Featured on EquineChronicle.com, June 2015
The human eye is slow and, on top of that, it often conveys only the data the brain thinks it wants to see. It can’t resolve the details of fast motion, like the motion of a horse and rider.
Have you ever seen a painting of a horse from the 18th century? Majestic galloping steeds were often depicted with both front and hind legs fully extended at the same time. People believed that was a correct gait, because that’s what they thought they saw, and all those paintings reinforced their false belief. It wasn’t until 1876 when Eadweard Muybridge captured the first moving shots of a racehorse that the gait debate was settled. That mere three seconds of motion picture changed how horse trainers and owners understood the sequence of a horse’s legs in motion.
Technology has continued to change equestrian sports in many ways since then. Today, cameras with video capabilities are as ubiquitous at a horse show as lead ropes. We can capture anything, everything, and sometimes too-much-a-thing. Still, tools like smart phones and iPads can do more than just plaster your latest ride all over the social media. They can actually transform your training sessions and make them more effective in the long run.
While next-day video review of the big game is the norm in sports like football, basketball, and baseball, it’s less common and certainly less talked about in equestrian sports. But make no mistake, it’s there, and it may just be the secret weapon of the rider who keeps edging you out in the final placings.
High Tech Training
Feedback methods are increasingly used in many sports to learn new skills or improve performance. Research shows that the more objective and quantitative the feedback, the more powerful it is. Watching video can meet those needs, and discussing it with a trainer, riding buddy, or family member can contribute the qualitative component needed to further your goals.
Feedback from lessons, practice sessions, or competitions each has its place in the high tech training process. Video analysis of riding with trainer instruction can help equestrians understand the basic fundamentals of a specific movement. It also avoids the pitfalls of subjective observation—simply seeing what we think we want to see. Some trainers are using video review sessions to coach riders on how to approach various situations. When viewed, side-by-side, they can point out good techniques, identify weak spots, review skills, and critique body position. It’s a great opportunity to point out specifically where a hand sits, how a heel is being placed, and how the horse is reacting to the situation.
Taking it a step further, slow motion video playback facilitates detailed analysis of a rider’s techniques, frame by frame. It can even be used to evaluate the biomechanics of the horse. Small adjustments of rider position, hoof trimming, shoes, saddles, pads, and even girths can help improve the movement of the horse or support the horse’s joints to prevent injury. Reviewing video from a show is immensely useful in identifying where problems are occurring in that environment. Watching the ride helps evaluate a rider’s mental attitude and focus. When a ride goes great, it can serve to motivate and remind riders of all the things they are doing right.
Tonya Johnston is a mental skills coach who works with equestrians from across the country to increase their performance level. With a Masters degree in Sports Psychology and life-long involvement in the Hunter/Jumper world, she naturally gravitated toward working in equestrian sports. She focuses on a rider’s mental preparedness and the motivational factors behind showing horses. In her book, Inside Your Ride, Johnston outlines strategies to overcome riding challenges, conquer anxiety, develop a positive attitude, and fine-tune visualization skills. She is a big proponent of using video for improving both the mental and physical skills needed for competition.
Johnston works with all types of riders of all ages, levels, and disciplines including Western Pleasure, Reining, Trail, and Dressage. With her own continued involvement in Hunter/Jumper competition, she maintains a large number of clients who show in that area. She sees pretty broad use of video as a coaching tool across all disciplines.
“I think it has been around forever,” Johnston says. “I had friends in the ‘80s who would video each other at the barn. Then, they would run home to watch it all together.” Back then, video cameras were big, bulky, and expensive, and not everyone had one with them at all times. “The economics of videography have gotten to the point that it’s so available now, and everyone can take advantage of it.” Her belief is that everyone should take advantage of video. It’s just too easy and helpful to ignore.
“These days, there is so much great technology accessible to everyone,” she says. “It doesn’t really matter what brand or even what kind of device [you use]. I have clients who train their grooms to use their iPads. Most all of the newer smart phone cameras are very good quality. As long as it has a zoom feature, it will work.” When taking video, she suggests zooming in as much as possible in order to discern what’s going on with the horse and rider. There is no point in shooting video that makes a rider look like an ant going around the ring. She also encourages videoing with a buddy, suggesting that you make arrangements to video each other’s lessons, practice sessions, or competitions. If cost isn’t an issue, buying as much as you can from the show videographer is your best bet. “They do a fantastic job of editing and keeping you in full frame. It’s the best quality you can get.”
Once you have all that video, you don’t want it to languish on some hard drive or off in cyberspace. It has to be viewed in order to be useful. Immediate review and analysis with your trainer is the most valuable way to evaluate performance and plan future training. “Ideally, you would want to do the review soon after the ride, while the muscle memory is still fresh and you have kinesthetic awareness to build on. You will be able to remember how you were feeling at the time and how your horse was reacting.” Studies of team sports support a regime of practice or performance, followed by immediate video analysis, and then a return to practice as the most effective method of integrating what was learned. By returning to the arena right after video feedback, a rider can work on the exercises outlined by the trainer to improve the rough spots.
There are a number of smart phone and iPad athletic training apps that offer added features for video playback. They facilitate immediate, precise video review with slow motion and side-by side comparison along with organizational aides. Some even enable the user to draw on the images, allowing a trainer to highlight body positions and angles. Many have text and audio features making it easy to add notes or commentary. It’s a great way to keep your trainer in your back pocket.
Besides seeing improvement in physical skills, watching video with a trainer has other benefits. “You can build communication skills and develop a common understanding. Sometimes, trainers aren’t that clear with what they’re saying, or you’re not quite getting it. When you’re reviewing video together, it allows you to ask something like, ‘when you say, ‘do this with your hand,’ do you mean here?’ Immediately, the trainer can clarify what they mean.”
Get Your Head in the Game
Game day tapes are widely used in many team and individual sports to examine the mental aspect of competition, such as attitude, commitment, reaction to errors, and focus. Johnston will often work with clients via phone or Skype while she and the client simultaneously watch the video on their computers to review the performance step by step. She has the client describe what was happening, what they were feeling, and how they reacted to situations. She contends that recognizing and managing the emotional component of the actions or reactions is important for increasing performance levels. Tension and attitude can be seen in body language and facial expressions. The horse often reacts to that attitude through body language and movement. All that is captured on the video. While discussing it together, they can find a better approach to handling similar scenarios so the riders can remain focused and positive. Johnston also uses the dialogue from video review to further her client’s mindfulness skills. Being fully present, focused, and aware of everything is the foundation for mastering the mental part of the horse show game.
Reviewing video of successful performances has been studied for how its motivational factor can increase confidence. It’s particularly effective when the video includes both practice and show footage. Seeing is believing. Seeing what has been accomplished is a wonderful way to recognize the hard work and dedication that has already gone into your riding.
“Video is helpful in getting ready for a big competition,” Johnston says. She advises clients to keep a year or two collection of show videos, either professionally shot or from a sideline device. In the run-up to an important show, she uses some of that video to help the rider create a strong place of trust and confidence in themselves. “I’ll have them go back and look at their best rounds. You can’t refute what you’ve already successfully done. People will say, “I don’t know if I can do that again.” She says that by reviewing video, people can reach a state of believing. “I have done it, I can do it, I can see myself doing it, and I will be successful.”
Johnston contends that riders can get back into the frame of mind where they are excited about competing by pulling up past show tapes. “I always felt that a horse show was a place of opportunity. Rather than thinking of it as an exam, going into it questioning ‘can I get this done?,’ look at shows as more of a place where you can demonstrate skills. Remind yourself that this is an awesome opportunity to show what you can do. Replaying video is a way to get into that mindset.” She adds that attitude helps to take away the pressure and stress of shows and allows us to recognize just how lucky we are to be partners with these incredible animals.
Around the world, elite athletes dedicate a good chunk of training time visualizing their success. Generally speaking, visualization is the process of creating a mental image or intention of what you want to happen. Watching video of past performances can assist with fine tuning visualization for an upcoming competition. The technique has been around in sports for a long time. Tennis great Billy Jean King used it in the 1960s. In the run-up to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Soviet researchers followed the progress of four groups of athletes with training regimes that incorporated different levels of visualization. When the Olympics were over, the athletes who mentally rehearsed their sport experienced the highest positive impact on their performance. Since then, the area has been widely studied and the practice of mentally simulating competition has become increasingly sophisticated.
Other experiments have demonstrated that athletes who employ frequent imaging had superior results—and that was only visualizing for five minutes a day. It has also been shown that mental rehearsal triggers responses from the autonomic nervous system, which in turn boosts athletic performance. It seems to enhance intrinsic motivation as well. It works because you imagine yourself performing a specific task with perfect form.
Many professional horsemen and serious amateurs employ visualization to give themselves an advantage with mental imagery. Specifically, riders can mentally rehearse patterns, feel the transitions, and see themselves and their horse doing everything perfectly. The more detailed the visualization, the better it sticks. Try imagining the sounds, the smells, the feel of the saddle, and the bright lights of the arena.
How does that get us back to video? When on a horse, there is a lot going on that we just cannot see. Since we already know that the human eye is slow, even if you have a trainer or friend with you, they cannot spot everything needed to build the ideal visualization. Video comes to the rescue. Watching yourself go through a great ride can be the basis for your visualization. The video can cue you to the sights around the arena, the sounds, and remind you what that experience felt like.
The video, and hence the mental imagery, can be observational — how you look from another’s point of view, or the view atop your horse. With the advent of small, mountable and wearable video, such as the GoPro cameras, riders can record video, hands-free, from their mounted perspective. Imagine the uses of that for a complete visualization experience. You could see yourself riding a pattern through your own eyes…
Thanks to video analysis, riders can gain a competitive edge, correct faults, maximize their strengths, and keep a positive focus during a horse show. Whether working with your trainer or with a mental skills coach, it’s a great tool to add to your tack box. When the margin between champion and the rest of the pack is frustratingly slim, perhaps it’s time to hit record, replay, and see where you can up your performance.