What separates novice horse riders from advanced riders from a neuromuscular point of view?
Researchers Marc Elmeua González and Nejc Šarabon, with the University of Primorska in Slovenia, examined the question in a just-published study, in which they found more chaotic muscle activity among the novice riders when compared to the impressive control of the professionals.
The pair, writing in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, said equestrian sports have been the focus of many studies in the last 20 years, but few have explored the biomechanical effects, including muscle activation, that the horse has on the rider.
“Because equitation is a sport of two, we believe there is a need to fill in the knowledge gap in human biomechanics during riding,” they said.
The pair set about characterizing the motor output of a set of riders’ key muscles during horse riding. They used six recreational riders with an average age of 24, and nine professional riders with an average age of 31 from the Spanish Classical School of Riding (Lipica).
The upper body, core and lower limb muscles of each rider were monitored and synchronized with inertial data from the left horse’s leg at the walk, rising trot and canter.
Analysis of the data showed that the advanced riders had three muscle modes whereas the novice group had five.
“Advanced riders showed higher core muscle engagement and better intermuscular coordination,” they reported.
They found that advanced horse riding is characterized by an ability to activate muscles contralaterally but not reciprocally.
Another distinctive pattern in muscle activity was found in advanced riders: the ability to activate each muscle independently with different levels of activation, and the ability to quickly decrease overall muscle activity.
“At first glance,” they said, “results point out a trend for higher and earlier activation of core muscles by the advanced riders at walk.”
This suggested that work during walk was undervalued by amateurs, and that full engagement of core muscles at all times during a riding session was characteristic of advanced riders, they said.
Throughout the riding cycle, advanced riders showed a later maximal activation of the upper body muscles, which could be explained by a more vertical trunk alignment which prevents the activation of trunk stabilizers involved in voluntary body sways that would be expected in novice riders when leaning forward.
During canter, maximal activation of back and leg muscles occurred later in the cycle in advanced riders compared to novices, suggesting a similar pattern of balance.
“This points out that advanced riders have a higher ability to anticipate the impact at a neuromuscular level when compared to novice riders.
“It is worth noting that walk and trot are both gaits where the advanced riders differed notably from the novice riders.
“At walk, we can clearly observe in the advanced group a pattern that alternates activation on the trunk flexors and trunk extensors. In turn, the novice group shows a constantly activated pattern of muscle activity. We believe that the muscle activation pattern shown by the novice group allows the riders to stabilize their centre of gravity, yet it also constricts the horse’s motion.
“It is important to acknowledge this finding because any skill to be taught to the horse will always need to go through walk at some point in the horse’s learning process. It is therefore of great interest that a rider can alleviate the big mental and physical load of teaching new skills to a horse by being less restrictive in their movement.”
At trot, the researchers found a similar pattern.
“Advanced riders show a more defined and relaxed pattern of muscle activation.”
In this gait, leg muscles are activated at the beginning of the stride, which corresponds to the right front leg of the horse touching the ground, as the rider lifts their pelvis.
“In a similar way to the walk muscle patterns, back extensors and flexors of the advanced riders alternate in the active phase, this time in a more progressive fashion.
“Novice riders showed a similar pattern, however, there was again more activity in all muscles at all times, and less leg muscles activity at the beginning of the cycle (that is, when the horse’s right front leg hits the ground).”
At canter, novice riders activated their ankle extensors, followed by outside/left leg extensor and inside/right back flexor, and finally they activate left lower back and right upper back extensors.
Comparing the two groups at the canter, the researchers found higher knee flexor activity among the novices, which could be explained by a lack of independent seat and excessive leg gripping.
“Moreover, the back muscles are more active throughout the entire gait cycle,” they added.
Overall, novice riders showed a more chaotic muscle distribution across modes, while advanced riders showed an ability to synergistically activate both sides of the body at the same time.
“In other words, advanced riders’ muscle modes include both right and left versions of the same muscles, while novice riders might not have the ability to split motor neural output contralaterally and end up using only one side of the body at a time.”
Advanced riders were found to have a better ability to activate muscles at different magnitudes, whereas novice riders tended to follow an “on/off” model of muscle activation in which they either activate one side or the other.
“These findings bring an interesting perspective to motor learning of the equestrian rider,” González and Šarabon said.
Research by others has shown that muscle modes are more flexible when dealing with balance-related tasks.
“Therefore equitation could be an activity that can potentially generate muscle mode adaptation.”
They said the biomechanical relationship of the horse-rider pairing is fairly unknown when it comes to the effects of the horse on the rider.
“Knowledge on what makes a good rider is based on anecdotal evidence and it varies largely across countries, riding centers and even riders.
“To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to investigate how experienced riders differ from amateurs at a neuromuscular adaptation level and represents an important starting point to understanding how the human body works during horse-back riding at walk, rising trot and canter.
“The primary conclusions that can be drawn from this set of data are that professional riders have higher overall muscle tone and are using their core muscles to a greater extent than novice riders.
“Furthermore, novice riders do not have the ability to activate muscles contralaterally and independently with different magnitudes, making them less adaptive to the movements of the horse and, most probably due to lack of self-body awareness, they do not show the capability to move their own center of gravity around the saddle to come in and out of alignment with the horse’s center of gravity when desired.
These four conclusions will be of great importance to any equestrian coach or strength and conditioning coach working with horse riders, they said.
“It points out four physical qualities that can be improved through training off the horse and could potentially increase performance of the (horse-rider) dyad without increasing training load of the horse, thus preventing overtraining and/or injury of the animal.”
Further research on the benefit of off-horse training for these physical qualities would benefit the riding community, they said.
The implementation of a core training program could have a significant impact on riding performance, previous research has shown.
“These researchers found that performing three weekly 20-minute sessions of a sport-specific training regime was enough to elicit substantial adaptations in the rider over the course of eight weeks.”
González and Šarabon said their own work suggests that an equitation-specific training regime should include:
- Whole-body muscular toning exercises with special attention to core stability;
- Bilateral dissociation exercises of both upper and lower extremities;
- Centre or gravity awareness exercises.
Elmeua González M, Šarabon N (2020) Muscle modes of the equestrian rider at walk, rising trot and canter. PLoS ONE 15(8): e0237727. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237727