Ways to learn new equestrian skills from home *H&H Plus*

  • Since the Covid-19 lockdown, online learning is all the rage. Leslie Bliss takes a look at what it has to offer those who wish to upskill from the comfort of their own home...

    Everyone’s doing it. From toddlers to pensioners, all and sundry have embraced e-learning since the Covid-19 lockdown. Learning online is more accessible and enjoyable than ever.

    As the entire country has been confined, video conferencing has suddenly become mainstream. Everyone is using it – Zoom, Facetime, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Cisco WebEx to name but a few – from the BBC with its daily government coronavirus press conferences to Have I Got News For You, as well as schools and universities.

    Online education providers have been inundated since the lockdown as e-learning has come into its own, even for equestrians. No, you can’t beat practical experience, but there is a huge amount you can learn.

    After all, distance learning has been around for a long time, once upon a time reliant on good old-fashioned Royal Mail.

    BHSII Julie Brega founded The Open College of Equine Studies (TOCES) some 32 years ago, offering what were then called correspondence courses.

    “I was filling a gap in the market. While training British Horse Society (BHS) students on my yard, I was running evening classes for them, setting homework, and it progressed from there,” she says.

    The college has come a long way since then, catering for complete beginners to those aiming for a degree-level diploma. There are 100%-online courses, but others require hands-on experience. For those, TOCES combines e-learning with practical study weeks at its new, purpose-built training facility in Suffolk.

    “Our youngest student is 13, our oldest 72, and 20% come from abroad. Students fly in from all over the world for the study weeks – from the Singapore Turf Club, Hong Kong, Finland and South Africa.

    “It’s been a big investment to set up; it takes a long time to develop a breadth of courses.

    We have the advantage that we can use the best experts from around the world to contribute and develop the programmes. We have a team of around 20 advisers, tutors and lecturers. Students have their own course adviser from the outset. We use Moodle as our virtual learning environment. It provides access to study guides, planners, webinars, assignments and tutor feedback. There’s even a virtual coffee shop where students can socialise.

    “Programmes start at £75 up to our most expensive, which is a four-year, level six equine physiotherapy diploma, which is £5,250 annually, including all the study weeks. This is good value for a degree-level programme,” points out Julie, whose students choose e-learning over full-time college and university courses as they are looking to fit study around other commitments, such as a job, horses and children.

    “You can teach almost anything online, but you do need to handle horses in real life, which is why we provide blended learning. For our City & Guilds equine veterinary nursing course, there are nine different study weeks to teach all the clinical skills,” says Julie, whose former students include Dr Stephanie Valentin, now a lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of the West of Scotland.

    BHS Stage 4 senior coach and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) master practitioner Sarah Tame was inspired to set up Equine Distance Learning (EDL) in 2010, while working as a lecturer at Merrist Wood College in Surrey.

    “We are about delivering correct information to horse owners. We are geared towards hobby riders, people who want to learn to do the right thing by their horse, people who are thinking about buying a horse and some who are looking for a starting point for their equestrian career. Our aim is to give owners confidence while enjoying learning about horses,” says Sarah, whose company provides 100% online training based on BHS content and up-to-date research with the assistance of a handful of tutors.

    “We encourage students to finish within a year and tutors give regular feedback. For some of the courses, students create videos of themselves doing tasks, which we then assess,” says Sarah, who has found that this way of learning appeals particularly to those who are shy or nervous.

    Repeat business speaks for itself and EDL’s top student of 2018, Olivia Sanders, has completed 11 courses successfully: competition psychology, the foot and shoeing, horse identification, horse health, winter ailments, clipping, equine behaviour and psychology, equine nutrition, ride with confidence, introduction to equine massage and BHS Stage 1 preparation course.

    Olivia says: “The pros are that you can complete courses at your own pace, in your own time, with no deadlines, which is a big plus for me as I am dyslexic. I had one-to-one support from the course director and there is a section when you are studying particular subjects online where you and other students can post thoughts, which is great for discussing different situations. It’s boosted my confidence. Also, the certificates bump up the CV, plus you don’t have to own your own horse.

    “The cons are that you don’t have face-to-face social interaction and it can be harder to contact a course director than if you were in a classroom. It can also be difficult to stay motivated and ignore distractions when you are studying at home. Having said that, I would recommend it without hesitation.”

    BHSAI Paula Clements set up Lingfield Equine Distance Learning in 1996 after she frequently found herself spending half an hour at the end of riding lessons giving her students advice related to horse care and management.

    Now with 2,000 students on her books and a team of five tutors, she agrees with Sarah that motivation is the hardest part of distance learning. It is good to have a set space with a table and chair to study, rather than on the couch or in the kitchen with lots of distractions and interruptions. Find a place of your own. Turn the garden shed into a study. Turn off your phone to avoid social media distraction – mobiles are usually not allowed in classrooms, so avoid them with home study, too. Only study for short periods, so you look forward to getting your coursework out.

    E-learning is metamorphosing at an incredible rate and enables tuition from some of the most respected instructors in the world, wherever you happen to be based. In 2016, Dressage Training TV – Ride With Your Mind launched in collaboration with Mary Wanless BHSI, BSc, for example. It provides videos, articles and live webinars covering subjects from rider biomechanics to test riding, with monthly membership from £17.50. Many coaches have started giving lessons online during the lockdown, too, negating travel time and costs. It certainly opens up a whole new world of learning.

    Questions to ask before you sign up

    With such a huge variety of online courses, it’s worth considering a few questions to make sure you choose the right one:

    1. Does the company’s website have the right tone and feel for you?
    2. Who founded the company, when, why and what are their qualifications?
    3. Who is the coursework written by and what are their credentials?
    4. Is the course based on a recognised training system?
    5. What is your aim; will the course provide you with the qualification you want? Are you looking to increase your knowledge in a specific area, prepare for BHS exams or gain a recognised qualification?
    6. How is the coursework provided? Some companies send you PDFs to print at home, others use sophisticated bespoke educational platforms for you to access it using a variety of formats, including videos and interactive, live webinars. Everyone learns differently, so consider how you enjoy studying.
    7. What is the pass rate? It will vary from course to course.
    8. How much support and feedback are provided?
    9. Check out any time frames. The beauty of e-courses is that you can work at a rate that fits around your life, but some courses, such as City & Guilds equine veterinary nursing, will have assignment deadlines. Make sure you are able to schedule these into your diary.
    10. What is your budget? Is it realistic? Remember, you usually get what you pay for, but there is also a certain amount of free, quality training available. The BHS offers a host of training guides and how-to videos on YouTube, for example. It’s a list of approved training centres and includes online ones, too.

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