River Tiger podcast with Dr Carl Woods

Embracing uncertainty and a response-ability to the experiences of others (human and non-human). A conversation with Dr Carl Woods

Carl Woods is a Senior Research Fellow within the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University. His research interests reside at the intersection of ecological psychology, social anthropology, and sport science, where he explores concepts of knowing, skill, learning, and education. He has an extensive background in both academia and the industry, having held various positions within multiple Australian Universities and the Australian Football League.

In this conversation we explore what is is to learn, become skilful and to have expertise. Particularly the notion of being comfortable with embracing uncertainty, and through dwelling with uncertainty becoming open to the experiences of others (human and non-human). This idea is particularly pertinent to those who are working and learning with non-human sentient species, such as horses and dogs.

It’s a long and fascinating conversation that touches on many topics including the difference between cues and affordances, why it matters to ensure agency in those we coach and interact with, and what it is to interact though curiosity, care and hope.

This is a fascinating conversation that might need a few sessions to listen to, or a long drive 🙂

Contacting Carl –
Carl is on Twitter – @CarlWoods25

Journal Club #1 How can ‘performance analysis’ support our riding and coaching? Researcher Dr Jane Williams discusses the practical implications with showjumper and coach Emma Slater.

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Welcome to Episode 8 of The River Tiger Podcast and our first journal club episode where I choose a research paper from a journal that I think would be great to unpick and explore the practical ‘so what’ with one of the research team and a coach/rider.

The paper I have chosen for this episode is called ‘Faults in international showjumping are not random’ by David Marlin and Jane Williams (Comparative Exercise Physiology: 16 (3)- Pages: 235 – 241. 2020).

Jane Williams introduces her research, including the why, what, when and how of the study before Emma and I ask some questions and the three (well mostly my two brilliant guests) discuss the implications of the research and findings to everyday riding, coaching, horse and rider welfare, and competition performance.

The podcast is available to listen to here, or on your favourite podcast app.

Emma Slater
Emma Slater is an experienced and respected showjumping competitor and still competes at an elite level. Emma has competed and trained at the highest level of Showjumping in the UK and around the world. She is a British Showjumping UKCC Level 3 Coach and Excel Talent Coach who supports national development and coaching programmes including the DiSE (diploma in sporting excellence) programme. Emma is also a level 2 and 3 Assessor and the lead coach from British Showjumping Gloucester.

As a coach Emma specialises in the performance management of showjumping and eventing riders from grass roots to the International level. “I really enjoy working with people to develop their long-term goals and to help them achieve success”. Emma has excellent technical knowledge and is used to working in high pressured environments, maintaining a calm, confident manner. In her coaching as well as life Emma is empathetic, honest, motivated and a fair person.

Developing potential in horses and riders, it’s all about the partnership, growing confidence through knowledge and seeing them succeed – I love it!

Get in touch with Emma –
FB: Emma Slater Showjumping Page
Instagram: slateremsj

Dr Jane Williams
Jane is an Associate Professor and Head of Research at Hartpury University. She is an experienced researcher, with a passion for enhancing equine performance and wellbeing through industry-informed, real-world research that generates change. Jane qualified as a Veterinary Nurse then gained her Masters in Equine Science before completing her doctorate exploring the application of surface electromyography as a tool to assess muscle adaptation during training in racehorses and sport horses.

Jane’s main areas of professional interest include scientific evaluation of equestrian performance, training and wellbeing, rider impacts on equitation, reliability assessment across equestrian science and veterinary physiotherapy, and human-animal interaction. Jane co-edited and authored ‘Training for Equestrian Performance’ with Dr David Evans, to showcase how science and research can be applied practically to improve performance for horses and their riders, and has published over 100 research articles as well as regularly presenting at international equine conferences. She is also Honorary President for the International Society of Equitation Science, which promotes the application of objective research and advanced practice, to improve the welfare of horses in their associations with humans. Jane is also a founding member of the Sport horse Welfare Foundation.

Jane’s research outputs can be accessed here.

What are task constraints and how can they be used effectively?

Horse and rider

I’ve shared a few posts recently with examples of ‘task constraints’ that could be used in your schooling, either independently or with your coach. It’s probably worth adding some detail and explanations about what constraints are as well as why and how we can use task (or other constraints) effectively.

What are constraints?

Constraints are anything that influences behaviour (what is noticed/perception or done/movement) by acting as information to shape or guide the (re)organisation of a complex system. In Newell’s (1986) model there are three main types of constraints: Organismic (individual), Task and Environmental. Movement solutions emerge from the individual interacting with task and environmental constraints.

Organismic constraints (examples)
Goals/ ambitions
Current life circumstances

Task constraints (examples)
Task objectives
Speed/ time
Clothes and kit

Environmental constraints (examples)
Wind/ rain
Ambient light
Crowds/ others
Socio-cultural constraints
Power dynamics

Using constraints: What do you want to achieve?
As a coach, or practicing ourselves, we can change constraints to encourage a move away from less effective, toward more effective, movement solutions without verbally prescribing the solution(s).

Firstly, it is important to understand what you are trying to achieve. The recent examples I shared were focussed on supporting riders to have better ‘hands’. But what do we mean by better hands and why is it important?

Before constraining degrees of freedom of where and how the hands can move, it is useful to be clear about how people (and horses) learn to move skilfully.

The riders’ hands, like the horses’ head, are not acting independently but connected to the rest of the body and used for adjusting balance. This concept is well understood in equestrianism. If balance and coordination are the issue, ‘fixing’ the position and movement of the hands will result in something else moving instead as the body self-organises to cope with the complexity of staying in balance. It will also potentially reduce the rider’s ability to feel the horse’s mouth through the reins.

Balance is always a good place to start
If the rider is not well balanced, the best way to improve the hands might be to work on improving balance and attunement to the horses’ movement. Attunement to the horses’ movement is essential because moving is a ‘perceptual-motor’ skill.

Instructions and equipment are ‘task constraints’ and are more effective if they focus the rider’s attention on to the horse’s movement, not their own. This is referred to as an ‘external focus of attention’ onto the specifying information (the movement of the horse in this case). We often just call it ‘feel’.

There are loads of great task constraints to support balance, some simple examples include riding without stirrups or in a two-point/ light seat. Basically, activities that support the development of postural stability, dynamic balance, an independent seat, secure lower leg, and an awareness of how the horse is moving.

Skill is having more solutions and more adaptability
Limiting the movement of the hands can be useful. It can even be useful before a good level of balance is achieved. This is because the rest of the body will self-organise to find a solution to staying balanced without the hands and thus ‘loosen up’ other parts of the body.

Riders need to develop the ability to adapt and move with the horse whilst maintaining a soft and stable connection with the horses’ mouth. The more options the rider’s body has for adapting to the horse’s movement, the better.

Guiding principles of using task constraints
1. Intention. Be clear about what you are trying to achieve and ensure that the rider understands the goal and is doing the problem solving.

2. Constrain to afford. Make sure that the constraint is not prescribing a solution, rather it should just remove some options while allowing self-organisation and solution finding by the rider, or horse-rider partnership. The idea is to either design practice activities that dampen affordances (opportunities for movement) that are less functional and amplify affordances that are more functional, without prescribing movement solutions.

3. Keep information (perception) and movement coupled. In other words, if possible, simplify tasks rather than break them up. This is the opposite of what many of us have been taught using a computer programme metaphor for skill acquisition (information processing) where we were encouraged to break skills up and practise parts in isolation. We now know that this is not effective because movement skill is perceptual-motor, and the central nervous system can’t put random bits of movement and perceptual information together into a coherent whole. The best tip is to always give movement a purpose.

4. Repetition without repetition. What this means is that we want to have repetition of an outcome without repetition of the exact movement. Skill is the ability to achieve an outcome, not the ability to repeat one solution. Riding is complex and great riders are adaptive in achieving stable outcomes.

If you would like to know more about learning and skill acquisition in equestrian sports, check out the River Tiger Podcast.

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