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Being one with your horse. It can be just as difficult to achieve as it is to describe to a non-equestrian. But science has stepped in to spoil the magic: A new series of studies has recently unveiled at least part of what happens when riders connect with their horses in movement. And primarily, researchers say, it has to do with rider gaze and posture.

“There’s better coupling between the horse and the expert rider because the rider better anticipates the horse’s movement,” said Agnès Olivier, PhD, researcher at Groupe Voltaire Saddlery, in Biarritz, France, and at the University of South Paris Saclay’s CIAMS Laboratory, in Orsay, France.

“Our research gives insight into previously unrecognized elements relating to the expertise of the rider,” she said during her presentation at the 2017 French Equine Research Day, in Paris.

In their three-part series of studies, Olivier and her fellow researchers investigated three ways riders use their senses and balance during riding. They tested novice and expert riders using a simulator horse and a video screen. They examined:

  • Visual exploration: How often riders fixed their gaze, and for how long, during a simulated jumping course;
  • The role of visual information for posture control: How riders use visual cues to maintain and adjust their posture; and
  • The relative contribution of various senses for rider interaction with the horse: How riders use sight, hearing, and proprioception (one’s awareness of where their body parts are)—and to what extent relative to each other—to contribute to their ride and their “oneness” with the horse.

They found that expert riders fixed their gazes more often than novice riders, Olivier said. This means more experienced riders tended to hold their view on a specific point more frequently than less experienced riders, who shifted their vision frequently to look at more things.

Mustangs

Expert riders also had longer maximum gazes than novice riders did—this was particularly true in the four to five strides before a jump. Experts held their gaze a full three seconds prior to a jump, whereas novice riders averaged slightly over two seconds, Olivier said. Scientists have already recognized this “quiet eye” phenomenon—a fixed regard for a long period during sports—in high-level athletes of other disciplines, such as basketball, volleyball, and golf. But this is the first time it’s been demonstrated in equestrians.

In the second experiment, they noted that expert riders keep their heads more stable during rides and also stayed more stable in the saddle, even when their vision was obscured, compared to novice riders.

“Our results show that professional riders adapt their coordination according to whether their vision is partially or completely blocked, to stabilize their heads,” Olivier said. “This adaptation is absent in novice riders, resulting in remarkable instability of the head. This leads us to believe that experts might have developed a finer perception of the sources of uncertainty that could negatively affect performance and have thus learned to adapt to the situation in order to limit the perturbations and better stabilize their heads.”

The third experiment revealed that skilled riders maintained their coordination and posture better than novice riders when the researchers interfered with vision or proprioception (by placing foam under their seats, their legs, or their feet). Masking sounds didn’t seem to affect either group, said Olivier.

“Experts detect the sources of uncertainty more rapidly and take advantage of the proprioceptive information that’s still available and reliable,” she said. “The use of the hands on the reins to get information from the horse (coordinating the hands with the simulator) seems to be a particular sign of an expert rider.”

As a result of this third experiment, the researchers believe novice riders could benefit from simulator training to improve their riding skills, so as to limit coordination mistakes on a live horse.

This new information on the way different levels of riders use their senses, balance, and coordination could benefit equitation training.

“We hope this knowledge will improve the pedagogical practices of coaches and trainers so as to optimize horse-rider interactions,” Olivier said.