“… It is clear that skills cannot be learned if the physical condition does not allow this. However, even if the physical condition is perfect, skills cannot be learned perfectly unless the rider has the motivation and passion required for working towards the goal. Perfect physical condition, perfect horse, enough money, but not enough motivation will not lead to results. In many cases, a rider of more modest background, but better motivated, fuelled by passion and willing to work for his or her goal reaches the same or even a higher level than a rider only lacking in motivation…” The author of the article, Anne-Maarit Hyttinen (PhD student, LitM, physiotherapist (UAS), professional coach), examines riders’ physical performance in her doctoral studies at the University of Jyväskylä.
A skilful performance is almost identical regardless of the location – energy consumption is low, movements automated and sparing. In case of a skilful performance, time is used most rationally and achievement of the goal established is ensured. However, the skills of a rider are based on a number of features that must be in order for proper learning of the skills and optimal utilisation of skills already learned.
The foundation of a rider’s skills consists of genetic factors, which include genetically inherited skills and anthropometric characteristics. The skills are the basis for all learning. They are relatively stable and can be affected by practising to a little extent only. In case of riding, physical abilities play a central role.
Anthropometric characteristics also have a significant impact on riding. The rider’s height, weight, age, and body proportions affect the use of the body and choice of the horse. If the horse or the accessories are incompatible with the body, learning of the skills and use of musculature are complicated. Straining of the rider’s musculature is possible, for example, if the saddle is too wide in relation to the rider’s pelvis, or if the horse is too active or wide with respect to the rider’s size, in which case the relaxation and vigour of the performance are lost.
The most significant physical factor affecting the learning of the skills is the physical performance of the rider, which consists of stamina, strength, speed, and mobility. Research suggests that the rider’s stamina or oxygen uptake is the greatest obstacle to learning and utilisation of skills. The muscle strength level also plays a major role from the viewpoint of learning. If the rider’s heart rate is constantly on an anaerobic level, a relaxed performance is impossible. If normal riding on a normal horse reveals problems with the rider’s physical condition, it should be considered as a wake-up call. In such a case, the rider definitely needs additional physical exercise without a horse for the riding performance to be a pleasant experience for the horse as well. It has been proven that poor oxygen intake is strongly associated with falling accidents. Furthermore, riding alone is not sufficient to maintain aerobic fitness.
Oxygen consumption is the largest at the terrain part of eventing. Show jumping is the second hardest discipline, while dressage is the least oxygen consumption intensive. Light sitting gallop is the most demanding of gait disciplines. On the top level, the rider’s VO2max is approx. 50 ml/kg/min in women and a little over 55 ml/kg/min in men. On amateur level, VO2max is approx. 30-35 ml/kg/min.
The rider’s power level is mainly comparable to that of normal population. In riders, the weakest link is the imbalance of upper body muscle strength. Abdominal muscles are clearly weaker as compared to back muscles, which also causes balance problems. If this upper body muscle imbalance is corrected, the rider’s balance improves as well.
In addition to stamina, maximum strength is the most important target for improvement. Maximum strength training should amount to more than 80% of power generation, for development of the rider’s somatic nervous system. An experienced strength training enthusiast can also include speed strength exercises in his or her training plan, but speed strength should only be developed after proper building of the foundation, to prevent injuries.
As concerns mobility, despite a persistent legend, riders are in a good condition. Based on physiotherapeutic tests, the mobility of horseback riders is generally normal. If there are problems, these are mainly associated with unbalanced muscle mobility and twisting of the body, which often stems, for example, from the working posture, extensive motoring or the like. Riders are more likely to suffer from so-called functional rigidity. This is affected, for example, by the rider’s tensions, low oxygen intake, improper accessories, too active or large horse with respect to the rider’s skills or body proportions, etc. All of the aforementioned cause so-called functional rigidity. The rider is forced to tension his or her muscles, which means that the muscles can no longer be relaxed.
BASIC MOTOR SKILLS
Basic motor skills are learned between the age of 3 and 7. Children in this age group require most versatile physical exercise for the development of various skill characteristics. The worst you can do to a child is to prohibit physical exercise, since basic motor skills are also a crucial foundation for learning of sports-specific skills. Motor skills consist of balance skills, physical exercise skills, and object handling skills. Basic motor skills can also be trained in later life.
Stamina, strength, speed, mobility
Physical exercise skills
Personally preferred activities
Basic skills and movement combinations
Gross motor skills
Fine motor skills
Motivation, alertness, concentration, perseverance, creativity
Areas of sports-specific skills learning (adapted from Gallahue & Donnelly 2003; Gabbard 2004; Mero et al. 2004; Schnabel et al. 2005; Hakkarainen et al. 2009; Jaakkola 2012)
The development of a rider’s skills can be described using the performance pyramid. If some of the pyramid blocks are incomplete or underdeveloped, learning of sports-specific skills will inevitably be made more difficult. In such a case, controlling the horse will be negatively affected as well.
Horse control skills
Basic motor skills
FIGURE 1. Rider’s performance pyramid (adapted from Hyttinen 2009)
It is clear that skills cannot be learned if the physical condition does not allow this. However, even if the physical condition is perfect, skills cannot be learned perfectly unless the rider has the motivation and passion required for working towards the goal. Perfect physical condition, perfect horse, enough money, but not enough motivation will not lead to results. In many cases, a rider of more modest background, but better motivated, fuelled by passion and willing to work for his or her goal reaches the same or even a higher level than a rider only lacking in motivation. Motivated, diligent, and hard-working rider willing to take the effort for the improvement of his or her own and the horse’s physical condition will find the way to reach the goal even if the horse is relatively modest, especially with the support of a professional and equally motivated coach. However, reaching the top is possible only if all of the components are in place. This means the rider’s own physical condition and the required high-quality additional exercise.
The motivation of a rider also involves the ability to cope with failures and practice skills beyond the comfort zone. When pursuing real results, training cannot be pleasant at all times. Nevertheless, the coach’s task is to render the training event positive and supporting, in order to keep the rider’s focus on the goal and make the hardships bearable. Positive experiences take better hold in the long-term memory, which accelerates learning. Since mistakes also lead to learning, there is no need to fear them; making mistakes should be allowed.
From the viewpoint of skill development, long-term teacher/coach-student relationships are of special importance. Frequent coach replacements or surfing between several coaches complicates the learning process; if the coaching package has not been carefully planned, the coaches will not have joint discussions about the rider or make joint training plans. If coaching styles are vastly different, this can make learning more difficult as well.
The basic rule, 10 years or 10,000 hours “to become skilful” alone is not sufficient. For the trainee to learn the skills, the training must be regular, high-quality, personalized, and systematic. There may be no gaps between the blocks of the rider’s skill pyramid – and if there are, these must be closed in a high-quality manner in order to reach the goals. Research suggests that versatile, short-duration exercises produce better results than constant monotonous iterations. Exercises should be modified often, so that the rider would be required to develop new strategies and approaches time and again in order to cope with the task. The denser is the neural network achieved by the rider, the easier and quicker he or she will react to various new situations. An extensive database of basic motor skills and physical performance abilities makes comprehensive learning of sports-specific skills easier.
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