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Equestrianism is part of a global industry influenced by a rich history of over 4000 years of culture and tradition. As the only interspecies Olympic event, equestrianism is facing negative public perceptions of competition performance and traditional coaching practices. In this position paper, we propose a constraints-led approach as a framework for contemporising equestrian coaching practice. Ecological dynamics is the theoretical framework that underpins a constraints-led approach methodology, providing guiding principles that inform a nonlinear pedagogy in sport and physical education. A constraints-led approach focuses on the individual (organism/s), task and environmental constraints acting over multiple nested timescales and what this means for how behaviour emerges. Using examples from the equestrian discipline of showjumping, we outline how a constraints-led approach can inform coaching behaviour and practice design to support skill acquisition through co-adaptations in the horse-rider dyad system. By focussing on the horse-rider dyad as a complex system, there is a move away from a human-centric perspective of compliance and control of the horse, toward system agency and intentionality in problem solving. Practice design principles of intention, representativeness, constraints manipulation and functional variability support the dyad to co-adapt and interact effectively through practice to achieve performance goals. Skilful performance is developed through attunement to perceptual information that invites opportunities for action (affordances). Understanding the development of affordance perception in the horse-rider dyad could guide the application of a constraints-led approach to equestrian coaching practice.
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Cant jump, wont jump: Affordances of the
horse-rider dyad underpin skill adaptation
in showjumping using a constraints-led
approach
Marianne Davies
1
, Joseph A Stone
1
, Keith Davids
1
,
Jane Williams
2
, and Mark OSullivan
1
Abstract
Equestrianism is part of a global industry inuenced by a rich history of over 4000 years of culture and tradition. As the
only interspecies Olympic event, equestrianism is facing negative public perceptions of competition performance and
traditional coaching practices. In this position paper, we propose a constraints-led approach as a framework for contem-
porising equestrian coaching practice. Ecological dynamics is the theoretical framework that underpins a constraints-led
approach methodology, providing guiding principles that inform a nonlinear pedagogy in sport and physical education. A
constraints-led approach focuses on the individual (organism/s), task and environmental constraints acting over multiple
nested timescales and what this means for how behaviour emerges. Using examples from the equestrian discipline of
showjumping, we outline how a constraints-led approach can inform coaching behaviour and practice design to support
skill acquisition through co-adaptations in the horse-rider dyad system. By focussing on the horse-rider dyad as a complex
system, there is a move away from a human-centric perspective of compliance and control of the horse, toward system
agency and intentionality in problem solving. Practice design principles of intention, representativeness, constraints
manipulation and functional variability support the dyad to co-adapt and interact effectively through practice to achieve
performance goals. Skilful performance is developed through attunement to perceptual information that invites opportun-
ities for action (affordances). Understanding the development of affordance perception in the horse-rider dyad could guide
the application of a constraints-led approach to equestrian coaching practice.
Keywords
Equestrian coaching, ecological dynamics, perception-action coupling
Introduction
Equestrianism is part of a global industry with an estimated
economic impact of $300 billion per annum. Despite
including three Olympic disciplines, as well as a higher pro-
portion of disabled, female, and over 45-year-old partici-
pants than any other sport,
1
there is little published
research currently exploring pedagogy and coaching prac-
tice in equestrian sports and activities. A signicant charac-
teristic of equestrianism is the performance partnership
between a horse and a human: a complex adaptive system
formed by two animate components with different percep-
tual, motivational, and communication characteristics.
2,3
Successful equestrian performance has been described as
highly embodied, and synchronous, capturing the aspirations
of riders to become centaur-like in their relationship with their
horses.
46
Indeed, ethnographic accounts of riders capture
experiences of co-being, co-creating behaviour and a sensation
of feeling part of the animal.
5,7
Further, skilful performance
has been described using metaphors from music (e.g. rhythmic
harmonisation, accentuation).
4,7
Despite these insights alluding
Reviewer: Duarte Araujo (University of Lisbon, Portugal)
1
Sport and Physical Activity Research Centre, Shefeld Hallam University,
UK
2
Department of Equine Science, Hartpury University, UK
Corresponding author:
Marianne Davies, Sport and Physical Activity Research Centre, Shefeld
Hallam University, Shefeld S1 1WB, UK.
Email: Marianne.J.Davies@student.shu.ac.uk
Research note
International Journal of Sports Science
& Coaching
17
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/17479541221107379
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to collaborative partnerships, traditional approaches to training
and coaching in equestrianism emphasise a hierarchical rela-
tionship between rider and horse, typically characterised by
methods demanding equine compliance and obedience.
8,9
Increasingly, animal rights groups
10
frame equestrianism as
inherently abusive in nature, primarily due to the lack of
agency of the horse.
11
Forexample,Halletal.s
12
review on
equine learned helplessness concluded that, there is little
doubt that the techniques and devices used in the training and
riding/driving of horses, as well as during their management,
have the potential to place horses in a situation where they
could develop this phenomenon(p. 263).
In this position piece, we examine how a contemporary
approachtoskilladaptation
13
hasthepotentialtodevelopperform-
ancecompetency,whilealsoaddressingsomecurrentchallenges
facingequestrianism.Focusingonshowjumping,weexamine
currentunderpinningtheories before outlininghowecological
dynamicscouldprovideatheoreticalframeworkforunderstand-
ingperformanceenhancementinthehorse-riderdyadsystem.We
embraceprinciplesofanonlinearpedagogy
14
asanalternativefor
supportingskilladaptation through the use of aconstraints-led
approach(CLA)incoachingandpracticedesign.Finally,wehigh-
lightfutureresearchareasthatwarrantfurtherinvestigation.
Theoretical underpinnings of traditional
practice in equestrianism
Traditional training and coaching methodologies are under-
pinned by two main theories of performance, cognition and
learning with incompatible ontological roots.
15,16
Firstly,
behaviourist theories from the late 1800s and early 1900s
focus on learning being formed outside of the individual
through external reinforcement and rote repetition.
17
Behaviourism underpins the traditional instructional prac-
tice of humans
17
and the training of all animals, including
horses.
18
Promoting the notion that learning is a passive
process, based on conditioned responses to environmental
stimuli, behaviourism ignores the organismsagency in
learning experiences. Behaviourism is still the main under-
pinning theoretic framework used for training the horse
through reward, reinforcement and punishment to recognise
and obey commands issued by the rider.
19,20
As Blokhuis
and Lundgren [p. 4] emphasise horses are seen more as
objects responding to humansinitiatives that subjects inter-
acting with humans.
6
Secondly, supporting the coaching of
riders, current UK coaching qualications espouse both
behaviourist (framed as coach-led) and constructivist
(framed as student-led) informed coaching styles.
21
Constructivism posits that learning is an active process con-
structed in the mind of the individual in response to their
experiences, separating the organism and environment
during interactions.
16
However, particularly with novice
riders, coaching behaviour typically comprises a coach
stood on the ground providing explicit instructions based
on optimaltechniques and what the coach believes the
rider needs to do to improve performance.
17
This learning
approach results in the rider being passive, rather than
active, in knowledge construction.
21
In conjunction with other sports, training methods have
become dominated by an inherent focus on error-correcting
toward idealised form and technique.
13,22
This is likely a
result of coaching pedagogy and qualications predicated on
behaviourist and/or constructivist learning theories, combined
with information processing theories of skill acquisition that
focus on attaining correctmovement techniques.
22
In equestri-
anism, an unintended consequence may be the use of controlling
and restrictive training aids and gadgets in practice (e.g. draw
reins and severe bits). While research has led to some positive
changes to competition rules,
23,24
many banned practices
prevail outside competition due to beliefs about how horses
learn to become skilful. In summary, a lack of a coherent, con-
temporary theoretical framework for understanding learning
and skill adaptation in both organisms, combined with a human-
centric perspective, underlie traditional ideas and coaching
pedagogies underpinning practices in equestrianism.
Ecological dynamics and nonlinear
pedagogy: A contemporary framework for
using a CLA for coaching in equestrianism
To negate the issues outlined in the section Theoretical
underpinnings of traditional practice in equestrianism,we
propose ecological dynamics as a framework for under-
standing skill adaptation in equestrian practice, which pro-
vides a fusion of ecological psychology and dynamical
systems theory.
25,26
Ecological psychology
27
avoids an
organismic asymmetry (favouring internalised, mental
explanations for behaviour localised within the brain of
an organism).
28
Rather, it proposes that all organisms
have evolved to perceive and progressively develop sensi-
tivity to surrounding information in their environment that
informs the continuous regulation of their behavioural inter-
actions.
29,30
Opportunities available to the organism invit-
ing actions and interactions within the environment
(termed affordances) emphasise the meaning of the envir-
onment for the organism, and the value of the information
for facilitating goal-directed movement.
31
The process of
becoming skilfully attuned to perceptual information that
supports such opportunities for action results in tighter
coupling of perception and action sub-systems with prac-
tice.
32
From an ecological perspective, an organisms inter-
actions with its environment are conceived as the
appropriate scale of analysis for understanding behaviour,
due to the inextricably entwined nature of cognition, per-
ception and action.
Originating in mathematics with notable early applica-
tions to weather forecasting, ecology,
33
and later to quadru-
ped coordination dynamics and gait transitions,
34
dynamical
2International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 0(0)
systems theory explains coordination behaviours in complex
adaptive systems, such as horses and humans. The horse-
rider dyad, considered as a bio-tensegrity system, is an
example of a haptically coupled (emphasizing information
from compression, touch and pressure), complex dynamical
system.
35,37
Bio-tensegrity systems, like horse-rider dyads,
maintain stability through a balance of pre-compression
and tension, allowing the perception and communication
of pressure and touch through the distortion of the pre-
tensioned structures such as muscles, bones, facia, liga-
ments, tendons and even cell membranes.
35
Ecologicalpsychologyprovidesatheoreticalexplanationfor
understanding the integration of perception, action, decision
making and cognition. Dynamical systems theory seeks to
explain how movement organisation, adaptation and control
emergesfrom acomplexadaptivesystem withmanydegreesof
freedom that need to be (re)organised (e.g. muscles, limbs,
joints, facia, neurons).
38
Ecological dynamicists rationalise
how complex systems interact with challenging performance
environmentsbycouplingmovementtoperceptualinformation,
exploiting intentions and harnessing cognition, to make deci-
sions,solveproblemsandcoordinatefunctionalbehaviours.
25
In nonlinear pedagogy, the focus of coaching moves
away from the notion of training of idealised, putatively
correcttechniques with linear progressions.
22
Instead, the
guiding principles of nonlinear pedagogy support coaches
and support staff in becoming practice activity designers,
14
acknowledging that behaviours of horses and riders need to
be considered in horse-rider dyads, continuously inuenced
by multiple interacting constraints. This perspective recog-
nises the nonlinearity of emergent skilful behaviours in
adaptation to a performance environment. Coaches and
support staff can use a CLA to facilitate the co-adaptation
of the horse-human dyad in the process of becoming an
integrated, skilful system (see Figure 1).
Using the practice design principles of intentionality,
representativeness, constraints manipulation, and functional
variability, the horse-rider dyad system becomes attuned to
shared affordances in realising goal-directed behaviours.
The horse-rider dyadic system
Supporting ethnographic accounts of embodied centaur-
like experiences,
7
research examining horse-rider perform-
ance has repeatedly shown that experienced riders are bio-
mechanically coupled and synchronous (in-phase) with the
movements of their horses.
3840
These studies postulate that
skilled riders coordinate and couple their movements with
the horse through their capacity to anticipate, attune to,
and use, perceptual information from their continuous inter-
actions as a dyad.
38,41
The co-adaptation of the horse and
rider is hypothesised to be integral to both learning and per-
formance, learning from each other as they become attuned
to the affordances available to the horse-rider dyad as an
informationally coupled system.
Phenomenology has been used as a method to focus on
the lived experiences of the rider and horse in their interspe-
cies relationship during riding.
4244
Phenomenological
research highlights that rider perceptions are not those of
mastery over, but reciprocity of learning and becoming
one with the horse.
44,45
The notion of becoming one
aligns well with an ecological dynamics perspective of
the dyad functioning as a single complex adaptive
system, in which both components need to become
attuned to surrounding information and shared affordances
in performance. Maustrad et al.
5
[p. 326] assert that horse-
human communication crosses the species divide through
somatic attunements and attentions that are partly about
uncovering and discovering what bodies do, and partly
about taking control of them, creating and making sense
of body kinetics. Pressure from touch as a channel of inter-
species communication through haptic perception to con-
tinuously regulate co-adaptive actions may provide a
theoretical explanation for the elusive concept of feelin
equestrianism. Ecological dynamics proposes that inten-
tionality and emotions in the dyadic system can be chan-
nelled through haptic information.
35
For example, haptic
information can inform the horse of a riders intentions,
such as to turn left or speed up. Riders can learn to feel a
horses emotions and intentions in jumping over a barrier.
Using the practice design principles of a
CLA for coaching showjumping
Showjumping competitions comprise a set course of knock-
down jumps of specied dimensions, with specic rules
about distances, speed, course time limits and number of
rounds.
46
With practice and experience, the two separate
animate systems (horse and rider) need to become attuned
to critical information sources that have value and
meaning for perceiving affordances (opportunities for
action) such as jump-abilityand time-to-contactwith a
fence. Some information sources that the horse-rider
dyadic system becomes attuned to with practice when
approaching a jump, include surface terrain and incline,
obstacle shape, orientation, height, appropriate take-off dis-
tances, speed and stride length approaching the obstacle,
and probability of success.
47
In the following sections we
will expand on the four practice design principles of a CLA.
Session intention
Nonlinear pedagogy informs the design of practice activities
that are meaningful in terms of the riders goals, realised
through horse-rider dyadic interactions with movement chal-
lenges and problems. The horse-rider dyad engages in
problem solving through attending to shared goals, affordances
and specifying information. To achieve this aim, the perform-
ance of the dyadic system in performance and practice should
Davies et al. 3
be based on making decisions and calibrating actions, rather
than just passively responding to coach instructions.
14
Manipulating constraints of practice environments is a key to
enrich the performance of the dyadic system.
48
Constraints manipulation: Supporting
self-organisation
Constraints are informational sources that act as boundaries,
shaping performance over multiple nested timescales.
48
Categorised as organismic, task and environmental, con-
straints shape or guide the (re)organisation of behaviour in
complex systems.
49
In showjumping there is a rich tradition
of using task constraints such as positioning poles to create
ground lines, llers, grids (lines of jumps),
50
and equipment
use, such as draw reins, side reins and martingales to con-
strain horse movements. However, using constraints in
this way is not always the same as using a CLA to facilitate
horse-dyad learning interactions. A CLA is a theoretically
informed methodology for designing practice activities,
using principles of a nonlinear pedagogy, predicated on
key concepts in ecological dynamics.
48
By manipulating
constraints, coaches seek to design practice activities that
dampen affordances for movement solutions that are less
functional and amplify affordances that are more functional,
without prescribing movement solutions.
22
Using poles on the ground to facilitate a horse to adapt
stride length and speed when navigating obstacles different
distances apart would be aligned with principles of a CLA.
However, using poles to dictate exactly where a horse can
take off over a jump would not be, because the horse is
entrained to the information from the poles to calibrate
the approach phase. The horse-rider system is no longer
able to explore, calibrate, learn and adapt, using multiple
sources of information. Examples of effective constraints
used in showjumping include building courses with
shorter related distances between the jumps to encourage
a short and bouncy more powerful canter, or putting up
poles in a cross shape or at the sides of a jump to invite a
straight jump.
50
Essentially constraints manipulation
needs to support information movement coupling.
Practices such as rapping, used to condition horses to
make an idealised forelimb shape and be more careful, fol-
lowing punishment or a perceived increase of propriocep-
tion, continue because they are believed to be effective.
Figure 1. A constraints-led approach for skill acquisition in the horse-rider dyad.
4International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 0(0)
However, an ecological perspective suggests that these
practices are likely to compromise the development of
informationmovement coupling in horses.
32
Rather than
supporting long-term skill adaptation, the horse will learn
that it cannot trust the perceptual information offered by a
jump, despite any actions it decides to take.
Representativeness
Each level of Showjumping competition has shared rules
and characteristics, including maximum jump heights,
related and overall distances, course complexity, and time
allowed.
46
Instead of de-contextualising practice, a CLA
encourages the use of practice activities that are representa-
tive of competition demands. These include such things as
jumping on multiple surfaces, with an audience, back-
ground noise and other distractions, in addition to task
manipulations such as changing jump combinations, and
variations of speed, stride length and approach angles.
50
This does not mean that practice needs to always simulate
full competition conditions. Rather, the information that
species movement (re)organisation in competition needs
to be present in practice sessions.
The importance of self-organisation and the need for adapt-
ability have been highlighted in many sports involving a
run-up to a target.
51
Research in long-jump elucidates the indi-
viduality of gait regulation distributed across run-ups, particu-
larly in relation to environmental constraints such as wind
strength and direction.
52
Key ndings note that run-ups
cannot be split into distinct phases, and take-off is not just a
position of a footfall, but the orientation of the whole body
such that it can be propelled upward and forward.
53
The impli-
cations of this information for equine showjumping practice
would be to design training activities that are high in context-
specicity such as jump specications, speed over the ground,
the distance between jumps, number of jumps, and course
length. This representativeness provides the horse-rider
system opportunities to search for, explore and exploit key
information for calibrating gait adaptations to take-off.
Functional variability
Functional variability relates to the principle of repetition of
outcome without repetition of solution. Research in spring-
board diving
54
highlighted the negative implications of
practising only perfect run-ups (hurdle steps). In competi-
tion, divers can incur penalties if unable to adapt to imper-
fect run-ups, lacking the ability to recover from
perturbations. In showjumping, this practice design might
include varying starting positions, lines, rhythms, speed,
and angles once a stable outcome becomes established,
then varying task and environmental constraints such as
jump types, weather, light, inclines and surfaces without
prescribing idealised movement biomechanics.
Focus on affordance perception: Cant
jump, wont jump
Language is powerful in creating and maintaining cultural
norms, practices, and behaviours.
55
In the United
Kingdom, problematic and deeply enculturated language
is used to describe horses as well as our interactions and
relationships with them. For example, horses are regularly
described as being honest,naughty,lazy,bombproof,
needing to be squared-up,kicked-onor taught some
respect.Anhonest horseis a horse that is obedient to
commands or cues and will jump when demanded, even
if the rider has made an error, or if the horse does not per-
ceive an affordance to jump that a rider does. Incidences
such as the eventing horse Raphael jumping into a clearly
unjumpable barrier during the Pau CCI5* in 2019,
56
high-
light the potential dangers of training a horse to trust or fear
the rider, rather than utilising their own perceived affor-
dances to jump successfully.
An important change would be to move away from pun-
ishing horses for stopping or running out at jumps, toward
designing more sophisticated jumping practice environ-
ments. Practice needs to support the education of the horse
and riders systemic intentions, attention and (re)calibration
of information perception and movement. By forcing the
horse to choose between jumping or being punished, to
obey cues from a rider instead of acting on perceived affor-
dances through specifying information, there is a failure to
consider that the horse is an organism that has evolved
with acute direct perception of relevant information for
action from its environment, related to its internal dynamics
and action capabilities. By attempting to thwart the horses
affordance realisation, the rider is over-riding system func-
tionality through attunement to shared affordances that
harness the horses action-capabilities
In summary, if horse-rider systems need to move with
intentionality to become skilful, there is a necessity for
both components to be able to calibrate to the challenge
of negotiating different obstacles over different surfaces
and inclines in different environmental conditions.
Practice designs in equestrianism require the provision
of opportunities for the dyadic system to engage in, and
solve, movement problems and challenges. Movement
problems in practice need to be representative of competi-
tive performance goals, to have meaning and value.
Above all, practice designs should aim to facilitate adapt-
ability and (re)calibration of perception and action in the
horse-rider system. Coach and rider expectations may
require a re-evaluation of what may be misconceived
horse disobedience, potentially due to a riders inaccur-
ate or badly timed cues, based on poor perception and
misuse of affordances. A major aim of practice in eques-
trianism is to facilitate skilled intentionality and percep-
tionaction coupling in the horse-rider system (will
jump, can jump!).
Davies et al. 5
Conclusion and further research directions
In this paper, we proposed an ecological dynamics rationale
for skill adaptation as a way forward in contemporising
equestrian coaching practice. From this perspective, becom-
ing skilful is a process of attuning to emerging affordances
for action available within a performance landscape
shaped by individual organismic, task and environmental
constraints. Through self-directed intentional interactions
with these affordances, changes in action capabilities
(coordination and capacity) invite the possibility of further
affordances.
53
An ecological conceptualisation of skill adap-
tation suggests a need to shift the role of coaches and support
staff from being solution providers to learning environment
designers, using constraints manipulation to support percep-
tionaction coupling and attunement to affordances offered
within organismenvironment interactions.
51
Effective and sophisticated practice design in showjump-
ing requires an understanding of the performance demands
and the shared affordances that skilled showjumping
dyads need to become attuned to for successful perform-
ance.
58
These affordances are likely to be a mixture of
opportunities offered both toand bythe horse as part of
the embodied dyadic partnership, and affordances for goal
achievement developed through the experience of shared
system affordances, such as time-to-contact and jumpability.
Further research is needed to understand the implications
and effectiveness of adopting a CLA in equestrian sports
along with the challenges and opportunities that coaches are
likely to face. Other potential areas of research include
attempting to identify the specifying information sources
that are used as affordances for jumping by horses and the
range of coordination strategies for calibration of movement
toward affordance realisation, with and without riders.
Research in these areas would support coaching and training
practice and, potentially the design of safer jumping courses.
Finally, further research is needed to understand how the
dyadic horse-rider system can reconcile the need for an
agency of both partners whilst still ensuring both human
and equine safety. To achieve this aim, there is a need for
the human partner in the dyadic system to become a
better haptic communicator, enhancing their attunement to
the horses needs and affordance perception.
Declaration of conicting interests
The authors declared no potential conicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The authors received no nancial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
ORCID iDs
Marianne Davies https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5402-7602
Joseph A Stone https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9861-4443
Keith Davids https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1398-6123
OSullivan Mark https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6851-6167
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