Eventers confront “stressage” in their return after lockdown

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Researchers who studied the resumption of Eventing following Italy's eight-week Covid-19 lockdown found that dressage was most affected.
File image © Mike Bain

Researchers who studied the resumption of Eventing following Italy’s eight-week Covid-19 lockdown found that dressage was most affected.

Sabrina Demarie, from the University of Rome, and her fellow researchers set out to learn more about the impact of training restrictions arising from the lockdown on the physical and emotional strain in Eventing.

The government-imposed lockdown, from March 8 to May 4, severely curbed physical activity and sport. Outdoor jogging was permitted, but only within 200 meters of home, and any other physical activity and competition was prohibited.

“Athletes are aware of detrimental effects of physical activity restrictions, and the majority of them have attempted to train at home within the constraints of the equipment and space that they had available,” the study team wrote in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Nonetheless, training restrictions led to concerns about athletes’ ability to maintain key physical and mental attributes, with potential effects on performance and injury risk on the resumption of training and competition.

The horse-human partnership adds further complexity to this equation, the researchers noted.

Their study focused on a pool of 54 female national-level Eventing riders participating in national and international competitions, who were recruited from eight clubs.

The researchers gathered data on their training regimes in the three months before the study across the three disciplines involved in Eventing.

During lockdown, the riders trained on their own on a regular basis for about 1.5 hours a day, five days a week. Their routines comprised jogging and stretching, the lifting of light weights for the upper and lower limbs, and no-load core exercises.

The study team evaluated two competitions held four weeks before lockdown and two competitions 10 weeks after training had recommenced.

Scores for each discipline were compared before and after lockdown. Before competing in each discipline, the riders underwent a standardized test for anxiety. Heart rate was continuously monitored and exertion levels, based on how each rider felt in competition, were determined for each phase.

The researchers found no significant differences in Eventing scores for showjumping and cross-country before and after lockdown.

However, dressage scores were significantly worse — a result reflected in post-lockdown anxiety levels.

Levels of anxiety before competing in the cross-country and showjumping phases were similar before and after lockdown. This was not the case for dressage, with significantly higher anxiety scores recorded after lockdown.

The authors noted that, after lockdown, the showjumping phase was 15% shorter and the cross-country course 40% shorter in order to control exertion levels.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said the lockdown had decreased performance among horse-rider combinations in Eventing.

They said the shorter competition format chosen by most competitors after lockdown enabled athletes to maintain a tolerable physiological demand, preventing excessive cardiovascular stress.

Why was dressage most affected? Demarie and her colleague said the shorter courses in showjumping and dressage may explain why anxiety levels remained largely unchanged before and after lockdown.

In contrast, the dressage test was unmodified.

Dressage performance, they noted, is based on the judge’s aesthetical and technical evaluation only, which may result in riders being more susceptible to high levels of anxiety. In contrast, showjumping and cross-country scores derive from the mathematical calculation of faults and time.

The researchers concluded that emotional stress in dressage and the workload in cross-country should be carefully managed in Eventing after a lockdown.

Demarie was joined in the study by Christel Galvani, from the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milano, Italy; and Veronique Louise Billat, with the University of Evry-Val d´Essonne in France.

Demarie, S.; Galvani, C.; Billat, V.L. Horse-Riding Competitions Pre and Post COVID-19: Effect of Anxiety, sRPE and HR on Performance in Eventing. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 8648.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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