Coronavirus shutdowns have you unable to get to the barn? Here’s how some dressage pros are keeping the lessons and the learning going.
By Amber Heintzberger
From her farm in Ringoes, New Jersey, dressage trainer Amy Howard turns on her Pixem camera and logs in the owner of the horse she’s preparing to ride. With stables across many states closed to visitors, including horse owners, as part of the widespread measures aimed at combating the COVID-19 pandemic, Howard is using technology to allow her clients to watch their horses train virtually.
In Howard’s system, the horse owner logs in to the Pixem via smartphone. As Howard rides, a sensor in a specially paired watch acts as a tracking beacon, guiding the camera to follow her and the horse as they move around the arena.
Howard is one of many dressage enthusiasts who has sought virtual alternatives to traditional in-person dressage training and instruction in this era of unprecedented shutdowns and isolation. Here’s a look at some of the ways technology is helping them stay on track with their horses and riding.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak shut down most face-to-face interaction, Howard was using the Pixem to take lessons with her Netherlands-based coach, Marcel Timmermans. With Timmermans also stuck at home now, Howard is taking daily lessons on her own competition horse, Florelli.
“I bought the Pixem camera in August and have been using it since December,” Howard says. “It does take a bit of getting used to. It also really needs another person sitting with the camera. With so many people using the internet for streaming lately, I’ve been having problems. I use it three times a day for three hours at a stretch, and it needs recharging in between.”
The system, while helpful, isn’t perfect, says Howard: “Sometimes, all of a sudden, it drops the call, or Marcel won’t be able to see me any more because the app will freeze. Lately I’ve been having more problems than I had before, but it’s pretty good.” One quibble with the Pixem is that the company is based in France, and Howard has had trouble with customer service when she has an issue. “I’ve reached an answering machine, and it’s all in French, and then nobody calls back,” she said. “I finally reached them through Facebook.”
In eastern North Carolina, adult-amateur rider Elizabeth Pope has been recording her sessions for the past eight years. She began by filming herself riding in clinics so that she could review her lessons later. When her trainer, Fallon Blackburn, and Blackburn’s US Marine husband got stationed in Japan for three years, Pope began taking remote lessons.
“I purchased my first Pixio videotaping system,” says Pope, “and asked Fallon if we could do distance coaching. I also signed up for Karen Rohlf’s Dressage Naturally online program and have been doing that for about three years now. Both of these experiences have been incredible for the wealth of knowledge and overwhelming positive energy. It’s a joy to experience.”
Even with Blackburn back in the States, Pope continues to use the Pixio system, as the trainer is based in Virginia.
“Under normal conditions, I can now have live lessons with her about twice a month,” Pope says. “I supplement that with video footage posted on YouTube and coaching.”
(Pixem and Pixio are sister “robotic cameraman” systems from the French company Move ’n See. Pixio, the original robot, connects to a video camera, or to a smartphone or tablet after a compatibility upgrade. Pixem pairs with a smartphone or tablet. See the “Resources” sidebar for contact information.)
Pope records her rides and then sends the videos to Blackburn to review. She uses video-editing software (currently Movavi Video Suite 18) to edit her videos. She says she tried connecting her phone to the Pixio but had issues with both an iPhone and an iPad shutting off mid-lesson. Still, she says, “I may go back to it, as this would be amazing: real lessons in real time with instructors anywhere in the world!”
Of the technology, Pope says: “The incredible thing about all this is that you don’t need live lessons to learn. Sending video for coaching, then applying corrections and videotaping again for further coaching and study, really works. I find that editing software provides the opportunity to study in slow motion, to put together compilations over time to see progress with concepts, and to match what I see on video with what I feel riding.”
The Video-Conferencing Method
When USDF-certified instructor and FEI-level competitor Eliza Sydnor closed her Snow Camp, North Carolina, boarding and lesson facility due to the COVID-19 outbreak, she knew that she wanted to continue teaching somehow. For advice, she reached out to the Washington state-based dressage pro Alyssa Pitts, who has been taking lessons virtually with British Olympic gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin for several years. Pitts has a tech-savvy client who helped her figure out a setup, and they wrote down instructions that they shared with Sydnor.
“I’ve taught about five remote lessons now,” Sydnor says. “It takes a little getting used to from my end; I’m so used to teaching in real life. The picture quality varies depending on the cell-phone service at their place, but once I get used to it it’s fine. Even if it’s not the best quality, I can see the topline of the horse, I can see the rider’s position, and I can see if the horse is going forward or not.”
So far, Sydnor has used lower-tech methods than the robotic systems—usually Apple’s FaceTime video-chat app—noting that any platform with video capability, such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp, would work. “The hardest part,” she says, “has been getting a second person to agree to video for you.”
Sydnor’s method is a two-step process. She places a traditional voice phone call to the rider, who wears earbuds in order to be able to hear Sydnor’s instructions during the lesson. At the same time, Sydnor and the helper initiate a video chat so that Sydnor can watch the rider on her iPad.
“Of course a Pixio or Pixem would take some of that out of it, but that’s not really an option for every rider,” Sydnor says. “I find that most people already have a smartphone and probably a tablet, too.”
Another must to make this method work: a good internet connection. “My farm is in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t have [wifi] in my arena,” says Sydnor. “If you don’t have internet, it’s a nonstarter.”
Sydnor’s embrace of technology has even brought her a couple of new students, she says—riders who live too far away to work with her in person, or whose work schedules are too inflexible.
“Repurposing” a Security Camera
USDF-certified instructor, FEI-level trainer/competitor, and USDF L graduate Hilary Moore Hebert began teaching remotely several years ago as an alternative to in-person lessons when she was out of town.
Even before the pandemic hit, “I’ve had this long-term goal of finding ways to have technology involved in the dressage world,” says Hebert. “I work with Shannon Dueck, and she’s in Florida, so it’s a two-way street. [The technology] allows me to take lessons from people who geographically aren’t near me. I’d love to do clinics with people in Europe and things like that. I was hoping to start doing remote clinics this spring, where the clinician was remotely teaching us, and then everything shut down.”
At her farm in Maryland, Hebert had high-speed internet installed in her indoor arena. Near the router is a Nest security camera that affords a panoramic view. From her smartphone or tablet, she can zoom in to see a horse and rider up close. And when she links her phone to a television, she has a big screen on which she can better see details.
“When people want to do a lesson, I call them on their cell phone,” Hebert says. “Because we have the wifi and the Nest on all the time I can review their rides, and if you have access to the account you can just review the footage. Even if they aren’t scheduled for a lesson, I can help them in real time and there’s no setup. One thing is, you really need high-speed internet to make it work.”
According to Hebert, prospective Nest users have the choice of purchasing a Nest camera and downloading the companion app for free, then creating an account through which the footage plays in real time; or of buying an account that allows the user to do playbacks.
“The camera is maybe $300,” she says. “You plug it into an outlet, and it’s magnetized, so I stick it to a steel beam. You start up the app, and once you set it up, you could teach a lesson in half an hour.”
At the moment, with her barn closed, Hebert has stopped teaching in her arena and is working all of the horses at her farm in a limited capacity. She has 15 horses on property, 10 of them in partial or full training, and she says she was able to supervise all of the riding on her farm while she was in Florida over the winter. One student, who was showing Intermediate I prior to Hebert’s departure last fall, “was essentially schooling the Grand Prix by the time I came home, all with my helping her remotely.”
Instead of taking virtual lessons, most of Hebert’s students are currently “submitting videos to me for a ‘fix-a-test’-type situation, and then I critique their test,” she says. “I watch the video and score a test, to have something written down, and then call them and go over it to explain what I mean. I also e-mail them a few paragraphs to address issues and talk about ways to fix them. It’s a little tricky with internet speed to do a live video lesson in some cases.”
Nest cameras have come in handy for other purposes during the shutdown, as well. Hebert used it to enable her veterinarian in Florida to watch a horse jog, and she knows people who use theirs for tack-room security or to view their pastures, she says. The camera detects motion, so if Hebert were away from her arena and someone started riding, she would receive an alert and could check on them, even if she’s not there. The device also monitors temperature; if Hebert’s barn gets hotter than 90 degrees, she gets an alert on her phone.
Pivoting to Online: Creating Virtual Educational (and Income) Opportunities
The forced separations among instructors and students have prompted a number of dressage pros to get more serious about utilizing online platforms to expand their educational reach, not to mention helping to replace lost income.
“I’d thought about doing this for years, and now I have no excuses!” laughs Sydnor, who recently launched a YouTube series about starting a young horse under saddle. She’s also given a couple of educational talks using Facebook Live. To help make up for lost lesson income, Sydnor created a private Facebook group called Eliza Sydnor Dressage Students. Users pay a monthly fee to access daily posts and educational content.
And no, you don’t need to be super-skilled to do these things, Sydnor reassures.
“I’m not the most tech-savvy person, and I had to figure some stuff out, like getting the video right side up!” she says. “I’m just trying to be creative, and for my students who can’t ride, they’re getting some education somehow.”
In the hard-hit state of Connecticut, Ann Guptill’s dressage barn had already been closed for a few weeks when we talked to her in early April. She has been using FaceTime to connect with the owners of the horses she has in training, and she’s also used the app to teach a client who lives out of state. She conducted a virtual fix-a-test session with another student who posted a video to YouTube.
“A lot of people are pretty isolated right now,” says Guptill, “so it’s a way to stay connected.”
Like Sydnor, Guptill has turned to Facebook Groups as an educational and income adjunct. Those who pay the membership fee to access her private group, Virtual Dressage with Ann Guptill, can enjoy weekly discussions on various topics. She’s planned unmounted lessons, such as lectures on the pyramid of training. Clients have also requested sessions on horsemanship and grooming topics, she says.
“I came up with the idea because my yoga instructor is doing a live video feed through FaceTime,” says Guptill. “It’s a class I’ve done for years, and hearing her talk to us through the video was almost like being there. It’s not the same as being live, but it’s the next best thing.
“So many people are working from home or quarantined,” Guptill continues. “I plan to set a time once a week that works for most people. The nice thing about Facebook is, people can still watch the video in the private group at any time. I’d welcome anyone to join it.”
After consulting with a few colleagues, Sydnor decided to maintain her usual lesson prices for remote sessions.
“They agreed, it’s still your time,” Sydnor says. “When I’m done, I write a little summary of the lesson. If there’s anything that I couldn’t address because it was a video, like adjusting the rider’s leg, I try to find a helpful graphic to illustrate the point. People have been really appreciative of that.”
Many riders, of course, are frustrated that they can’t ride during the shutdown. Even in normal circumstances, there will be the occasional student or horse owner who can’t ride or come to the barn for some reason. To all of these enthusiasts, Guptill says, “Staying connected with the trainer is very important, however you can.”
“I think people definitely still need to have their goals,” she continues, “and think about how to attain them while they’re not riding. You don’t want to feel like you’re floundering. One option is to have the trainer keep the horse going, and you should do some kind of alternate fitness [program] so you can get on and ride the horse when you can. I would recommend people not lose sight of long-term goals.”
The current virtual emphasis actually plays into many riders’ wheelhouse.
“A lot of people are visual learners,” Guptill says, “and watching the trainer work the horse can help them understand what’s required of the horse and how it’s done. It’s an opportunity for visual learners, for sure. Once you figure out what works for you, it doesn’t take a lot of extra time, and it’s what we need to do to stay connected with our clients through this time period.”
For more information about the devices, apps, and online resources mentioned in this article, visit their websites.
Movavi Video Suite: Movavi.com
Dressage Naturally: DressageNaturally.net
Facebook Messenger: Messenger.com
Facebook Groups: https://www.facebook.com/groups/