Researchers Studying Haute Ecole Movement Biomechanics

Researchers Studying Haute Ecole Movement Biomechanics

Biau said she and colleagues have studied the history and evolution of the courbette, the croupade, and the cabriole (seen here) from a biomechanical point of view.

Photo: Alain Laurioux

It's a sight to see: magnificent classical dressage horses of the haute école performing powerful airs above ground. While audiences around the world have enjoyed these displays of strength and beauty for years, science has been relatively silent about how these horses perform the complex movements biomechanically and what effects they might have on the animal. That is, until now.

A group of French researchers recently began investigating the traditional riding school movements to gain a better understanding of them. This will not only improve training and safeguard equine welfare, but it will also help trainers select horses that are “up” to such high-level skills, according to Sophie Biau, PhD, research coordinator at the Ecole National d’Equitation in Saumur. Biau presented her research at the 2013 French Equine Research Day held earlier this year in Paris.

“The research we are carrying out will allow us to establish a quantified reference of school jumps, which will enrich the knowledge of this immaterial cultural heritage of humanity as well as help understand the role of the immediate preparation phase and the mechanics that are subjacent to these movements,” Biau said. “A better understanding of these movements and their biomechanical imperatives creates a basis for an objective monitoring of the training of school jump horses and could even improve their training and the selection of such horses.”

Biau said she and colleagues have studied the history and evolution of the three classic jumps still practiced today at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation—the courbette, the croupade, and the cabriole—from a biomechanical point of view. These three jumps have changed considerably, in different ways, since they were first trained during the Renaissance period, Biau said. In fact, the courbette isn’t technically a “jump” at all anymore; rather, it is a haute école movement during which the horse remains balanced on his hindquarters. The reasons for these changes are unclear. However, Biau said, “We might be able to find certain biomechanical explanations for some of the changes.”

Thus far, the researchers have refined a biomechanical code for the jumps that specifies the movements from a point of view combining physics and anatomy: which joints move where, what forces are used, and what angles are created.

They’ve also taken biomechanical measurements from videos of the Saumur school horses' movements, Biau said.

“The video study will allow us, for each jump, to quantify the horse’s collection—the engagement of the hind legs, the lowering of the hips, the support of the neck—and to appreciate the ‘explosiveness’ of the movement with the use of acceleration data,” she said. “It will also enable us to make a model of the synchronization, by segment, during the preparatory strides and at the moment of the jumps themselves.”

The next step is analyzing these biomechanical criteria, said Biau. “Once we’ve done that, we can objectively discuss the descriptions already given in (historical) texts,” she said, “and perhaps provide biomechanical elements so as to better understand the movements and improve their execution, much as we would for any other equestrian sport.”

Biau said she expects to have this information available by the end of 2013.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More