Students studying equine science at Utah State University now have access to a new, rare horseback riding simulator.
Kelli Munns, a senior lecturer of equine science at USU who facilitated the purchase of the simulator, said the unit is one of fewer than 10 stateside, and the first to be used in a university setting in the U.S.
Munns said the simulator not only helps students understand horseback riding fundamentals, it also helps more advanced riders elevate their understanding.
Anna Lloyd, a teaching assistant for Munns and a member of the equestrian team, said the simulator helped fine-tune her technique. Lloyd said she received instruction that her positioning in the saddle was off-center and was trying to correct the issue over the summer.
“The first week of the semester I got on (the horseback riding simulator) with a few other TAs, and immediately a sensor reads that I’m too far back,” Lloyd said. “I had to sit a lot more forward than what my brain was telling me. So even in training, when I’m thinking about fixing it, I’m only fixing it to a certain degree. But the simulator showed me just how much more I had to do to actually be in that center of gravity.”
During a demonstration of the machine, Munns showcased how the simulator provides real-time and long-term data points on how a rider sits in the saddle as well as how pressure is distributed through the saddle, the reins, and sides of the faux horse. The rider sits in front of three digital monitors displaying virtual tracks, arenas and other riding environments.
“Who doesn’t want innovation in technology?” Munns said.
According to Munns, the simulator was purchased from UK-based Racewood Equestrian Simulators a little over a year ago. The simulator cost an estimated $120,000, funded in part through a research grant as well as matched funding from the College of Agriculture.
Munns said there a few major concepts she plans to study with the simulator: how effective is it in improving performance competencies, how the simulator affects biasing in instruction, and the effects it might have on actual horses.
“What’s the impact on a lesson horse when somebody learns everything straight from the lesson horse, as opposed to when they learn some of these skills on a simulator and then transfer over?” Munns said.
For Munns, the simulator may also improve safety for students — an ever-increasing issue. Each year, Munns said, more and more students with little horse riding experience get involved in the equine sciences.
“If you think about it, from a safety standpoint, this is an opportunity to give them an experience that they need, a skill set they need, without the risk (of being injured on a horse),” Munns said, explaining even the most “broke” or “safe” horses can do unpredictable things. “(Horses are) inherently risky. I can not control them. I can not stop them from doing stupid things — from bucking, spooking, spinning, taking off — and it’s a real thing that happens.”
Munns said every similar equine program across the county has incidents were students get hurt on horseback with a wide-ranging severity of injuries.
“That’s scary and that’s risky,” Munns said, “And it’s our responsibility as professionals to not be negligent and give them a skill set that we know they need before they ever step on the actual horse.”
Munns said the lack of student experience has to do with urban sprawl, and the fact that horses have been turned away from utilitarian uses in lieu of recreational ones. Horses simply aren’t as commonplace in the average backyard as they once were, Munns said.
“Now people have to go to facilities, or to the dude ranches, or an actual ranch which is farther and farther away these days,” Munns said. “I feel like the wrong mentality is to turn (students) away and say, ‘Well, that’s too bad. You can’t be successful, you have no experience.’ I think that is contradictory to what higher education is for — it is to have exposure and experiences that you’ve never had before, but you have an interest in.”
Munns likens the simulator to similar units used for aviation — through simulated training, fundamental skills are acquired before someone attempts to fly an actual plane. For Munns, not providing a path for inexperienced students to learn basic skills may ultimately exclude students.
Munns said a $122 billion industry surrounds equine science in the U.S. alone — and most of the jobs don’t require the most adept or technical horse riders. For Munns, regardless of a student’s goals, the simulator plays a role in “making good professionals that can keep contributing to the industry in an impactful way.”
“The simulator is really great for those that want to get involved in the industry; it’s a really great segue into maybe riding a horse and doing it safely,” Munns said. “Those that are interested in being really great riders, or being involved in the industry where they better really get what’s going on with our equine athletes and our equestrians, this is another way to take it to a new level.”