For the past two months we have talked about using the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning and how to utilize those ideas in Eventing. Please click here if you missed the first installment, and click here for the second. Given the seismic shift in all our lives with the outbreak of the Corona Virus everyone’s day to day is no doubt, very different. Some of us are unable to visit our horses at their boarding facilities, never mind worrying about improving your riding. For this edition of The Science of Better Riding, I thought I could address what we can to improve, even if we can’t ride.
For many of us, riding and spending time with our horse is an integral part of our wellness and stress reduction strategies. It’s really nice to go to the barn, tack up, climb on and only worry about the inside leg and the outside rein (again) for an hour! During incredibly stressful times, not having access to our happy place feels like one more thing we don’t have control over. What can we do to remind us that we do have a large four-legged friend just waiting for us to come off quarantine? Are there things we can do in our new found down time? The answer is yes! The Science has some helpful ideas. Also, as equestrians, you might not be familiar with the concept of “down time”. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines down time as: “time when you are not working or busy”. Apparently, it a well know concept outside of the equestrian world, it might be helpful to think of this as rider stall rest.
Modeling as an instructional tool
There is a substantial body of research that looks at the effect of watching images of yourself or others performing tasks as a motor learning strategy. There is strong evidence that watching yourself perform a task, and the imagining yourself performing that same task, can help change the performance of that specific task. Since riding and lessons are off the table for many folks, and you might have some of that “down time” on your hands, it’s time to start looking a video footage of yourself!
Watching video clips of yourself performing tasks well has been shown to help build confidence in performing that task and can lead to changes in the wiring of your brain. These changes over time ,will make that task more automatic. Now is the time to search your phones, Facebook and YouTube for video content of you preforming a task well. Delete any video of things not going well. Those close calls, saves and falls you might have saved to amuse yourself, friends and family should be tossed! Watching them also trains your brain, but not in the way you want. Once you have found that video of you performing shoulder in correctly, or jumping a corner well, or hopping over a cross rail successfully, watch it. Think about what it felt like when you did it, acknowledge that you were successful. Imagine what it would be like to do it again. Then watch your video again!
There is strong evidence that watching successful performance before a competition can have a positive effect on competitive performance. I have a short video of myself and my mare in a clinic with Buck Davidson. In the video she and I “boldly and in good balance soar over a large skinny”, then Buck says “that’s how you should ride every cross-country fence.” Now in fairness it was a novice size skinny that was not very skinny, but italicized self-talk helps you get the idea, framing the concept matters. I watch that 10 second clip in my trailer just before I get on and head to cross country warm up. I set out of the start box with Buck’s specific instructions in my head. That’s how I’m going to jump every cross-country fence!
What if you don’t have any video of you on hand? Great news! You get to scour YouTube to watch other people ride. There is evidence that even watching other people ride well will help build your confidence in your own riding. If you visualize yourself performing that same way the model did, the neural pathways in your brain change for the better. The research suggests picking a “model” who looks like you. If you are a 5-foot 5-inch woman with extra padding like me, using William Fox Pitt as a model is not going to be as helpful as watching someone with a more similar body type. While watching William tackle Burghley is always a sight to behold, I don’t need to worry about the length and position of my torso in the same that way he does. Watching a rider of similar height and build will be much more beneficial. If you are tall and lean then William is of course, the ideal model to look for!
Rider Stall Rest Top Tips:
- Search for video of you riding well, watch and visualize yourself riding just like that.
- Delete all video records of things not going well in the tack, it does you no favors to watch it.
- Find video of riders who look like you riding well, and visualize you riding just like them.
- Forgive yourself for not being able to ride, times are tough and stressful. but chances are your horse will be delighted to see you in a few weeks’ time. Bring carrots just in case.
- Take up other forms of exercise to maintain your fitness, biking, Yoga, or Pilates all will help your riding fitness to some degree.
- Take a look around your home, I recently found I had a spouse sitting on the sofa. So far, he seems nice!
Dr. Sorcha Martin is a Physical Therapist and Faculty Member at Boston University where she treats patients and teaches in the Physical Therapy Program. Sorcha and her mare, So Much to Offer, compete at the lower levels in Area 1.