The Virtual Dressage Trainer Will See You Now

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SEE, I TOLD YOU YOU WEREN’T ON THE BIT! With video, instant replay, and other cutting-edge technologies infiltrating the dressage arena, training feedback is available like never before Illustration by ArtByEd.com

Learn how an Internet connection and a bit of tech savvy are transforming dressage education

By Patti Schofler

Reprinted from April 2015 USDF Connection

Andrea Caudill lives in Amarillo, tX, the heart of cutting- and reining-horse country. She is a one-way five-hour trailer ride from the nearest dressage instructor. And yet she has earned her USDF bronze and silver medals aboard her former reining Quarter horse, Haidaseeker Playboy, and is hoping to train “Matt” to Grand Prix.

Has Caudill achieved these accomplishments solo? Hardly. Although she got through training and First levels more or less on her own, as she faced the challenges of Second level, “I didn’t know how I would do that without instruction,” she says. “And I couldn’t afford to drive for five hours and pay for an expensive lesson or two and drive home.”

Caudill’s solution: dressage lessons via Skype, a free internet-based telecommunications program. With help from the right devices and a solid internet connection (and a helpful husband to serve as videographer), Caudill gets real-time instruction from a trainer in another state.

Many USDF members are in Caudill’s situation—lacking convenient access to quality instruction. So we decided to find out how you, too, can put technology to work in the name of dressage education. In this article, we’ll explain Caudill’s video-training setup. We’ll also explore other avenues available to those who’d like to bring dressage education to their own computers or mobile devices.

The System
Caudill’s husband, James Emmert, helped her brainstorm the video-training system. Here are the components:

  • Laptop computer running the latest version of Skype (skype.com), set to “video call.” There are Skype versions for windows and Mac oS X as well as a full complement of Skype apps for mobile devices, including Android and iPhone. (Caudill and Emmert experimented with using a tablet and a smartphone instead of a laptop, but the lack of zoom capability and an inability to mount the smartphone caused them to nix these devices.)
  • High-quality or HD video camera (compatible with laptop’s operating system) with audio/video jacks and zoom function
  • Robust high-speed broadband internet connection or mobile hotspot
  • Bluetooth hands-free headset (for the rider) connected to compatible mobile phone
  • A helper to serve as videographer
  • A tech-savvy dressage instructor with her own computer or tablet running Skype on a high-speed broadband internet connection or mobile hotspot. The instructor’s device does not have to be of the same manufacturer, type, or operating system as the student’s setup.
  • Mobile phone for the instructor.
COMMAND CENTRAL: Close-up of Caudill and Emmert’s video-lesson setup, with Internet-connected laptop running the Skype telecommunications app
Photo by Andrea Caudill

The Skype connection is between the videographer and the instructor. Thanks to “video call” mode, the two can hear each other, so the instructor can give the videographer instructions, such as to zoom in on a movement or to position the camera at a different angle.

At the same time, the instructor and the rider are connected via mobile-phone call. Teacher and student communicate via phone while the instructor watches the student ride in real time in the Skype video. The instructor can be anywhere that the internet connection is solid—at the barn, in an airport between fights, or on her couch at home.

As you might imagine, your ten-year-old laptop and ancient cell phone probably won’t cut it for this use. You’ll have far better results with current technology—including a fast processor, a beefy video card, and lots of memory. And be sure all devices’ operating systems and Skype apps are updated to the latest versions.

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WIRED FOR SOUND (AND VIDEO): Adult-amateur rider Andrea Caudill takes virtual dressage lessons thanks to modern technology and the video skills of husband James Emmert (back to camera)
Photo by the American Quarter Horse Journal/Christine Hamilton

Find the Right Instructor
Although using Skype is fairly straightforward, it does require a certain comfort level with technology—and that’s not always a dressage instructor’s strong suit. Fortunately for Caudill, she was able to network her way to finding her first video-based trainer.

Caudill met Ocala, FL,-based USDF gold medalist Michelle Just-Williams at the 2010 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention in Jacksonville, Fl, where Caudill, who is the editor of the American Quarter Horse Association’s Q-Racing Journal, was representing the AQHA. When Caudill decided that she and Matt needed regular instruction, “I got the nerve to call Michelle, and she was willing to try it,” she says.

“You have to have a student who really wants this, and the instructor has to be fairly good with technology,” says Just-Williams. Once they got the system figured out, though, both teacher and student discovered unexpected benefits.

“We can experiment and do a shoulder-in from this angle or that angle,” says Just-Williams. “When I taught her something new, like tempi changes, I could ask to see it from different angles. I can ask to see it again and get a visual and say, for example, that the horse needs to be more up in the bridle, or whatever. Unlike [watching] a regular video, you [are watching the horse in] real time. You can say to the rider, ‘Did you feel that?’ or ‘We have to do that again.’”

The real-time feature—“I love the live feed,” Just-Williams says—is a definite plus, and the other is a benefit that normal lessons lack: an archived video of the ride that the rider can review.

“She hears it in her ear in the lesson and then can watch it again after,” Just-Williams says. “What you feel on top is not necessarily what you see on the ground. So to run it through your brain and then go of and watch can’t be anything but fantastic.”

Challenges and Workarounds
Mother nature can interfere with a technology-enabled dressage lesson. Caudill does not have an indoor arena, and laptops and video cameras don’t like getting wet, so lessons are cancelled when it rains. Amarillo is notoriously windy, and high winds can affect Emmert’s internet connection, so Caudill has learned to call it of in those conditions, as well.

Illustration by ArtByEd.com

Even in good weather, “We’ve had times when the picture gets pixilated or our live feed gets disconnected,” Just-Williams says. “It does have glitches. But if I didn’t see something or she didn’t understand, I can say ‘let’s do it again.’”

The other obvious drawback to a virtual lesson is that the instructor can’t get on the horse, or adjust your hand position, or demonstrate on the ground. “They can only speak to you. So their verbal tool box is important,” says Caudill. “The instructor is trying to teach me, as an amateur, to teach my horse. She might have to try five different ways to explain something until I get it.”

Finally, the system won’t work without a good videographer—someone who’s able to deftly pan in and out to capture the best possible footage for the instructor, not to mention ready and willing to film for 45 minutes on a regular basis.

More High-Tech Options for Dressage Education
Some of us learn a lot when we examine the biomechanics of a movement or when we have the opportunity to review a video of a ride—to see how it looked when we felt something. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see how a movement looked, almost at the very moment that we’re experiencing it in the saddle, for longer than that afforded by a glance in an arena mirror?

Athletes in sports ranging from golf to tennis to baseball are enjoying that very advantage thanks to an innovative subscription-based app that’s finding its way to the equestrian world, Coach’s Eye (Coacheseye.com), available for Apple, Android, and windows mobile devices. Using Coach’s eye, your instructor or a helper can film your ride in high definition and then give you all manner of sophisticated audiovisual feedback: instant replay, slow-motion video, scrubbing (frame-by-frame playhead adjustment), and more. Your trainer can even make an “analysis” video by adding audio commentary and even using the app’s drawing tools to mark up the footage with lines, arrows, circles, or freehand indicators—say, to indicate why your half-pass angle was incorrect. She can show two videos side by side on a split screen so that you can compare your left and right leg-yields simultaneously. The app’s spotlight tool will show how long your freestyle is. Last year’s rides can be imported from your gallery or camera roll to compare how well this year is going.

VIDEO ANALYSIS: Sample position evaluation using the Coach’s Eye app
Photo by Coach’s Eye

The uses of the Coach’s eye app go beyond the personal. Use it to create analysis videos to compare dressage tests for a presentation at your next dressage-club meeting or education night. Analyze publicly shared videos produced by other coaches and athletes. Compare good form to bad, or two views of a test—say, from the judges at C and B.

“I use it mostly to look at the horses in slow motion—often before and after sessions when introducing resistance bands for [equine] core-muscle activation. It’s really useful to show the owners,” equine sports therapist Nicole Rombach, PhD, of Petaluma, CA, says of the Coach’s eye app. “I’ll film the horse, then slow it down and we discuss what we see. I also use it for distance consultations and for follow-up. I can use Coach’s eye to draw and calculate angles, and point out asymmetries.”

Another option is to make use of the various subscription-based educational equestrian websites, some of which offer evaluation services. MyVirtualEventingCoach.com and DressageTrainingOnline.com are two that offer evaluations by licensed judges and top trainers. Watch renowned experts teaching and coaching on DressageClinic.com. take part in virtual competitions via DressageAnywhere.com, a British site that offers select FEI classes in addition to the British Dressage tests (great Britain’s national-level tests).

Go beyond virtual dressage education and harness the power of technology to obtain statistical analyses of your dressage tests. GlobalDressageAnalytics.com and MyDressageStats.com are two sites that give precise details on how your competitive life is progressing.

Using global Dressage Analytics, you can upload completed tests movement by movement, score by score. Where possible, GDA collects data from show organizers, which allows for comparative analysis. Basic analytics include performance trends, figure strengths and weaknesses, and forecasts of future performance based on past scores. You’ll see which movements are costing you the most points, what your potential is for improvement, and how to improve scores by taking into account historic data. You’ll receive a graph of best and worst scores, a comparison of your ride to competitors’, and a listing ranking your best figures and worst figures.

MyDressageStats.com compares like tests and calculates average scores for each movement. You’ll get recommendations of videos, articles, and exercise diagrams based on your two lowest scores in your most recent test. (Editor’s note: DressageClinic.com, Dressagetrainingonline.com, and MyDressageStats.com are USDF Member Perks partners. log in to the USDF website to access subscription
discount codes.)

Brave New World
We’re accustomed to seeing instant replay and other high-tech video applications in football and other high-profile sports, but until recently they weren’t widely used in the equestrian world. Technology is changing all that, and it’s not hard to see how statistical analysis and frame-by-frame feedback will become increasingly necessary as the sport of dressage becomes ever more sophisticated.

The internet, coupled with mobile technology, is also breaking down geographic and financial barriers to dressage education. As Caudill says of her video-training method, “This system is especially valuable if you are in the middle of nowhere, but also if you live where an instructor has only lower-level experience and you want to move ahead. I’m taking lessons with [Colorado-based trainer and ‘S’ dressage judge] Kristi Wysocki as I move up.

“Matt—my 15-year-old cow horse that I bought at an auction as a three-year old—and I have competed at Prix St. Georges and will take on Intermediate I this year,” Caudill says. “We’ve learned it all over the phone.”

Patti Schofer, of Petaluma, CA, is an award-winning freelance journalist and publicist as well as a USDF “L” program graduate with distinction. She has earned her USDF bronze medal and is half way to her silver.

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