Eventing is commonly referred to as the triathlon of horse riding. It consists of three disciplines: dressage, show jumping and cross country. All three disciplines are intended to test the partnership of the horse and rider as well as their ability. In terms of scoring, the competitor who finishes on the lowest score wins, as it is run on the basis of cumulative penalties. Eventing is a seriously high-risk sport; event riders are three times more at risk of an injury than motorcycle racers and six times more than car drivers (Paix, 1999). Consequently, lots of work has been done to minimise the risks; frangible pins are now common place on some of the cross-country fences in order to prevent rotational falls (a fall in which the horse somersaults over the fence, often resulting in the horse landing on the rider (O’Brien & Cripps, 2008)) but the risks are still apparent.
Decision making is essential in a fast, dynamic sport such as eventing. Not only is it vital for completing on a low score and potentially winning but it is also potentially lifesaving. Decision making is the intellectual process resulting in the selection of a course of action among several different options (Kaya, 2014). Depending on how we perceive a situation, depends on how we will respond and ultimately make that decision. If we view a situation as a challenge then we feel that we have a high sense of perceived control and self-efficacy, as well as an approach focus. However, if we view a situation as a threat then we feel that we have a low sense of perceived control and self-efficacy, as well as an avoidance focus (Jones et al, 2009). So when you canter up to that cross country fence, if it is that “scary” fence you’ve been worrying about then you’re likely to appraise it as a threat which will ultimately affect your decision making.
Eventing requires the rider to be an “edge worker” (Thompson & Nesci, 2016). This means that the rider is often negotiating the boundary between chaos and order which in this case is the distinction between life and death in terms of a successful jump cross country.
The edge worker navigates the threats by performing a skilled performance which requires mastery of their fears and anxieties. By overcoming these fears through mastery trainings and performances, it results in the feelings of exhilaration linked to sensation seeking (Thompson & Nesci, 2016). Although risk is unavoidable in eventing, it is moderated by the development of skills, focus, control and planning (Thompson & Nesci, 2016). Horse riding is unique in sport in terms of the fact that the human does not have full control over a situation. Research by Thompson and Nesci (2016) found that partnership between horse and rider is a protective factor against crossing the edge into chaos. They also highlighted how the rider should focus on the controllable and keep a positive mindset to preserve states of flow to produce successful outcomes.
So how can we help to make better decisions in eventing, reducing risk and increasing safety?
Imagery can be a beneficial way to improve decision making (Hale & Crisfield, 2005) such as response accuracy and timing when using cognitive general imagery (Westlund Stewart & Hall, 2017). Cognitive general imagery is used for rehearsing strategies and execution. This can be used in eventing, especially on the cross country in terms of mentally rehearsing situations and your reaction. For example, you could walk the course and then mentally rehearse yourself going around it, imagining yourself executing those decisions such as jump, land, ride three positive strides, take off, land and canter off.
The following PETTLEP model is a good place to start:
Physical (what you’re wearing while in the image, feeling, smelling, listening to)
Environment (where the imagery is performed – in competition/training/certain event)
Task (the content – what you will be doing)
Timing (real, slow or quick time)
Learning (the script should be adaptable to changes in performance – constantly update the script)
Emotion (how you will feel – excited, nervous, happy, focussed)
Ultimately, eventing is a risk-taking sport which requires fast decisions which can determine how the horse jumps a fence. We need to ensure we are making effective decisions for positive outcomes. Imagery can be beneficial in providing a platform and a model to rehearse these decisions, as well as creating a positive mindset to facilitate flow states.