Wetenschap - 10 maart 2011

Equestrian success begins between the ears

VHL lecturer Inga Wolframm has received a doctorate for her work in sport psychology. Studies among students show that riders can learn how to improve their performance.

Much research has been done into the relationship between character and success. But research into the psychology of equestrian sport is still in its infancy. Inga Wolframm is a lecturer in Equine, Leisure and Sports (ELS) and an applied sports psychologist for the Dutch Association for Sport Psychology. She carried out pioneering work for her doctoral study at the British University of Essex, where she previously obtained her Master's in Sports and Exercise Science.
One of the findings from her research was that riders who think their horse is reliable perform better. She also found that people with a headstrong character are more likely to describe their horse as 'less reliable'. 'This is probably because a slightly more aggressive rider will have a more dominant body language and style of riding. Horses are flight animals and react to such things. That is why riders need to be fully aware of how they are behaving', says Wolframm.
Moreover, the better riders not only have more confidence in their horse, they also have more confidence in their own skills. They suffer significantly less from competition stress. Wolframm: 'Stress leads to tense muscles, which results in minor signals not being transmitted clearly. That has an adverse affect on communication with your horse.' So being able to cope with stress is incredibly important. It also helps if you find stress a positive experience. 'You will perform better if you enjoy the tension during a competition and think it is keeping you alert,' explains the VHL lecturer.

No influence
Her students, 'often good riders performing at a high level', helped her collect the survey data. They also took part in an experiment showing that riders can improve their performance by building up more self-confidence. The students performed significantly better in competitions after psychological training. 'The points sometimes made the difference between winning a prize or not.'
Wolframm describes the psychological training programme in her book Angstfrei Reiten in 7 Schritten (riding without fear in seven steps), which was published in Germany last year. One aspect of the programme is working towards goals. 'A change in behaviour starts by formulating attainable goals', she explains. 'Not 'I want to win', as that is something you can't influence. But you can say 'I want to appear calm' or 'I want to improve in that area'. So that way you are concentrating on putting on your best performance rather than on things you cannot control.'
She may have got a PhD but Wolframm is not finished yet. She is busy with a follow-up study of the physical symptoms of riders in stressful situations and she wants to develop a survey of mental skills in relation to the horse. 'Sports-psychological studies in equestrian sport are still a fairly new phenomenon. They need to be developed much further.'

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