Céleste Wilkins is finishing her Ph.D. looking at the dynamic technique of competitive equestrian dressage riders at Hartpury University in the U.K. Her research has applied new technology and dynamic analysis to the traditional sport of equestrian dressage. Outside of the Ph.D., she has collaborated on several horse and rider biomechanics projects and has coached riders to explore their unique technique.
Freelap USA: Low back pain is often due to fatigue and load tolerance. The uniqueness of saddle design, the skill of the rider, the hours on a horse—how does that all relate to the screening and other variables you have analyzed in your research? Low back pain in riders is common, and it’s a complex topic. What is your main strategy in reducing injury in equine sports?
Céleste Wilkins: You’re right—it’s a complex topic! The excellent work my collaborator Isabeau Deckers recently published showed that competitive riders are suffering from back pain, and you can identify its severity with screening tools.
Many riders really focus on keeping their horse at peak performance but neglect their own health. I think a lot of it has to do with riders’ self-perception—many don’t consider themselves an athlete, so they don’t necessarily consider their own training or employ strategies to reduce their own injury. We actually have a very small evidence base from which to train and treat riders, not even mentioning equipment design. To the untrained eye it may look like riders are all doing the same thing, but my Ph.D. research has shown that riders have distinctive strategies for how they absorb the horse’s movement.It may look like riders are all doing the same thing, but my Ph.D. research has shown that riders have distinctive strategies for how they absorb the horse’s movement, says @misscwilkins. Click To Tweet
In dressage we’ve assumed for many years that we should be aiming for a “neutral” pelvis to sync up with the horse and reduce back pain during riding, but my recent study showed that few riders actually achieve this. I think we need to zoom out and consider what the rider’s entire body is doing to sync up with the horse and go from there. Just like any other sport, I would say that the main strategy to reduce injury is to consider each horse-rider pair as an individual and do a really thorough assessment.
Freelap USA: Coaches struggle to analyze running mechanics with two legs, but four seems to be a bigger challenge. How do you look at the entire body to better understand locomotion? Is it as simple as watching the legs move or can coaches learn to see how the entire body works in harmony?
Céleste Wilkins: We have an amazing ability to perceive patterns as humans. Certainly coaches/judges/riders see more than just the legs in motion; they assess the whole horse and the effect of the rider, too. From a research perspective, we are learning more and more about how horses move and the factors, like head/neck position, back pain, or fatigue, that influence how the horse’s limbs move.
As we’re working with an animal, we also have to consider welfare: Is the horse ready to accept the weight of the rider, and how will that impact its gait? I’m excited because that is the topic of Isabeau Deckers’ Ph.D., so we will hopefully have some answers in the years to come.
Also, the rider’s skill can come into play: they can either regulate the horse’s gait or destabilize it. Judges can identify and agree on novice or poor performance, but when it comes to identifying the rider factors that detract from performance at the higher levels, judges can be equivocal. That’s because the problem is so complex—individual horses may tolerate higher levels of imbalance or react differently to the rider’s cues—so one horse may move differently ridden by one or another rider.
Intuitively, riding coaches can pick up on this, but I think the real challenge is identifying where changes can be made within that horse-rider pair to increase the performance and the impact of these changes, especially when we’re talking about marginal gains. We’re starting to see a lot more assessments of horses and riders using motion capture and sensors for performance and in conjunction with some of the analytical tools that I have used in my Ph.D. to find patterns in movement and quantify coordination. I see real potential to increase horse-rider performance but keep the horse’s welfare in mind.
Freelap USA: When analyzing locomotion, how do you look for possible errors in teaching versus movement expression? Often trainers have a personal style that may not be ideal for the horse. Do you see horses with any technique issues from trainers, or is it so ingrained they are able to rise above any artificial intervention? It seems that animals have less movement strategy variation than humans.
Céleste Wilkins: I think we must acknowledge how impressive horse training is in the first place. The rider sits on the animal, can’t see the horse, can’t give verbal instructions, and instead must use their hands, legs, and weight pressure to ask the horse to change its gait, bend in its body, etc., and instead of seeing the response, they must be so in tune with the horse that they can feel whether it’s right or not. It’s like coaching an athlete in a foreign language with your eyes closed. The only difference is that the horse’s flight instincts are so developed that, in the middle of your drill, they might see something that looks predatory and zoom off, potentially injuring you.I think we must acknowledge how impressive horse training is in the first place…It’s like coaching an athlete in a foreign language with your eyes closed, says @misscwilkins. Click To Tweet
The movement expression certainly underpins the performance, and horses are bred for their gaits. But the rider must train the horse to channel its movement into the elements of the test, such as side-stepping or variations within the gait. Intuitively, riders know when their personal style may not fit an individual horse, which is why we try a lot of horses when we go horse shopping.
One element of rider skill is certainly being able to stay on the horse, but the real skill is being able to adapt to an individual horse’s movement pattern and personality and understand its unique biomechanics to get the best performance out of it. A lot can go wrong—riders can rush the horse out of its rhythm or create tension—so that all-important “feel” is a real skill.
Freelap USA: Rider posture and pelvic position is another topic that relates to other sports. It seems that the static posture of riders doesn’t have a relationship to performance, yet you have seen movement screens in your other research show up as possible ways to flag poor capacity for movement. What is a good way to look at rider posture for health and performance? Just not worry about it?
Céleste Wilkins: I think we need to move away from “rider posture” to “rider technique.” Riders can sit a certain way in the saddle when the horse stands still but move drastically different once the horse gets moving. As riders use their hands, legs, and seat to cue the horse, their technique can be really specific to a type of movement or even a certain horse. I think this makes the rider’s capacity for movement even more important, and we should certainly be worrying about it, although it adds in a layer of complexity.
So, as difficult as it is, any assessment of the rider should be dynamic and reflect the rider’s own underlying biomechanics (with, for example, a functional movement screen) but also the combination of horse and rider. Additionally, just as in any sport, some riders can achieve the same goal (e.g., sitting trot) with what we would consider really suboptimal biomechanics—for example, a very anterior or posterior pelvis—but not suffer back pain or poor performance. It just works for them.…watch the horse and rider in motion and assess the rider off-horse with a dynamic screening, but also consider the rider on an individual basis and go from there, says @misscwilkins. Click To Tweet
Therefore, I think the best way to look at rider posture for health and performance is to watch the horse and rider in motion and assess the rider off-horse with a dynamic screening, but also consider the rider on an individual basis and go from there.
Freelap USA: How has the human sports world helped you become better? While coaches can learn so much from equine sports with regard to training and recovery, how has the world of bipeds helped you?
Céleste Wilkins: As equestrian rider biomechanics is a really developing field, everything that I have done in research and in practice has come from the world of human sports biomechanics and training. There are some amazing minds in sports biomechanics and strength and conditioning, and by describing the movement of the rider in conventional biomechanical terms, I’m hoping we can attract more interest to the equestrian sports to help riders develop as athletes.
On a personal level, I’ve pursued a lot of opportunities to learn about how the human body can be trained and its underlying structure and function. Pre-lockdown 2.0 (in the U.K.), I started learning the finer details of Olympic lifting, and I feel that these training opportunities have given me a lot of empathy for our horses. Sometimes we expect a lot out of our horses in training, without considering their motor development, fitness, or progression. I think all riders should try to pick up a complex new movement skill and engage with blocks of high-intensity strength or conditioning training, not only to become fitter and more resilient, but to understand the physical and psychological demands that they place on their horses during training and competition.
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