Distance learning: does teaching riders remotely work? *H&H Plus*

  • Is remote training over video call the way forward, or is it putting horses and riders at risk? Ellie Hughes investigates

    Top of Pammy Hutton’s list of pandemic achievements, she reveals, is training Trinidad-based rider Michelle Sabga-Aboud from advanced medium to grand prix in six months – all via Zoom. Thanks to modern technology the Bristol University student, who had been riding at Talland while studying in the UK, has been able to continue progressing under Pammy’s expert eye since being locked down in the Caribbean.

    Twelve months ago the idea that you could be perfecting your piaffe more than 4,000 miles away from the person telling you how to do it would have been unthinkable, but events of the past year have made us look anew at everything, including how we train our horses and stay motivated.

    Online coaching via platforms such as Zoom, Pixio and FaceTime have opened doors that would have otherwise remained rmly closed, but the subject of remote riding has divided opinion among trainers. There are those who extol its virtues and those who take a more cautious view, questioning its impact on teaching standards and rider learning, as well as highlighting potential safety concerns.

    So what do riders need to consider before turning on their headsets? What works remotely and what doesn’t? And what does the future hold?

    “I worry that there are a lot of uncontrollables when you are linked up to a rider purely through technology,” says eventing coach and former Olympian Eric Smiley. “If the trainer knows the pupil, the horse and the surroundings then some of the safety bases are covered, but even the most experienced trainer cannot be 100% in control of a remote lesson because they cannot see beyond the reach of the camera.”

    International dressage rider and trainer Adam Kemp shares Eric’s concerns. It is one of the reasons he does not offer remote teaching, preferring instead to travel to clients’ yards – at his own expense – to deliver one-to-one training in person.

    “Yes there is a safety element to it, but also for me coaching is so much more than just switching on a camera and giving a lesson,” he says. “It’s a two-way dynamic and I just don’t feel connected to a horse or rider when I’m looking at them on a screen. I don’t like not being able to read their body language.”

    British dressage regional coach and UKCC level two instructor Janine Lamy admits that she finds it hard to pitch a lesson with no personal interaction.

    “From the moment I turn up to teach somebody I will be assessing their mood, how they are interacting with the horse and all the other little clues I can glean that determine how I might pitch my lesson on that particular day and what we should – or shouldn’t – be working on,” she explains. “You can’t do it when you are talking via a headset.”

    To a certain extent the same is true of the horse.

    “I can see a horse cantering round with its ears pricked on a screen, but I can’t tell what is going on at a deeper level; for example, I can’t tell whether it is really taking the rider forward,” Eric points out.

    Remote training has also highlighted differences in how riders learn.

    “For riders who learn visually and by watching others it is hard,” says Janine. “When I’m teaching a lesson in person
    and introducing a new movement I might demonstrate on foot what a half-pass or a walk pirouette looks like, but I can’t do that if I’m not there. “Or I might say, ‘Don’t do that with your hands, do this,’ and show them what I mean – but that won’t work either. As a teacher you are very restricted in the way you can explain things.”

    But Pammy believes that such obstacles can be overcome.

    “You have to be prepared for a bit of trial and error,” she says. “It is part of the reason I charge less for Zoom lessons – I can never guarantee I will see everything and it can take time to get the technology set up, but I think that being able to have continuity and a focus for training outweigh the negatives.”

    Her student, Michelle Sabga-Aboud, agrees: “There hasn’t been a movement that Pammy hasn’t been able to improve, and if we run into an obstacle she always finds a new approach,” she says. “The only thing is I think she sometimes wishes she could jump out of the screen!”

    Even with fairly basic technology, Pammy says she is still able to see the length and width of a 60x20m arena.

    “It requires a lot of concentration and I would nd more than three remote lessons back to back too much as it’s very tiring for your eyes,” she says. “But even at the far end of the arena where the horse is only a three centimetre dot at the bottom of the screen, I can still generally tell whether it has too much inside bend, or if the rider is using too much outside rein or pulling too much, even if it is by looking at what the horse’s muscles are doing.

    “And I am always 100% honest – you have to be – and I will never pretend I have seen a flying change if I haven’t.”

    Showjumping trainer Ernest Dillon, who uses Zoom to continue to train existing clients, believes many of the concerns surrounding remote training are, in fact, equally applicable however a lesson is delivered.

    “Showjumping is not complicated, but nowadays some trainers make it so,” Ernest says. “Teaching and learning happen best when you keep things simple and focus on the basics. This is something I strongly believe in regardless of how I deliver my lessons.

    “Too many trainers give over-complicated instructions dressed up in fancy language, which leads to confusion for the rider and the horse. Do this remotely and you have an even greater problem.”

    Ernest likes to discuss a lesson plan with the rider in advance so they can set up exercises (see below).

    The issue of teaching standards is also something that bothers Adam Kemp.

    “Teaching is an unregulated and unquali ed service, and going online provides a much bigger platform for anyone to give it a go,” he points out. “Even in normal times there is a temptation for riders to chop and change trainers and to try someone new who might be fashionable at the time or who
    is good at promoting themselves online,” Adam adds, “but unless they are a good communicator and familiar with the rider, the horse and the setup then there is the potential for confusion [at best] and danger [at worst].

    “I want to look after the integrity of my trade at all costs, and to me that means being in an arena with the horse and rider.”

    Pammy agrees that riders should carefully consider from whom they accept advice. “Never forget to look up the qualifications of the person you’re learning from – and that applies equally to remote and real-life teaching,” she warns.

    There is no doubt that online lessons have played a valuable role in keeping coaches in business, and riders and horses learning through the past year. It is likely they are here to stay, but the word on the street is that we should proceed with caution.

    “We need to be very careful that virtual teaching doesn’t end up becoming the new norm,” warns Eric. “It certainly has its place, but to rely on it solely would be a mistake and, I believe, detrimental to equestrianism as a whole.”

    The rider’s view


    Dressage rider Becky Latimer (pictured) put training on hold during the first lockdown, but when competition ground to a halt again over the winter she was determined to find a way to stay motivated and on track with her aim of competing at prix st georges by the summer with Harley I, the gelding on whom she won a novice regional title in 2019.

    Becky signed up to a six-week online training package devised by grand prix rider and coach Henry Boswell. It comprised weekly remote lessons plus support, advice and insight in between.

    “I am a very target-driven person and I have to fit in riding around work and family, so this set-up has given my training impetus and helped me use my time constructively,” says Becky. “I have never met Henry in person but we are in constant communication. I use [the online platform] Pixio for lessons and Henry and I talk in advance about what we will be working on during a session.

    “One of the downsides is that once the camera is positioned you don’t want to be moving it around, so for example if Henry is “sitting” on the centre line he can’t see whether my shoulder-in down the long side is correctly on three tracks, but we tailor exercises accordingly and find ways to work through any technological issues.

    “I don’t believe virtual lessons will ever be a replacement for the real thing and I would not want them to be, but I like the regularity they offer, and if interspersing remote coaching with real-time lessons means I can train more often then I will be carrying on with them.”

    The jumping view

    Florida-based Jackie Bachor has been training with Ernest Dillon for 20 years and says that Zoom lessons have filled a much-needed training void during the pandemic.

    “I feel I have made real progress with my young horse this year despite the situation,” she says. “One of the biggest benefits of Zoom is that it gives you the ability to record lessons, so I spend time reviewing them, asking questions and making corrections ahead of the next lesson.

    “Trot and canter poles, cavaletti and gymnastic grids are probably the best exercises for remote training because I only have one static camera,” she continues.

    “The downsides of only having one view are that some of the detail can get lost. Working on the flat is harder [without more high-tech equipment] because I often end up riding out of the frame.

    “There are also things I can feel from my horse during the lesson that I think Ernest would pick up on if he were on the ground, but I have to stop and explain them. Sometimes I have to ask him about the tempo and whether I’m going too fast or too slow, but the video is pretty good unless the connection blips out during the exercise, which has happened a couple times.”

    This feature was also published in H&H magazine, 25 February 2021

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