Keep your eye on the rail – visual behavior of elite riders




show-jumpingThe visual skills associated with successful performance have been identified in a number of sports and consequently have been included in preparation and training. In general these include the ability to focus on relevant information in a timely manner. In soccer, field hockey, cricket and tennis elite athletes have been found to direct their gaze appropriately sooner, make more predictive eye movements and fixate on relevant features for longer than non-elite athletes.

The part that visual skills play in equestrian sport has yet to be determined. In show-jumping, during the approach to the jump the rider needs to be able to predict the ‘time to contact’ (when the horse will arrive at the optimum take-off point), generally calculated by the rider in terms of ‘strides to take-off’. This activity involves a high degree of spatio-temporal coordination.

Differences in visual behavior attributable to expertise are most notable in tasks involving physical movement and the control of multiple systems in natural settings. Show-jumping is undoubtedly one such scenario, in which the optimum timing, frequency and duration of fixations on the target (jump) has yet to be determined. Riders approaching a jump would be predicted to fixate on the jump until the point at which no further stride adjustment could be made. Seeing the correct stride and making appropriate stride adjustments is a skill that successful riders can apply in the final strides before take-off, suggesting that their fixation on the jump should continue until this point. With the use of a mobile eye tracker it was possible to monitor the timing, frequency and duration of fixations on the jump that riders make during their approach.

The gaze behavior of riders during their approach to a jump was investigated using a mobile eye tracking device (ASL Mobile Eye). The timing, frequency and duration of fixations on the jump and the percentage of time when their point of gaze (POG) was located elsewhere were assessed. Fixations were identified when the POG remai
ned on the jump for 100ms or longer. The jumping skill of ten experienced but non-elite riders was assessed by means of a questionnaire. Their gaze behavior was recorded as they completed a course of three identical jumps five times. The speed and timing of the approach was calculated. Gaze behavior throughout the overall approach and during the last five strides before take-off was assessed using frame-by-frame analyses.

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Differences in relation to both round and jump number were found. Significantly longer was spent fixated on the jump during round 2, both during the overall approach and during the last five strides. Jump 1 was fixated on significantly earlier and more frequently than jump 2 or 3. Significantly more errors were made with jump 3 than with jump 1 but there was no difference in errors made between rounds. Although no significant correlations between gaze behavior and skill scores were found, the riders who scored higher for jumping skill tended to fixate on the jump earlier, when the horse was further from the jump and their first fixation on the jump was of a longer duration. Trials with elite riders are now needed to further identify sport-specific visual skills and their relationship with performance. Visual training should be included in preparation for equestrian sports participation, the positive impact of which has been clearly demonstrated in other sports.

Full details of the original research can be found here.