University team maps ‘visual strategies’ of show-jump riders

Scientists at Nottingham Trent University have collected evidence to prove how the miniscule eye movements of elite riders can determine success in show jumping.

The team has been able to compare the ’visual strategies’ of riders of varying experience, providing the first detailed insight into the gaze behaviour of elite equestrian athletes.

In sports involving hand-eye coordination, elite athletes are known to direct their gaze, make predictive eye movements and focus on important relevant features for longer than non-elite athletes. In show jumping, however, these visual strategies are particularly important during the approach to a jump, where the skill of both the rider and the horse will determine the appropriate take-off point.

Using a mobile eye-tracking device, the Nottingham Trent University team has been able to record exactly what a rider looks at — and how long for — when approaching a jump. A spectacle-mounted unit is able to monitor the minute movements of the rider’s eye and then overlay those movements onto a video of where the rider is facing. When played back, the footage shows a red circle to depict exactly what the rider was looking at, frame by frame, during the approach to a jump.

A show jumper, event rider, point-to-point rider and non-competitive rider were all asked to make five rounds of an identical three-jump course, with each round recorded by the mobile eye-tracking device. By playing back the footage, the researchers were able to monitor the rider’s point of gaze at each stage of the course and determine how long they spent looking at specific areas or features.

Preliminary analysis revealed that when approaching a jump, riders rapidly alter their point of gaze from the ground before a jump, to the jump itself and then to the ground beyond. However, the more experienced show-jump rider was found to fix their gaze on the jump much sooner than each of the other riders — up to 3.05 seconds earlier before take-off than the least experienced non-competitive rider — as well as spending significantly longer fixated on each point.

Tim Stockdale, Olympic show jumper and honorary graduate of Nottingham Trent University, met with the university’s research team to try the system himself, and offered his own thoughts on how the findings might be put to good use.

’A rider’s eye movements are crucial to their success in show jumping and this system allows us to demonstrate the behaviour of elite riders, and analyse other rider’s performance and point out where they might be going wrong. It’s got the potential to be a really important tool for the sport,’ said Stockdale.

Carol Hall, from Nottingham Trent University’s Equine Science research team, said: ’The findings from this study have the potential to be applied in elite equestrian training and to significantly improve performance in equestrian sports. By understanding the visual behaviour of successful show jumpers, we’ll be able to assist in the training of up-and-coming riders, as well as providing safer training programmes for novice riders. I’m confident that our work will help to improve human safety and equine welfare throughout the sport.’