The eyes have it: Where do showjumpers look when they jump?

A frame taken from the mobile eye recording device, showing the point-of-gaze cursor (the red circle) and the pupil indicator (the purple circle) on the jump approach.
A frame taken from the mobile eye recording device, showing the point-of-gaze cursor (the red circle) and the pupil indicator (the purple circle) on the jump approach.

Showjumpers assessed as having higher skills tend to focus on jumps earlier than their less skilled counterparts, researchers have shown.

Researchers in Britain have cast a spotlight on what they call the gaze behaviour of showjumpers. The assessments were made based on analysis of information recorded by a mobile eye tracking device.

Nottingham Trent University researchers Carol Hall, Ian Varley, Rachel Kay, and David Crundall carried out their study using 10 experienced, but non-elite, female riders. Each had more than 15 years of riding experience.

The jumping skills of the riders were first assessed by means of a questionnaire.

Their gaze behaviour was recorded as they completed a course in an indoor arena comprising of three identical jumps. They were asked to jump it five times.

The speed and timing of their approaches were also calculated.

Gaze behaviour throughout the overall approach and during the last five strides before take-off was assessed in frame-by-frame analyses. The riders were considered to have fixated on the jump if their point of gaze remained on the jump for 100 milliseconds or longer.

Hall and her colleagues found differences in relation to both round number and jump number, they reported in their findings, published in the open-access journal, PLoS ONE.

Significantly longer was spent fixated on the jump during round 2, both during the overall approach and during the last five strides.

The riders fixated on the first jump significantly earlier and more frequently than jumps 2 or 3, they found.

Significantly more errors were made with jump 3 than with jump 1, but there was no difference in errors made between rounds.

Although no significant correlations between gaze behaviour and skill scores were found, the riders assessed as having better jumping skills tended to fixate on the jump earlier, when the horse was further from the jump. The researchers also found that their first fixation on the jump lasted longer.

“Trials with elite riders are now needed to further identify sport-specific visual skills and their relationship with performance,” the authors said.

They suggested that visual training should be included in preparation for equestrian sports participation, the positive impact of which has been clearly shown among elite athletes in other sports, such as soccer, field hockey, tennis and basketball.

The test arena, comprising three trial jumps and a practice jump.
The test arena, comprising three trial jumps and a practice jump.

In jumping, riders needed to be able to predict the “time to contact” – when the horse will arrive at the optimum take-off point. It is generally calculated by the rider in terms of “strides to take-off”.

“Riders approaching a jump would be predicted to fixate on the jump until the point at which no further stride adjustment could be made. Seeing the correct stride and making appropriate stride adjustments is a skill that successful riders can apply in the final strides before take-off, suggesting that their fixation on the jump should continue until this point.”

The researchers noted that in an earlier study some initial pilot data was collected from two expert riders. Their head orientation and gaze direction were monitored as they approached three different jump configurations.

The eye-tracking technology demonstrated that these two expert riders consistently directed their gaze towards the upper part of the jump, regardless of its configuration.

“In showjumping competition it is often particular jumps that are associated with errors that accrue ‘faults’ and we suggest that the position within the course, in addition to differing visual features, may also affect visual behaviour on the approach.”

They said the effect of course configuration and fence type on visual behaviour required further investigation and may result in appropriate visual training to reduce performance problems associated with specific fence types and tracks.

In discussing their findings, the researchers said it appeared that gaze fixations on the jump declined with repetition.

“This did not have any deleterious consequences for the clearance of the relatively small jumps in this study but may cause a decline in performance when larger jumps are involved.”

The riders were found to have their point of gaze located on the ground for up to 40 percent of the approach time, which the researchers said may be related to looking for the optimum take-off point.

They said the detailed analysis of the visual behaviour of several elite athletes was now required to fully ascertain the visual skills associated with showjumping.

“There may be a relationship between the gaze behaviour and errors made, but this needs further exploration before conclusions can be drawn.

“However, visual skills are undoubtedly associated with skill and success in equestrian sport.”

Hall C, Varley I, Kay R, Crundall D (2014) Keeping Your Eye on the Rail: Gaze Behaviour of Horse Riders Approaching a Jump. PLoS ONE 9(5): e97345. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0097345

The full study can be read here.


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