In the world of horse-racing, the horses understandably get all the attention but much of the thrill of today’s races depends on the jockeys. Their modern riding posture – the so-called Martini glass – has led to a dramatic improvement in race times, by making things much easier on their horses.
Modern horse-racing has been going on for over two centuries, but in its earliest days, jockeys would ride vertically. The modern, crouched style was only developed in the late 19th century in the US. By 1897, it has been adopted in the UK and by 1910, it was a global phenomenon. The new posture clearly had benefits for the horses for in the few decades after its introduction, race times improved by 5-7%, more than they did in the subsequent century.
You might think that crouching down speeds up races simply by reducing drag on the horse, but not so. Jockeys may be bent over but they still sit fairly high on their mounts, much higher than, say, a track cyclist does on theirs. This high posture means that from the front, the total area of horse and rider doesn’t change very much between the upright and modern riding styles. Less than 2% of the total work done by the horse’s muscles is spent on overcoming this extra drag.
Instead, Thilo Pfau at London’s Royal Veterinary College has found that the uncomfortable stance greatly reduces the burden on the horse by uncoupling its movements from those of its rider.
Classical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.
But even amid this rigorous cascade of tradition, there is room for change. Over the years, successive generations of ballet dancers have subtly tinkered with positions that are ostensibly fixed and limited by the physical constraints of a dancer’s body. The only changes ought to be a result of the dancers’ varying abilities. But that’s not the case – over the last 60 years, the position of a dancer’s has become increasingly vertical, with the moving leg in particular being lifted ever higher.
Elena Daprati from the University of Rome thinks that these tweaks have been driven by social pressures from audiences. When she reduced pictures of dancers to stick-figure drawings, she found that even people who have never seen a ballet prefer the postures of modern dancers to those of dancers 60 years ago. The results suggest that art can change very gradually because of constant interactions between performers and their audiences.
Almost more importantly, they show that the usually unquantifiable world of artistic expression can be studied with a scientific lens. In this case, the formal nature of classical ballet gave Daprati a rare opportunity to do so. Body postures could be objectively analysed, movements are standardised enough to allow for easy comparisons, and most of all, performances have been carefully archived for decades. That provided Daprati’s group with more than enough raw material for studying the evolution of ballet postures over time.