Often, one result of spending more hours in the saddle is being better equipped to take action as soon as you feel things aren’t going quite to plan. These quick reactions can be the difference between finishing on your dressage score and finishing in the dirt.
Find your balance
So, how can you hone your reaction times? According to BE Accredited Coach and former five star event rider Caroline Jeanne, it’s all a question of balance.
“You can’t react to a situation until you’ve put yourself in balance, or you’ll fall off,” she states.
There are a number of exercises you can do, both on and off the horse, to improve your balance when eventing. According to Caroline, pilates is a rider’s best friend as it helps strengthen the core, and also increases flexibility and strength in your hips, pelvis and lower back – all of which will improve your balance, enabling you to react appropriately.
“As well as a strong core, a secure lower leg is important for a steady foundation,” explains Caroline.
“If you grip with the hip down to your knees, this turns the lower leg away from the horse. By opening up your hips, you allow the lower leg to stay around the horse in a stable way. Pilates can help with this, as many riders have tight hip flexors.”
A great exercise to try on the horse is to ride with jockey-length stirrups through various gaits, so you can’t grip to stay on. Just standing up in standard-length stirrups out hacking, even in walk, will help with balance
While being able to read a horse and the course, and react before the worst happens comes from years of experience and natural talent, there are things we can all do to help us read a situation and prepare accordingly.
“A lot of it comes down to walking the course and anticipating scenarios, rather than just galloping at a fence and hoping for the best,” says Caroline. “For example, at a corner fence or a skinny you need to think about what will make them run out and how you can avoid that happening.”
According to research, visualisation can also improve reactions, so after walking the course, ride the course in your mind. As well as visualising the perfect round, it’s a good idea to run through potential problems and imagine yourself reacting positively and getting yourself out of trouble.
While visualising worst-case scenarios might seem counterintuitive, according to sports psychologist Steffi Dampney, having a plan B is not about being negative it’s about being proactive.
“Knowing what choices you have out there is a really positive thing,” she says. “It’s about being in the moment and reacting to what has happened.”
This could be taking the longer route to prevent a run out or something as simple as a change of weight or gears to keep you both in balance.
“You might need to reduce speed without losing impulsion or speed the horse up to get yourself out of trouble,” advises Caroline. “You also need to know when to sit up and shut up, so you don’t take away your horse’s own ability to think. I always tell my clients that their job is to get the horse to the fence and his job is to jump it.”
Exercises to improve your reflexes
Here are some exercises you can try at home to improve your reactions:
- Off-set rails or a double of angled jumps are great for accuracy and learning how to adjust strides, depending on the line you take.
- Jumping out of a stride allows the horse to travel and evaluate the fence earlier and let them do the job of jumping themselves.
- To really test you and your horse’s reactions, ride an oxer to a skinny. Start on a straight line, with poles either side of the skinny. Then take the poles away, and finally try it with an off-set skinny, so you are jumping the second element on a curve.
- Set up a sequence of small jumps, with frequent changes of direction. For example, you can ride an s-shaped grid with a pair of bounce doubles across the school. Or create a slalom of single jumps down the school.
- Stand facing a wall, slightly away from it. Get somebody to stand behind you and throw tennis balls at the wall around you in different places, with you trying to catch them and thrown them back quickly.
- Stand face to face with someone, three metres apart. Get your partner to hold a tennis ball at shoulder height and randomly drop it. You have to catch it before it bounces twice. Make it harder by getting your partner to hold a ball in each hand, but only drop one. Or use two different coloured balls and have your partner drop both simultaneously but shout the colour you need to catch.
- Play video games. Cognitive scientists from the University of Rochester, USA, have discovered that playing action video games trains people to make the right decisions faster.
As in all things with horses, preparation is the key to improving your reaction times. Here are some steps you can take to stay sharp and ready for anything:
Channel your adrenalin
If you’re too tense your reaction time will be slower, because stiff muscles are slower to respond. You need to find ways to manage your adrenalin levels to sharpen your responses, rather than crippling you with fear.
“The physiological response to adrenalin is the same, whether you are nervous or excited; it’s all about how you interpret those feelings,” says Steffi. “Tell yourself you’re excited, not scared, to direct the energy in proactive way.”
Learning how to switch off those adrenalin levels is also really important. According to the English Institute of Sport, positive mental health is at the centre of all performance.
“It’s all about stress and recovery,” says Steffi. “We give our horses down time between phases, and you need to learn to switch off too. This could include having a drink or healthy snack, chatting to friends, reading, or even having a nap.
A study by the University of Kentucky found that meditating improves reaction time, so take some time out in your lorry or car before you compete to relax and settle the mind.
“This is also important after a competition, so try to include some downtime away from riding, work and your phone. If you don’t allow periods of recovery it can lead to slower reaction times and poor decision-making, because we can’t effectively reflect on what has happened, so we won’t learn as much from our experiences.”
Switching on again
Once you’ve allowed yourself to switch off, and your adrenaline levels drop, it can be hard to switch back on again and get in the zone.
Visualising the course can be really motivating because the brain can’t tell the difference between real or imagined performance. You can also try power poses – you might feel slightly ridiculous, but they really do work.
Sleep on it
A lack of sleep can have a huge effect on split-second decision-making. Researchers in California found sleep deprivation can make you almost as sluggish as a few alcoholic drinks, so make sure you get a decent night’s sleep before you compete.
Don’t drink and ride
Speaking of alcohol, it’s good to avoid drinking the night before an event. You may feel like it helps you sleep, but according to First Beat, which provides analytics for stress, recovery and exercise, you’re not in recovery sleep until the booze is out of your system.
Reaction time is just like any other area of training – it can be improved with practise. By working on and off your horse, and approaching it from a physical and mental angle, you can enhance your reaction time and will be keeping up with the likes of Andrew Nicholson before you know it!
Did you know…?
- Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton has a reaction time of approximately 200 milliseconds, or one fifth of a second. The average driver has a reaction time of three-quarters of a second to one second.
- Measuring reaction times in sprinters became possible with the use of force plates. One of the fastest reaction times was achieved by Canadian Bruny Surin in the 1999 World Championships’ 100 metre semi-finals. He had a 0.101-second reaction to the starting gun.
- Australian Samuel Groth achieved a world record for the fastest serve in tennis history, with a speed of 163.7mph at the Busan Open 2012 Challenger Event (current world number one Novak Djokovic’s fastest is 136mph). This means Groth’s opponent had just 0.325 seconds to react.