When human and equine athletes get separated for several weeks—such as during lockdown—physical and emotional strain can lead to anxiety, poor performance, and even reduced welfare, according to a new study.
Elite three-day eventing riders isolated from their horses for eight weeks during Italy’s Covid-19 movement restrictions did not ride as well in competitions after lockdown as they did before—despite six weeks of post-lockdown training, said Sabrina Demarie, PhD, of the Department of Movement, Human, and Health Sciences at the University of Rome “Foro Italico” in Rome, Italy.
A primary issue of coming out of lockdown? Anxiety.
“Even though eight weeks of confinement are definitely more than enough to compromise mental status and performance outcome, competitions were held six weeks after resuming training; therefore, higher anxiety was not automatically expected,” Demarie said.
“Indeed, previous studies have dealt with exercise restrictions due to injury without social isolation of either human or horses, and in those cases anxiety was not a big issue for returning to sport activity.”
Demarie and her fellow researchers—Christel Galvani of the Sacred Heart Catholic University in Milan and Veronique Louise Billat of the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in Evry, France—followed 54 elite riders resuming riding activity after nearly two months of lockdown.
They recorded their performances at competitions four weeks before lockdown and at competitions 6 weeks after lockdown, and they surveyed them about their emotional and mental states, their lockdown self-training routines, and their evaluations of how much effort was required (how hard they were working) at any one time during post-lockdown training as well as during a competitive test.
The scientists noted that competitions post-lockdown were marked by poorer performance, according to Demarie.
Performance was most affected in the dressage test, probably because of heightened anxiety and greater difficulty concentrating due to a sort of mental overload, she explained.
Losing eight weeks of connection with their equine partner, the athletes still felt stressed about the competition even after having been reunited and working together for six weeks.
As dressage requires memorizing complex patterns and fine-tuned communication through subtle aids, and because the riders are aware that the test is scored entirely through judging (contrary to show jumping and cross-country), it’s logical that dressage performance was the most affected by lockdown, she said. And in fact, it was in dressage that riders reported feeling that they were exerting themselves the most, compared to before lockdown.
Even so, riders’ heart rates reached close to maximum levels already at the start of the jumping test, likely representative of anxiety there as well, Demarie added. But because event organizers created shorter versions of tests after lockdown—cutting 40% and 15% from cross country and show jumping, respectively—the athletes seemed to fare better in these tests than in dressage.
The reduced performance reflects not only reduced well-being for the rider but probably poorer welfare for the horse, as well, according to Demarie. Stressed riders convey their stress to their horses, she said. Notably, they might ride with incidentally stronger aids or stiffer bodies, and they might not align the release of aids to the horse’s response as well as they normally would.
As such, it’s important to keep human and equine athlete pairs together as much as possible even during lockdowns, Demarie said. “This will allow mental and physical wellbeing to be maintained for both horse and riders at a better level than during the spring lockdown when horses were managed by clubs staff only,” she told Horses and People. “It is intuitive that this is the lesson lawmakers have to ensure for animal wellbeing.”
And when competitions resume—especially if the pairs have had to be separated—training and tests should be modified to allow for a gradual progression back to pre-separation levels.
“The major findings of our study are that precautions have to be taken during and after training restrictions, in particular for the maintenance of positive mental status and physical wellness of the riders and the horses,” said Demarie.
“All stakeholders need to be aware that competitions should be planned at a lower level of difficulties and/or shorter course than before pandemic restrictions.”
The study is open access and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
It is titled: Horse-Riding Competitions Pre and Post COVID-19: Effect of Anxiety, sRPE and HR on Performance in Eventing, by Sabrina Demarie, Christel Galvani and Veronique Louise Billat.