Buxton, W. (1995). The psychology of cross country, The Eventer, Summer Issue, 16-18.


The Psychology of Cross Country

Bill Buxton


When we hear about the psychology of sport, what generally comes to mind has to do with the mental preparation before a competition. For example, we have all seen books or articles that give techniques on how to "think positive," or how to handle nerves, stress or the excitement that might otherwise have a negative impact on our performance.

What is less known is that there is another area of psychology that can be applied to riding as well. It is known as cognitive psychology. This is the area of psychology concerned with how we think, learn, and solve problems. Understanding some of its basics can provide insights to many of the problems that we encounter in competition. Significantly, we can make use of these insights in adjusting our training regimen so as to avoid those problems in the future.

This article grew out of trying to understand my own riding mistakes (of which there are many). In my non-equestrian life, I am a scientist who studies the problems that people have in learning how to use technologies such as computers, fax machines and photocopiers. My belief is that much of what I observe in my science applies equally to riding.

At this stage, one might ask, "How does the process of learning to ride relate to learning a word processor?" At first glance, there is little similarity. But on reflection, what they have in common is that both have to do with the acquisition of a new skill.

Skill and Problem Solving

Riding is a skill. Learning to ride is skill acquisition. But why use such fancy terminology when "learning to ride" seems to do just fine? After all, it is far more down to earth. My main reason is to get a bit of distance from riding per se so that we can concentrate on the learning part.

Generally, if someone tells me they want something, I assume that they know what it is. If you want a bridle, you can probably describe it to me quite clearly. But if you want a skill, can you describe what that means to the same level of detail? Yet isn't that skill at least as important as the bridle? To find out what you do know about skill, let me give you a simple test:

Before reading on, think for a moment, and tell me what is the opposite of skill?

I'll even give you a hint: I'm not looking for "unskilled."

The intended answer is, "problem solving." Now if that was your response, then you probably don't need to read this article. On the other hand, if this seems like a strange reply, then stick around - what follows may be of use to you.

Automatic and Attentive Behaviour

The most important characteristic of any skilled performance, be it equestrian, musical or mathematical, is that it is automatic. That is to say, the person performing the task has done it so many times before that they literally don't have to concentrate on it while doing it. As we shall see even more later, the most important consequence of this is that the mind is therefore freed to concentrate on other things (for example, rather than thinking "are my heels down, eyes up, ...?" the mind is free to think about, "where is the best line to the next jump?").

A good way to test if someone is really skilled at a task is to see if they can do something else at the same time. A favorite example some of riding instructors is to have a student recite something difficult (such as multiplication tables or spelling their name backwards) while going over a jump. This is an excellent test. If the student is skilled at jumping, the mind will be free to focus on the recitation. If not, the two tasks will interfere with one another, and either or both will suffer.

Performing a task in which we are unskilled requires attentive behaviour. We have to think of all of the little steps that it takes to get through the task. Remember when you were unskilled at rising trot? It took all of your concentration to stay balanced and on the horse. It wasn't until this became automatic that your mind was sufficiently freed up to enable you to begin to pay attention to what diagonal you were on. And now, you don't even have to think of your diagonal. It too is automatic. It's your rhythm and pace that you're concentrating on. As skill develops, what previously required attention (and problem solving) now becomes automatic. Thus, the mind is freed so that it can attend to a new set of problems (which themselves will become automatic with practice).

The Power Law of Practice

For me, I think that the most frustrating thing about acquiring a new skill, such as riding, is that I know intellectually what I am supposed to do. I read all the books, magazines and watch the top riders. But when I get on a horse, I just can't put it all together.

This is just a round about way of saying that acquiring any skill is hard. And if there is anything that we know about leaning a new skill, it is that the only way to develop it and keep it is to practice: do it over and over and over again, then do it some more. Recognizing this leads us to one of the keys to a good instructor: someone who can have you do something over an over again while keeping it fresh, interesting and challenging (for you and your horse - who is also acquiring new skills).

Now when I say over and over again, just how many "overs" do I mean? Well, this is expressed in something called the power law of practice. Simply stated, this says that if it takes 2 hours to get one step, it will take 4 hours to get two steps, 8 hours to get three steps, 16 hours to get 4 steps, etc. Of course this is a generalization. The message to take away is that those riders on the Olympic team have put in an unbelievable number of hours, and at that level, every incremental improvement in technique comes at the cost of a large number of hours of practice.

Task Interference, and its Avoidance

"Interference" is the term that I used earlier to describe the cause of any degradation in performance that results from an attempt to perform one task at the same time as another. Interference results when different tasks compete for the same limited resources, or attention, of the brain. Remember, if I'm unskilled at a task, its performance demands attentive problem solving. Consequently, there is likely not enough processing power left to simultaneously perform the additional problem solving required by some other task in which I am also unskilled.

Now let us see how this affects us in an equestrian activity, such as riding a jump on a cross country course. In this case, one could argue that we need to perform at least three different tasks:

  1. Basic equitation: Simply put, we need to stay on our horse in a balanced position, while galloping over uneven and unfamiliar terrain.
  2. Answer the question demanded each specific jump: In a well designed course, each jump is designed to ask a specific question of the rider - a question whose difficulty is determined by the level of competition.
  3. Navigate the course: We need to remember the course and the specific line which we plan to follow, and all of us have made mistakes in this department.

The potential for task interference here is immense. If I am preoccupied with staying on my horse, I won't be prepared to deal with the specific problem of the next jump when I get there. And if I'm not thinking about where I go next while going over the jump (because I'm preoccupied with riding the jump itself), I will be well beyond it before I get my mind back to riding my planned course. And because I consequently found myself off of my planned course after the jump, the problem of adjusting my plan is introduced, which takes my mind off of basic equitation, which means I get to the next jump off balance. And the cycle continues - hopefully without a fall.

After our run we inevitably ask ourselves, "What went wrong? How did that happen? I walked the course. I can handle any of the jumps on their own. And I certainly can canter over that terrain!" Of course, all of that may well be true. But what we seem slow to appreciate is that, psychologically, doing all three together is a very different thing than doing each in isolation. The situation is similar to one that many would-be musicians have encountered: they can sing the lyrics and they can play the accompaniment on guitar, but they can't do the two together. In both cases, the problem is classic task interference.

Practice, Preparation and Speed

"Putting it all together," from the psychological perspective means being sufficiently skilled in each of the tasks that there are sufficient cognitive resources to deal with each without interference. Now there are at least three strategies that can be applied to bring us to this state:

1. Practice: This is the obvious strategy. As we have discussed earlier, practice is the key to skill acquisition, and with skill comes the transition from attentive, demanding problem solving to automatic task performance.

2. Preparation: No matter how skilled we are, the unexpected will inevitably occur. Due to heavy rain, you may find yourself on footing unlike anything you or your horse have ever encountered. You may get a run-out in the middle of a combination where you never expected it. In these, and many similar situations, you are (often suddenly) confronted with an "extra" problem. The psychological danger here is that this "unexpected" problem may make extra cognitive demands which interfere with the performance of other ongoing tasks, and have the knock-on effect of causing additional problems.

The key to minimizing interference in these kinds of circumstances lies in appreciating the difference between unexpected and unplanned! Just because the footing or a runnout is unexpected does not mean that we should not have planned for the eventuality. Despite having a cozy indoor arena, periodically we should school dressage, cross country and stadium outside in the most miserable weather. That way, we are prepared to deal with cold fingers, slippery reins, poor visibility and slick footing when the weather is unexpectedly bad. The resulting practice means more skill and less interference when (not if) these same conditions are encountered in competition.

Likewise, when we unexpectedly get a run-out in the middle of a combination or in some other situation, we can minimize the consequences through preparation. Even though we expect to go clear, we should have a "Plan B" (and "C," "D," ...) for each fence. Each is a planned response to a possible problem that we can anticipate. Some of these plans can be practiced at home, others not. This planning is one of your main tasks in walking a course. If you've done your planning well, then when (again, not if) the "unexpected" happens, you will be ready. You will have fewer problems to solve. Consequently, the interference with other tasks will be reduced and the damage will be contained. You can get on and ride the rest of the course without the knock-on effects that might otherwise occur.

3. Speed: Of all of the things that we can do to improve our performance, perhaps slowing down is the one that gives the most gain for the least pain. All novices have heard variations of this theme before, yet excessive speed is still one of the most common causes for problems that one sees on course. Now notice that I said speed was not the problem, but the cause. What is the underlying psychology?

In the physical world, we are used to describing the performance of machines in terms of how much they can do in a given unit of time. Hence, we say that a car can go so many miles per hour, a motor run at so many revolutions per minute, or a generator provide so many kilowatts per hour. For our purposes, let us think of the brain in the same way. Let us say that our brain can answer X questions (or solve X problems) a minute. Let us further assume that in riding between two jumps, we need to answer Y questions. If I get to the second jump without answering all Y questions, I am likely going to have a problem. I can avoid this easily. By stretching out the time between the two jumps, I buy myself time. I therefore arrive at the second jump with all Y questions answered, and am far less likely to make an error. (Recalling all of the alternate plans for the upcoming fence are, of course, some of the questions that are required during the approach.)

Cross country speeds are normally given in metres per second. Of far more value, from the psychological perspective, would be for us to think of it in questions answered per metre. Because of skill, the expert can answer more questions more rapidly, and therefore safely cover the same distance in a shorter time, but having answered at least the same number of questions over the distance! As novices, our goal should be to match the question answering, not the speed, of the expert. This leads not only to more clean rounds, but safer and more enjoyable rounds as well.

One important caveat:  there are obvious limits to what I am saying, otherwise the logical conclusion would be that sitting still, giving yourself all the time in the world to problem solve, would be the sure path to a perfect round.  Keep in mind that approaching a fence at the proper pace and making your round within the  time limit are two of the key problems that you have to take into account.  There are limits to everything!

Chronological vs Perceptual Time

In the arithmetic of the physical world and chronological time, if I only answered half of the questions demanded of me between two fences, the conclusion might be that in order to answer them all, I should cut my speed in half (that is, double the amount of time between jumps). Here is the good news: perceptual time does not follow the rules of chronological time. One of the most interesting things about it is that it only takes about 10% more time, to more-or-less double the available problem solving time! Of course, the opposite is also true: if you speed up by only 10%, you run the risk cutting the number of questions that you can answer in half. A speed increase of about 10% comes close to doubling the difficulty and likelihood of error. Cutting speed by 10% about doubles your chances of going clear (as long as you also keep in mind my caveat, above). Making the right decision here isn't rocket science: a 10% reduction in speed makes a lot of sense if you are currently having troubles going clear.


We are all problem solving when riding. (If the amount of problem solving is negligible, then we are competing well below our ability and should move up a level or two.) Where we get into trouble is when we become overloaded, and the mental effort of solving one problem makes demands on the mind which cause interference with solving the problems associated with some other task.

Through practice, we can build up our level of skill in as many areas as possible. In so doing, the performance of those tasks will become automatic. Consequently, they will not interfere with problem solving associated with other tasks.

Through preparation we can anticipate the unexpected. In so doing, we can have a prepared "recipe" for each eventuality that might occur at any point on course. By so doing, we eliminate the need to "make up" the recipe on the fly. By reducing the amount of problem solving demanded by unexpected situations, we reduce the amount of task interference compared to what would otherwise result, and therefore reduce the likelihood of knock-on effects. If something happens, we deal with it according to plan, then get on with the rest of our ride.

Finally, by controlling our speed, we buy ourselves time to answer all of the questions demanded from obstacle to obstacle on course. By recognizing that psychological time is not linear, we can take advantage of the fact that it only requires about a 10% slow-down to double the problem solving time available.

Riding is as much a mental as a physical activity. To ride effectively and safely requires an understanding of both of these components. Hopefully this discussion has shed some light on the mental side, and makes it so that the process of solving all of these problems does not interfere with the most important task of them all: enjoying the sport.

Bill Buxton is Head of Research at Alias | Wavefront, a computer graphics company that - among other things - built the tools which were used to create the dinosaurs in the film, Jurassic Park. He is also Chief Scientist for Siicon Graphics Inc., a computer company specializing in computer graphics systems, and a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. His specialty is the human aspects of technology. He recently began competing at the preliminary level on his 8 year old buckskin clyde/thoroughbred mare, Matinee Performance, and is coached by Ian Roberts and Kelly Plitz of Dreamcrest Equestrian in Port Perry, Ont.