Rider posture and its influence on synchronisation

How Hartpury’s industry-leading facilities have been used to gauge elite technique indicators in dressage riders

The situation

Having undertaken an undergraduate degree in Equine Science at Hartpury, Celeste Wilkins’ career path took her into the worlds of journalism and biotechnology. After six years away, she returned to Hartpury to study a PhD in biomechanics and physiology of equestrian rider technique.

“My area of particular interest is performance based,” she explains. “Looking for quantitative performance indicators to use as benchmarks for riders and to be able to assess their performance with a higher degree of precision than we have previously.”

Celeste’s overarching research focussed on the coordination between equestrian riders and horses; in this case, analysing the pelvic technique of elite dressage riders. Her project was supported by Hartpury’s academic teams.

The facilities

“We have facilities in our small university that rival bigger institutions. The Racewood Event Simulator and Qualisys motion capture camera allow us to collect quantitative data on how riders move and focus on the rider in a lab setting.

"We expose riders to the same frequency and amplitude of oscillations and cut down variables. From a welfare perspective, we are able to collect data without having to worry about horses becoming tired.

"When I’m ready to test my hypotheses with real horses, I'm able to use the Hartpury Arena, which has lots of space to set up the cameras and other equipment. Our Human Performance Lab also helped to conduct gold-standard exercise physiology research in riders.”

The process

Elite riders, many of whom have competed at Hartpury’s major equestrian competitions, volunteered to take part in the research. The project was completed using the state-of-the-art facilities within Hartpury’s Margaret Giffen Centre for Rider Performance, which enable biomechanical and physiological studies of both horse and rider.

Mean, minimum and maximum pelvic tilt, and range of motion (ROM) was measured as the pitch rotation of a rigid body formed by markers placed on the rider’s left/right anterior and posterior superior iliac spines and sacrum, averaged over six time-normalised strides. Riders were assessed using optical motion capture on a riding simulator at halt and in walk, trot, and left and right canter.

Celeste continues: “When we compared pelvic posture at halt between riders competing at British Dressage Prelim-Novice, British Dressage Medium-Advanced and those competing at the FEI levels, we were surprised.”

The impact

Three key results emerged;

  1. There are correlations between the rider’s mean pelvic tilt in simulated walk, trot and canter, but not at halt
  2. Mean pelvic tilt values are not significantly influenced by competition level
  3. The minimum and maximum pelvic tilt values illustrate individual strategies between gaits

“From the results, it doesn’t seem like you can confidently predict a rider’s technique from their static posture,” adds Celeste. “Riders adapt to the movement in their own individual ways and their pelvic technique can even change between the gaits. For example, they could be more anterior (forward) in walk, but posterior (backward tilt) in trot and canter.”

“Therefore, I would suggest that we should be assessing our riders dynamically rather than looking at a static image of the rider.”

International recognition

Celeste’s work has been published and presented at industry conferences. In 2020, she won Best Postgraduate presentation at the Equine Student Research Conference.

The following year, alongside fellow PhD candidate Isabeau Deckers, she overcame a 280-strong field to win the inaugural Xsens Biomechanics Challenge, a global biomechanics competition for universities, winning Hartpury thousands of pounds of state-of-the-art sensors and software in the process.

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