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Innovative Scientific Study Examines A Partnership Perfected by Practice

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 6, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
When I bestride him, I
soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth
sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his
hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.
Dauphin from
Henry V, Act III, Scene VII, by William Shakespeare

The ancient partnership of horse and rider that has inspired warriors, artists and poets, has been something of a mystery to science.

Biologists and physicists have long been intrigued with the way animals manage the rhythmic movements of their running, loping, and galloping. J.A. Scott Kelso, J. Lagarde, both of Florida Atlantic University (FAU), and C. Peham and T. Licka of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, point out that researchers have used the mathematical theory of weakly coupled oscillators, group symmetry and the concepts of synergistics to further their understanding of animal locomotion.

In their article in Journal of Motor Behavior, "Coordination Dynamics of the Horse~Rider System,"Dr. Kelso and his colleagues report on their innovative research that furthers the topic by examining the horse and rider as an "informationally coupled dynamical system." They explain that means they looked at the mutual interactions between thetwo different and highly complex systems, horse and rider, to find the essential features of functional coordination between them. Visit the FAU Human Brain and Behavior Laboratory for some background on coordination dynamics.

The researchers meticulously measured the motions of horse and rider with the horse trotting on a 12 meter track in an indoor riding arena. One novice rider and one experienced rider, separately riding the same horse, were studied. During measurements, a riding instructor judged performance of horse and rider using guidelines of the Federation Equestrian Internationale.

Dr. Kelso and colleagues found that the expert rider's motions were in continuous phase synchrony with those of the horse, which was not the case with the novice. Further, they say, the difference between the novice and expert riders indicate that phase synchronization is not spontaneous, but is the result of the expert riders' learned capacity to adapt to the motion of the horse. The skilled rider is better able to anticipate and use the tactile information that the rider and horse share through points of contact saddle, reins, stirrups, and the legs of the ride and trunk of the horse. In Shakespeare's telling, the Dauphin, the son of the king of France, was in perfect harmony with his horse, but the French still lost the Battle of Agincourt.

They authors cite research showing similar coordination dynamics have been observed in the study of animal gait patterns, in coordination between sensory and motor systems, between people and in neural circuitry.

"The reported phase synchrony between the horse and rider clearly belongs to a family of processes generic to the organization of complex physical, chemical and biological systems," the authors write. ""But whereas phase synchronization is considered universal and spontaneous in weakly coupled oscillators, it is far from a given here: Our results showed that the coordination dynamics between two such vastly different brain-body systems as a horse and a rider requires practice and training. Stiff and tense movements must become fluid and flexible. Skill in this case requires sensitivity to and anticipation of the horse's motion. It's all about 'feel;' and some people apparently never get it." Little is known, they say, about how this skill is actually developed.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  innovation  research  science 

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