Evaluating Horse, Rider Biomechanic Interaction

Evaluating Horse, Rider Biomechanic Interaction

This rider is working with a saddle system placed under the saddle. A belt fitted around her waist securely holds the transmitting device and the battery.

Photo: Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

When you go out for a ride, you might take a tiny cell phone that fits into the pocket of your breeches, a GPS that you can attach to your saddle, or an MP3 player that clips to your jacket. Technology has helped make our riding experiences safer and more interesting, and according to a group of Dutch researchers, technological advances are now also helping equitation scientists behind the scenes better understand how we ride.


This rider is working with a saddle system placed under the saddle. A belt fitted around her waist securely holds the transmitting device and the battery.

Patricia de Cocq, DVM, MSc, equitation scientist in the experimental zoology group at the Animal Sciences Group in Wageningen, presented her review of equine biomechanics technology at the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands. She explained that through special strain gauges and sensor mats placed under saddles, attached to bits or nosebands, strapped in a girth, or fitted around a rider's back, researchers can visualize real-time and highly precise force measurements on their laptops via Bluetooth. Horses can work on treadmills with or without a rider, in an arena, or out in the field while wearing this equipment. And as a result, researchers are able to gain "loads" of information about the kind of weight and pressure we humans put on many different parts of our horses' bodies.

"Nowadays it's really relatively simple to incorporate measurement devices so you can get a complete picture of all the forces between horse and rider, and when you know these forces you can find out why they're there and what kind of effect they can have," said de Cocq.

In addition to strain gauges, researchers can place infrared light reflective markers in various places on a working horse. A camera captures the markers and transforms the horse's movement into a moving 3D image. With this technology, scientists can also measure angles, speeds, acceleration, and the kinematics of back and limb movements.

"People have been talking about the right and wrong ways to ride a horse for centuries," de Cocq said. "But research in this area is really new, because until recently we haven't had any technology to really look at all these forces and objectify what's going on," she said.

A current area of high interest with this technology is the effect of a rider's experience, according to de Cocq. "Although a lot of riders will be disappointed by this," said de Cocq, studies are showing that the force of a rider's weight on a horse's back--regardless of gait--doesn't change much compared to an equivalent lead weight strapped to the saddle. Other studies indicate that an experienced rider isn't going to help a horse much more than an inexperienced rider--unless it's on an inexperienced horse, interestingly enough.

In studies of horses performing at the trot, researchers have discovered that the effect of a rider's weight can actually triple during certain phases of the sitting trot as compared to the rider's weight at walk. And again, rider experience has little to do with it. "At least in my experience so far, it's much more dependent on the way the horse moves than on the way the rider rides," she said.

This new technology is also helping researchers better understand changes in riding styles over the years from a historical perspective, de Cocq said. For example, in the early 20th century jockeys started standing in the stirrups, as they realized that their horses would race faster with that position. More than a hundred years later, we now have the scientific explanation: The modern jockey position reduces peak forces of the rider's weight.

"This technology is opening the doors to knowing what's the best way to ride and to communicate force signals to the horse," de Cocq said. "For the first time it's possible to really see what's going on biomechanically in the horse/rider interaction."

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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