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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Can’t jump, won’t jump: Affordances of the horse-rider dyad underpin skill adaptation in Showjumping using a constraints-led approach (Davies et al. 2022).

Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash

Full reference. Davies M, Stone J, Davids K, Williams J, & O’Sullivan M. Can’t jump, won’t jump: Affordances of the horse-rider dyad underpin skill adaptation in Showjumping using a constraints-led approach. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching. (2022).

Corresponding author Marianne.J.Davies@student.shu.ac.uk ORCID 0000-0001-5402-7602

Keywords. Agency, perception-action coupling, equestrian coaching, ecological dynamics.

Article in 3 sentences

1. The article presents an Ecological Dynamics rationale that could be applied to coaching equestrian sports and activities with a focus on the horse-human partnership.

2. An adaptation of the Constraints Model is presented where the ‘organism’ is the horse-rider partnership interacting with influential task and environmental constraints that shape emergent behaviour.

3. The article draws on other areas of research and presents practical examples of why it is important for both the horse and rider to have agency and be moving with ‘skilled intentionality’ in the activities that they engage in together.

Main takeaway
Effective practice design provides opportunities for the horse and rider to explore movement problems and be able to actively find solutions that are variable and functional for them at their current level of ability and learning.

Coaches are encouraged to move toward being learning environment designers, supporting horse-rider partnerships to become effective problem solvers; instead of coaches seeing themselves as solution providers.

• Perceiving information (including visual, auditory, and haptic [touch, pressure]) plays a vital role in the control of movement because all species have evolved to be tightly connected to their environments through information perception. The over focus on movement shape (e.g., prescribing ideal technique and conscious control) has led to coaching behaviours and practice activities that do not support the ability to pick up vital (specifying) information. Haptic information is the main form of communication between horses and humans.

• The interactions and relationships between an organism (including horses, humans, dyads) and their environment is considered the appropriate level of focus. This moves the focus from things to relationships. The key concept is that an organism’s relationship with the environment is experienced through what the environment offers in terms of opportunities for movement – these opportunities for movement are called affordances. For example, a warm, soft surface may afford a cat a place to sleep, a cross-pole affords a horse-rider dyad to jump in the middle of a jump).

• Considering the horse-rider dyad as a single complex system moves away from a human-centric perspective of compliance and control of the horse, toward partnership, agency, and intentionality.

• Ecological Dynamics is the theory that underpins a constraints-led approach (CLA). The theory provides guiding principles that help coaches to design practice activities. A CLA focusses on changing the relationship between the individual (organism/s), task and environmental constraints acting over multiple timescales and what this means for how behaviour emerges.

• Using examples from the equestrian discipline of showjumping, the article outlines how a CLA can inform coaching behaviour and practice design to support skill acquisition.

There are 4 practice design principles in CLA:

1. Intention – movement and practice activities need to be goal directed. It is important that activity is meaningful and has value and purpose for the learner. This means that the activity is done through self-determined motivation, including the horse in equestrian activities.

2. Representativeness – because the perception of information (visual, auditory, haptic, etc.) controls the self-organisation of emergent movement, it is vital to ensure that the information present during practice is representative of the information present in performance (or participation).
Practice how you play/ perform!

3. Constraints manipulation – by changing the task constraints (e.g., jump types, number, distances, heights, speed), environmental constraints (e.g., weather, surfaces, heat/ light, time of day, noise, crowds), and sometimes organismic constraints (e.g., fatigue, pressure) the horse and rider become more skilful and able to ‘read’ their environment and develop ‘feel.’ It is important to develop coordination (effective perception-action coupling) and capacity (building strength, flexibility, power, etc.). By adapting and changing constraints, coaches seek to design practice activities that dampen affordances for movement solutions that are less functional and amplify affordances that are more functional, without prescribing movement solutions.

4. Functional variability – this relates to the principle of repetition of outcome without repetition of solution. No movement is ever identical, so it is important that practice supports the development of adaptive, flexible, and robust movement repertoires. In showjumping, practice design might include varying starting positions, lines, rhythms, speed, and angles once a stable outcome becomes established, then varying task and environmental constraints such as weather, light, inclines, and surfaces without prescribing idealised movement biomechanics. A big challenge for coaches and riders is to move away from the idea of prescriptive ‘correct’ movements and to focus on wider bandwidths of movement and functional movement solutions which will be different for every horse and rider dyad.

To design practice check out this Periodisation of Skills Training (PosT) adapted from Otte et al.

• Language is powerful in creating and maintaining cultural norms, practices, and behaviours. We have inherited problematic and deeply enculturated language that is used to describe horses as well as our interactions and relationships with them. Horses are regularly described as being ‘honest’, ‘naughty’, ‘lazy’, ‘bombproof’, needing to be ‘squared-up’, ‘kicked-on’, or ‘taught some respect’.

• An important change would be to move away from punishing horses for stopping or running out at jumps. By forcing the horse to choose between jumping or being punished, there is a failure to consider that the horse is an organism that has evolved with acute direct perception of relevant information for action from its environment, related to its own internal dynamics and action capabilities.

• Coach and rider expectations may require a re-evaluation of what may be misconceived horse ‘disobedience’, potentially due to a rider’s inaccurate or badly timed cues, based on poor perception and misuse of affordances. A major aim of practice in equestrianism is to facilitate skilled intentionality and perception-action coupling in the horse-rider system (will jump, can jump!).

Future research areas
Further research is needed to understand the implications and effectiveness of adopting a CLA in equestrian sports along with the challenges and opportunities that coaches are likely to face.

Other potential areas of research include attempting to identify the specifying information sources that are used as affordances for jumping by horses and the range of coordination strategies for calibration of movement toward affordance realisation, with and without riders. Research in these areas would support coaching and training practice and, potentially the design of safer jumping courses.

Finally, further research is needed to understand how the dyadic horse-rider system can reconcile the need for agency of both partners whilst still ensuring both human and equine safety. To achieve this aim, there is a need for the human partner in the dyadic system to become a better haptic communicator, enhancing their attunement to the horse’s needs and affordance perception.

**New Podcast** Calibration: How do horses and riders become attuned to each other and their environments?

We are very excited to publish our first podcast with a focus on equestrian sports.

Join Marianne Davies and her wonderful guests Warren Lamperd (MSc Coaching Science, UKCC L4 Coach & 5* Event Rider), and James Stafford PhD (experimental psychologist specialising in perception-action coupling and calibration of movement), to explore the application of ‘Calibrating perception and Action: How we become skilful at timing our movements’ to the equestrian world.

In this podcast we focus on how the horse and human become attuned to each other and to their shared environment. This is a fascinating conversation, not only for anyone involved in the equestrian world, but for any performance partnerships, human or animal.

Calibration: How do horses and riders become attuned to each other and their environments?

Participants needed for PhD study: What are skilled showjumpers paying attention to?

‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Schopenhauer

As this quote suggests, skilled performance is not just about what we do (movement), but what we perceive (for example; see, hear, feel), and the decisions we make.

Despite a wealth of applied and evidence based research into skill acquisition, there is very little research published that is specific to equestrian sports. Equestrian sports are unique in that the performance partnership is interspecies, requiring the horse and human to become skilful in their interactions and relationships with each other, practice activities, and performance environments.

Becoming skilful at showjumping
The aim of this study is to gain a better understanding of the perceptual and decision making skills of showjumping riders. To do this we are using an adaptation of a tool called ‘Think Aloud’. Think Aloud has been used in many sports including golf, cycling and rugby to elucidate what athletes are thinking and noticing. As well being used for research, Think Aloud has also been shown to improve skilled performance and be a valuable coaching and reflection tool.

For a brief overview of Think Aloud listen to the short video in this link.

This study is part of a wider project investigating how showjumpers become skilful and how this knowledge could be applied to coaching.

How can you help?
Who are we looking for?
Group 1 = Highly skilled show jumpers – need to be, or have been, competing at National Level and at 1.30m or above.
Group 2 = Competent novice show jumpers – need to be competing confidently at British Showjumping 80cm – 100cm.

There are two parts to this study and we are looking for participants to volunteer for either part, or both parts 1 & 2.

Study 2 Part 1
What will you be asked to do?
You will be asked to give about 45 mins – 60 mins of your time (done virtually on Zoom or another platform of your choice) to take part in a semi-structured interview and some ‘Think Aloud’ where you will be asked to comment on what you notice while watching a series of video clips from a National Final 90cm class and a Grand prix final.

Study 2 Part 2
What will you be asked to do?
For this part of the study we will join you at a competition (it’s ideal to choose one that is not a serious competition for you as participating should be beneficial for your training/ coaching support).

You will be asked to ‘think aloud’ as you walk the course and to wear eye tracking devise. Once you have jumped the course you will be asked to reflect on your round.

What this research aims to achieve
Our aim is to see if there are differences between highly skilled and competent riders in what they see (are aware of). We will use this knowledge to add to the body of equestrian sports specific research into skill acquisition and development and inform future research, coach training, development and coaching practice.

For more information about this project or about how you can help be participating, please email Marianne at Marianne.J.Davies@student.shu.ac.uk
Marianne Davies is a PhD candidate at Sheffield Hallam University and a Senior Coach Developer at UK Coaching.

Thank you in advance for your support.

Marianne Davies
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