With the emergence of online courses in every subject from financial planning to meditation, it becomes relevant to ask: How does distance education fit into the dressage rider’s toolbox? Is it even possible that distance learning can apply to a physical, hands-on pursuit like dressage? You might be surprised to find that distance education has expanded training options for dressage riders as well as learning opportunities in related subjects, yielding significant results for riders exploring these possibilities.
Have you been searching for a way to expand the training options available to you and your horse? Is there a trainer you would love to work with but who is located halfway around the world from you? Maybe you would like to study a subject related to dressage in order to complement your current training program, like sport psychology, biomechanics, personal fitness, equine nutrition or natural horsemanship. In any or all of these instances, pursuing a distance-education option can provide extensive possibilities and may just be your best way forward.
Defining Distance Education and Its Advantages
Dr. T.J. Rosandich is vice president of the United States Sports Academy (USSA), an accredited, sport-specific institution that offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs as well as certificate programs related to coaching and sports education. Most of USSA’s courses are offered through “distance education,” which Rosandich defines as a learning scenario where the instructor is in one location and the student is in another. In general, distance education has become popular in many subjects and disciplines because it affords the learner flexibility and control over her own learning and is typically cost effective.
Distance-education offerings specific to dressage can range from a one-time video coaching session with a trainer to ongoing mentoring and support provided via phone, video or Internet. Several dressage trainers, among them Karen Rohlf, Jane Savoie and Marijke de Jong of the Netherlands, have even developed more comprehensive distance- education offerings that are comparable to online college courses in length, structure and depth.
These courses include online materials to download (instructional video and texts) as well as interactive features, such as video coaching, live webinars, an interactive Facebook page for course participants and goal-setting and tracking tools. Nine dressage riders, including Megan Brauch, Lisa Howell and Shelby Hume, who have participated in at least six months of training via dressage distance-education courses associated the following advantages with their experiences:
• Learning from “the trainer of my dreams” despite geographical distance
• Training at home reduces travel time, expense and stress for horse and rider
• Training at one’s own pace, according to a timeline that one creates
• Developing a world-wide network of support with riders who share a similar training philosophy
• Opportunity to repeatedly access course materials in order to absorb instruction more deeply or review as it is needed
• Becoming a more thoughtful and independent learner, rider and trainer.
Rosandich points out that, depending on the model used, one of the greatest advantages of distance education is that it lends itself particularly well to a “transformational learning experience.” He explains, “The historic basis for education is that the all-knowing professor [or in the case of dressage, the trainer] gets up in front of a class and addresses students.” The student is responsible for absorbing and processing what is being taught as the instructor lectures. One might parallel this to a traditional dressage clinic format, where a rider and horse have the attention and direct instruction of a trainer for an hour, a day or a week, but then return home, perhaps to train in relative isolation until the next clinic.
In contrast, Rosandich explains, “In transformational learning, the instructor takes learning objectives and transforms them into a series of learning exercises that students go out and do. For example, the instructor would explain and/or demonstrate a concept and then would ask the student to replicate that from home using some medium, such as video. The student needs to post the video for the instructor, demonstrating that she has internalized the lesson [and can execute the skill or component without being directly coached while doing so].”
If there are gaps in the student’s execution of the exercise, the instructor provides feedback and the learning exercise is repeated. Transformational learning is effective because the student is required to absorb material deeply and independently in order to execute the exercise without direct, in-the-moment instruction.
Rohlf, an FEI-level trainer who has pioneered distance education for riders by developing multiple course offerings for her program, Dressage Naturally, utilizes a transformational model in her approach to distance education. Rohlf explains its value: “Whether you are riding alone at home or in the middle of a lesson, it all comes down to what is happening between you and your horse anyway. When riders learn through distance education, they are deciding to take responsibility for their progress and are empowering themselves.”
Strategies for Success in Distance Education
When considering distance education in any subject matter, it is vital for the potential student to begin with an honest self-assessment, which should include the following questions:
• Am I an independent learner or am I willing to work on becoming a more independent learner?
• Do I have access to the technology needed to complete the course? For example, in a course that requires video streaming, success can hinge on consistent access to reliable high-speed Internet.
• Do I have time to commit to the course?
• Am I ready to make the course a priority in my life?
Rosandich emphasizes, “Like any endeavor, success [in distance education] will really depend on the student. A student who is ready for distance education is the individual who possesses a certain measure of self-discipline, is a self-starter and is intuitive and inquisitive enough about the subject matter to do this more independently versus the person who needs more structure.”
Once a course begins, an important strategy for success is to fully utilize the multifaceted support systems any well-developed distance-education course will offer. Joanne Silverman, a USDF bronze medalist who has participated in distance education for dressage, natural horsemanship and other subjects, suggests that it is especially important to take advantage of course support when one is struggling. Silverman advises, “Take advantage of the video coaching and do not get caught up in waiting to get the perfect video! The point of submitting a video is to get help with what you are struggling with—not to show you are already perfect.”
Silverman adds that an important source of support can be connecting with a local friend or trainer who is familiar with the methods being taught via distance education in order to have ground support when needed. Through distance education, Silverman has also formed virtual friendships with like-minded riders from all over the world whom she turns to for ongoing support.
Commitment is another major element of success. Brauch has trained with de Jong for more than two years via distance education and is now a trainee instructor for de Jong’s method, Straightness Training. Brauch advises, “If you embrace the philosophy of the teaching, don’t let challenges that arise in the process prevent you from continuing. We all experience setbacks and challenges with our horses and our riding whether we are working with a distance-education model or with a trainer by our side.”
Hume is a long-time student of Rohlf’s and has trained extensively with her both “live” and through Rohlf’s “Virtual Arena” distance-education courses. Hume, now recognized by Rohlf as an endorsed clinician, emphasizes: “A rider needs to make sure she is ready to commit to this as one of her life priorities. Yes, we need to balance this with other life commitments, but you will not capitalize on all that is being offered if you are not ready to make this new endeavor a top priority.”
Carolyn McEvitt, who has trained her Connemara mare from basic groundwork through Training Level guided by de Jong’s distance-education course, emphasizes the connection between commitment and goal-setting. McEvitt sees both as central to her success with training via distance education. She explains, “It’s important to know what your goals are. They serve as your base that you will revisit continually, checking in to see if you are staying true to your plan or if you might have to revise your goals. When you find a method or instructor that matches your philosophy, it is much easier to remain committed to both the learning program and your own goals. The program should then be easy to work with simply because it naturally supports your beliefs and, most importantly, it should enable you to experience success.”
Choosing a Distance- Education Plan
Dr. Bret Simmermacher, chair of sports coaching for USSA, provides important advice for selecting among distance-education options, no matter the subject matter: “Like a more traditional learning scenario, in distance education it all boils down to how comfortable a person is with the individual expert providing the training. Ask yourself: How well do you feel the expert can get through to you?” He identifies this as perhaps the most important consideration when choosing a distance-learning course or coach.
Simmermacher suggests that potential students of distance education also consider the following:
• What is the cost of the course? The more individualized the instruction and the more direct attention from the expert, the more expensive the course will likely be.
• What is the promised outcome of the course? Is it primarily results-oriented as most dressage-coaching scenarios would be? In the case of a related subject, such as sport psychology, will you receive a certificate or degree?
• What is the time frame and commitment expected for the course? Are there allowances for extensions? For example, if you begin a six-month course but you or your horse should be injured, will you have the opportunity to extend or repeat the course and at what additional cost?
• What is the policy for refund if you begin a course and decide after the first few sessions that it is not right for you or your horse?
• What technology is required to access course materials and complete course assignments?
• Are there any special facility requirements for completing course assignments? For example, in a distance-education offering geared toward dressage, will you need access to a large dressage arena with letters or will any working arena space suffice?
• What prerequisites does the course have? What prior knowledge or level of training is assumed?
While these guidelines apply to choosing a distance-education course in almost any discipline, there are also essential considerations specific to choosing a dressage trainer for a distance-education program. Judy Walker, a riding instructor who has participated in distance education for more than a year, points out: “Just as when choosing a trainer to study with in the flesh, you should investigate the teaching skills of a trainer before signing up for an online course. Ask yourself: Am I willing to place myself and my horse in the hands of this person?”
Lisa Howell, who has trained with Rohlf via distance education for more than two years, stresses, “Research the distance-learning program you want and make sure it is taught by a competent person who has the skill and experience to train horses through the level to which you aspire. Make sure the course's trainer has an organized program that is well thought-out. Make sure there is plenty of support available to guide you along the way in case you have questions or troubles.” In short, along with realistic goal-setting and commitment, thorough research and preparation are vital factors in determining a student’s success in distance education for dressage or any other subject matter.
Trainer, Where Art Thou?
Most riders who have received formal riding instruction will have experienced this scenario: You have been working hard for about 20 minutes at getting your horse to perform an exercise. Your trainer began with an explanation, but has become increasingly frustrated as you and your horse fail to execute the movement in the way she envisions. Now the trainer really assesses your aids and asks you to use them differently or more firmly. The horse still does not understand or resists and everyone starts to get tense. Your trainer sighs and suggests, “Why don’t you come to the center and dismount? I’ll get on and try.”
In distance education for dressage, a significant consideration is that this scenario—the trainer taking over and riding the horse—will never happen in live time.
The absence of this option can be an obvious drawback of distance education, most notably in the more extreme instance that there is a safety issue related to a horse being beyond the rider’s current ability. Even when this level of support is not necessary for safety reasons, it can certainly be beneficial for a horse who is learning a movement to have the advantage of a trainer’s more practiced aids at times.
In other instances it can be eye-opening for a developing rider to see that a horse is capable of understanding and performing a certain movement when aids are applied correctly by the more experienced trainer.
But consider: What are the potential advantages of the trainer not being there, live in this moment, asking the rider to dismount so the trainer can school the horse? The plusses relate to that concept of transformational learning, to which distance education lends itself so very well. Without the trainer there to make this decision, the rider must begin to pose questions: Am I missing something in my technical understanding of the movement? Am I applying my aids inaccurately? Is the horse struggling for some other reason? Is it worthwhile to keep trying now? What question, exactly, do I need to pose to my trainer in order to gain the understanding I need to be able to work through this with my horse? What do my instincts tell me?
In short, the enormous pro of transformational distance education is that it compels the rider to think reflectively and independently about what is happening and how to improve what is happening, a crucial component to developing the instincts necessary for progress in any level of riding. Unlike a lesson scenario, where the well-meaning and even highly-effective trainer can easily be tempted to micromanage the rider, distance education requires the rider to develop intuition and independent thinking. For the rider who is prepared for its challenges, distance education can present unique learning opportunities, supplement more traditional training experiences and expand possibilities. Ultimately, riders may learn to trust themselves more deeply with their horses, yielding a more positive working relationship and a deeper grasp of concept and execution.