercise again and again. What you have to do instead is to reinforce those responses, whilst utilising the best biomechanics you can (of course!).
Having spent many hours sitting by Kyra Kyrklund’s arena, and also coaching, talking with, and watching Heather Blitz, it is clear to me that their training utilises the same principles. They are both highly effective riders, with super biomechanics, who can train horse after horse to Grand prix – and in Heather’s case at least, this includes some pretty remedial horses! So to me, Andrew’s findings become unignorable! This is particularly the case given that, even after the many hours I have spent watching other well known riders, no other training system I have witnessed has boiled down (as far as my Physicist’s and NLP modeller’s brain could work out) to more than good biomechanics and the careful choice of exercises. This has never been convincing enough for me as a system.
I now believe, as Andrew has also stated, that the combination of his work and mine (and also of Heather’s approach to training coupled with our shared understanding of biomechanics) yields the best coaching and training system available in the world today. The fact that it does not presuppose talent – which would make it appropriate for only the chosen few – and that it is, in contrast, a progressive system suitable for riders and horses at all levels, also speaks volumes.