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When words aren’t enough

Trainers, elite riders and horses. Communication among three parties in which only two of them speak the same language. It’s a situation that interests communications researcher Charlotte Lundgren.

They hum, sing, mime, move in space, and occasionally put their hands on their trainees. For trainers of elite horses and riders in dressage, words are not always enough for effective instruction.

They need to reach their riders, who in turn need to reach their horses, who in turn are to perform complicated movements in pace and balance – and, moreover, on command.

Charlotte Lundgren The European College of Sport Science, an international sports conference that was held this year in Malmö in May, gathered 2,400 participants from 70 countries and fully 1,500 research studies were presented. There were a dozen or so on horse-racing, and among them was Ms Lundgren’s project on elite training of riders.

“Language is important in all interaction, especially in instruction and learning. As a linguist, I research how language is used, as it’s also interesting – of course – to see how communication is expressed when language isn’t enough. What do we resort to in order to reach understanding?”

Ms Lundgren is a researcher at the Department of Culture and Communication. A triadic communication situation, in which one of the parties for some reason is less communicatively competent, has been part of her field of research for many years. She has researched things such as communication in health care and conversations between doctor, family member, and patient.

One clear example is conversations between doctors and health care staff, a family member, and a cancer patient with dementia that could concern treatment alternatives for a person who themselves cannot make their voice heard.

“These are communications situations that I as a researcher would really like to film in order to discover all the details, but that would be ethically unacceptable. Observing can also be difficult, but even when I can it’s impossible to manage to catch and note down everything that happens.”

In an entirely different project, on the other hand, Ms Lundgren has been able to set up cameras without problem in order to study in detail the communication among three parties – training of dressage horses and riders at the elite level.

“In this case it’s the horse who has to be characterized as ‘less competent’ as regards communication,” Ms Lundgren says, laughing.

With her own life as a rider under her belt, she knows – for better or for worse, in a research context – exactly how multifaceted communication is in learning that is both theoretical and practical, and furthermore with a bodily, physical and emotional dimension for both rider and horse.

Ms Lundgren is part of a group of philosophers, historians of ideas, and pedagogues who started the national HumSamHäst network in 2011.

“Humans have a tradition, thousands of years old, of using horses; horse culture can be viewed from a mass of different perspectives. Today, horse-keeping is one of the largest green businesses in Sweden – counting everything from breeding to feedstuff manufacture, gambling and competition operations, to everything a few hundred thousand private riders turn over. Globally, it’s an industry that markets billions.”

The dressage horse Totilas, WikimediaAfter Iceland, Sweden is the country with the most horses – some 360,000 of them – in Europe. Since satisfied customers are a prerequisite for an industry with staying power (and good sports results), Ms Lundgren received research funds from the Swedish-Norwegian Foundation for Equine Research in order to study what happens in communications among trainers, riders, and horses.

“Breaking a horse in is a good example. I want to find out what it is that officially recognized, esteemed trainers do in their instruction. What is problematic in this three-party communication? What are their communicative tools?”

Fifteen horse-and-rider teams are included in this study, which will continue until 2017.
Fifteen hours of film, reviewed down to the last detail, show how the trainers have an entire toolbox to resort to.

“Primarily verbal instruction, of course, including the use of metaphors. But it’s also clear how they use their own bodies as a kind of model. They mime, to clarify what they want the riders to do. They move around the manège to show riding paths or pace, and sometimes they sit on the horse themselves to demonstrate something,” Ms Lundgren says.

It’s a type of instruction that, in a way, approaches dance instruction, for example. The trainers also make wordless sounds, humming or singing to get the team on pace or to get them to relax.

“It’s interesting to see how the trainers sometimes physically put their hands on the riders, pulling a leg back into the correct position or takes their hands in order to correct a hand position. In our time, touch is often seen as problematic in asymmetric power relationships such as during instruction,” Ms Lundgren says and demonstrates it herself – how is a touch, such as stroking a leg, perceived? Or quick but firm pressure, almost a push away?

The situation of instruction itself is communicatively and pedagogically complex. It’s often cold in the manège, and the acoustics are hopeless. The rider must concentrate on both the horse and the trainer, and everything takes place under constant movement.

“And the rider mostly sees the horse’s mane and ears. Humans are dependent on visual information, but it’s hard for a rider to get an image of themselves and their horses as a team. The trainer has to convey that image,” Ms Lundgren states.

With one camera on the trainer, another on the rider and a third showing a general wide angle, Ms Lundgren has managed to piece together the film clips in the analysis phase, and in parallel see how the respective parties interact during instruction or a reprimand.

“ ‘Are you really praising the horse?’ the trainer may ask. Then, if I can see how the rider suddenly responds by clearly increasing chatter with the horse or starting to pat it more often, then the question has served as an instruction.”

In her research project, Ms Lundgren is collaborating with pedagogy researcher Mari Zetterqvist Blokhuis at Södertörn University. In total, this will land in three interim studies that will be completed during 2017. One with the rider and horse in focus, one with the trainer, and one with the horse.

What kind of interest has your presentation of the study aroused among international sports researchers?
“It’s been really big. Both the analysis technique in itself, with three cameras and images that can be analysed in parallel and used to analyse other training situations, and the tools the trainers make use of are of interest to many other groups. Pedagogues or physiotherapists, for example.”

There is yet another dimension to riding that interests Ms Lundgren. It concerns the subtle “rider’s sense”, which for centuries has gotten riding to be characterized as equestrianism:

“When the interaction is right, many experience an almost mystical ‘centaur’ sensation of being one with the horse. It can be compared a bit with saying sometimes that people have an eye for animals, an intuitive understanding of animals’ emotional state and behaviour. How do you learn rider’s sense? How do you teach a rider to achieve it? That’s something that up to now, we’ve only studied through interviews.”

From a general perspective, Swedish riding instruction at the elite level has gone from historically authoritative to the coach’s more modern pedagogy, which included individual reflection and feedback. Here, it is no longer a question of military discipline, but of sports.
In Sweden, moreover, riding has to a greater degree become a pursuit for girls and women.

“We’re alone in this feminization; why it’s become so is itself an exciting phenomenon, from the perspective of the history of ideas. Sometimes it even spills over onto those of us engaged in horse research, and now and then someone has a dig at us, saying ‘you’re only doing this so you can hang out in the stables’.”

Significantly less feminized is fencing as a sport. How trainers communicate concerning this is another area Ms Lundgren has begun wondering about.

“It’s inevitable, I’ve started with fencing myself. Now I don’t have time to go in for riding; it takes too much time.”

Text and photo: Gunilla Pravitz
Photo of Totilas the dressage horse: Wikimedia


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Last updated: 2017-02-13