Remote training: A more versatile approach to coaching riders *H&H Plus*

  • One positive thing that may come out of this crisis is a more versatile approach to coaching. Andrea Oakes discovers how riders make remote coaching work

    So we’re off games and confined to quarters – a frustrating time as far as training is concerned. While most riders rely on regular guidance, thriving on feedback and constructive criticism, the current movement restrictions have called time on traditional lessons and clinics.

    The early days of lockdown saw a flurry of activity from the more proactive coaches, who turned to technology to keep their clients’ confidence high and their progress on track. Yet as the possibilities of training by live link or video opened up, the question emerged as to whether we should be riding at all while our emergency services are under such strain.

    What we’ve learned about remote training won’t be wasted, however, when normal activity resumes. By dipping a toe into this virtual world, we’re realising that those expert “eyes on the ground” could be elsewhere – in another county, or even a different country.

    Decent phone signal

    The frozen frames and fuzzy images that come to mind with online video chat and conference platforms don’t bode well for real-time teaching, so dressage rider Anna Ross was keen to test the logistics of offering lessons this way to her clients.

    “We tried FaceTime, Zoom and WhatsApp, as these are what most people have,” says Anna, whose pupil Sally Bell was riding her grand prix gelding State Secret remotely in an outdoor school. “Each worked surprisingly well. The film quality was quite good and we had no problem with sound.”

    Anna outlines what’s needed: a schooling area with a decent phone signal or WiFi, along with two fully charged phones – one for the rider, carried in a secure pocket, with headphones, and one for an assistant willing to film. The trainer needs something larger – a laptop or an iPad – with WiFi, and is advised to check that this novel way of teaching is covered by their insurance policy.

    “The action is better filmed in landscape, and in a 20x40m rather than 20x60m arena so that the horse is never too far away,” says Anna, adding that cones placed on the three-quarter lines add perspective to what otherwise comes across to the trainer as a vast expanse of space.

    “The light is quite relevant, as filming into the sun will result in nothing more than a silhouette. It’s also a challenge for a remote trainer to see the minutiae of flexion and bend, and which of the horse’s muscle groups are working. We found that leg-yield and half-pass are best filmed from X, while shoulder-in and travers are clearer from the track.

    “Having an assistant to film adds another dimension,” she adds. “Ideally, you need someone quite nippy who is familiar with dressage terminology. Be mindful that they’ll need a break and that too many small circles might make them dizzy. At one point, our assistant (Sally’s mother) got cold hands – all these things can interrupt the lesson.”

    Anna suggests a practice run, so the horse doesn’t tire while you figure things out. With the set-up sorted, however, both she and Sally found the session beneficial.

    “From a trainer’s point of view, you’ll probably be teaching an existing client and will have a good idea of what you need to focus on,” she explains. “Two-way communication worked well; I would say to Sally, ‘It looks like you don’t have enough bend,” for example, and she could respond and make adjustments.

    “The trick is to structure the lesson in advance, rather than teaching what you see on the day,” adds Anna. “It doesn’t beat face-to-face teaching, but I can see this working between lessons. I gave Sally three exercises to video in better quality and send to me, before we have another training session.”

    “It was constructive,” agrees Sally. “We concentrated on the piaffe-passage transition and I worked a lot harder than I would on my own. Anna was definitely able to make a difference, offering useful feedback and making sure that we were moving in the right direction with our training.”

    Question and empower riders

    Showjumping coach and England home pony chef d’equipe Mia Palles-Clark has been coaching remotely for some time.

    “I have clients at home and worldwide who send me videos of their training sessions and competition rounds via Google Drive,” she explains. “As coaches, one of our biggest tools is to question and empower our riders. I discuss with mine where we currently are, what we are working towards and we agree on exercises for improvement. I then provide feedback on sessions, whether they’re ‘training and process’ goals or ‘competition and outcome’ goals.”

    One pupil, based in Bahrain, gets both parents to video him from different positions so that Mia gets a better overview, usually in a competition scenario.

    “Working with his home coach, we discuss the set exercises and relate them to his goals – perhaps to improve his flying changes around a course, or his position over a fence,” she says.

    “I do enjoy travelling to coach clients and deliver clinics, but remote coaching shows that there is more we can offer our clients beyond being in the arena,” adds Mia, a Suffolk-based British Showjumping UKCC level three coach and coach educator. “From a coaching perspective, video is a really useful training tool. A lot depends on the quality of the filming, so perseverance may be needed to get this to optimum levels. And I’m very specific on distances when setting polework and jumping exercises, although it’s important that riders learn to set these and can adapt things if necessary – again, with the coach’s support.”

    Video analysis may not allow for instantaneous correction in the way that live link does, but there are benefits for both parties. Riders can access quality tuition across the globe, without leaving home, while coaches can earn even if they are away competing.

    The recent launch of specialist products such as OnForm, a video analysis and feedback app, is set to simplify the process.

    “Video coaching is widely used, but we believe it can be improved by making it easy to upload and download, to manage and search and to add drawings and voiceover,” says Diarmuid Byrne of EquiRatings, the team behind OnForm. “Our new platform is built for the equestrian world and is designed to support any coach-athlete scenario, including one-to-one relationships as well as team structures with multiple coaches.

    “The power of video is that as a rider you can see yourself,” says Diarmuid, adding that many of the world’s top coaches will be available through the app for video review and feedback. “Rather than replace the face-to-face lesson, which is very valuable, remote coaching and connecting online can supplement it.”

    Currently free, OnForm enables coaches and riders to agree fees directly – with coaches receiving 100% of the revenue.

    Also new to the scene is Ridely, the UK version of a popular Swedish app. “Riders can enter details of their horse, log training sessions and upload short video clips that they can share with their trainer or other registered users, such as co-owners,” explains Harvey Buchanan, Ridely’s country manager UK. “As well as enabling analysis and feedback, Ridely gives them tailored content in the form of inspirational, instructional videos by well-known riders. Our aim is to help riders stay connected with their coaches, while developing a better structure to their day-to-day training.”

    Coping when home alone

    British Dressage UKCC level three coach Alison Short feels that riders benefit from one-to-one tuition when learning something new. The aim, however, is to enable clients to think for themselves and cope when home alone.

    “It’s tempting when training to handhold people,” Alison points out. “Some coaches make you a better rider – but only when they’re there.”

    Encouragement between lessons can come from many sources, she adds, such as a trainer’s webinar allowing live interaction. Her iRide Training audio system delivers pre-recorded lessons that can be downloaded on to an MP3 player, smartphone or iPod.

    “You can go straight to the iRide library and pull something out at your level,” explains Alison, whose lessons include “Spook Busting” and the bestselling “Circle of Contact”. “You can listen to it as often as you like – while you ride, or even to achieve a state of mindfulness before you get on board, as you’ll still be picking up postural corrections, tips and exercises.

    “‘Virtual’ training is often better than practising on a horse, as at least when you ride again you’ll have mastered the order of your aids,” she adds. “Riders do need an element of support and motivation, no matter how it’s delivered.”

    Gaining credibility

    Online competitions, in which tests filmed in real-time are then submitted for judging, are gaining credibility in the dressage world.

    “Some people were a bit sniffy at first and thought it might be easier to get a good mark,” says Ruth Chappell of Dressage Anywhere. “That’s not the case, as we work to British Dressage (BD) rules and mainly with BD List One and Two judges. Your horse may be more relaxed in his own environment, where he is familiar with each bush and knows there’s not a tiger behind it, but our judges are not kinder because it’s online.”

    Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Dressage Anywhere has more than 11,000 members worldwide. Classes run up to grand prix and include para, Pony Club, ex-racehorse and British Eventing, with some “exciting” guest judges set to be announced.

    “Our training classes offer plenty of feedback, giving you an indication of where you might stand before you compete at a live show,” adds Ruth, “and you’ll get a good idea of what the judges are looking for.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020