Many of us are drawn to dressage, at least in part, because we love the time-honored traditions of the sport. Horses are trained using classical methods. Riders dress in traditional apparel. Often, classical musical scores accompany our freestyles. We describe the barn as “our place to get away from the world” and we mean that in the best possible way! And while there is a good argument to be made for leaving your smartphone in the car while you’re at the barn, experienced trainers also say the use of technology—apps, gadgets and devices—can improve and enhance your approach to riding and training.
Dr. Hilary Clayton is a USDF gold medalist and veterinarian who has explored how technology can help horses and riders. She was the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University for almost 20 years and her extensive body of work includes scientific research on equine biomechanics and lameness, especially as they relate to dressage. According to Clayton, “When I retired from the university three years ago, I knew I wanted to continue exploring how modern technology could be of direct benefit for riders and trainers as well as the horses.”
Jordan Rich is a USDF silver medalist and also a “tech guru” who minored in technology entrepreneurship in college and has a background in musical production. In addition to training clients and horses, Rich offers audio/visual and barn design services. He’s the resident trainer at Locks Edge, a state-of-the-art facility in Poolesville, Maryland, that he also designed. According to Rich, “Being innovative with technology can make riders not only more effective but also more self-sufficient in their pursuit of dressage. For a lot of riders who train at home or in relative isolation, getting a second person to assist with training can be the hardest part, whether that’s the trainer to provide feedback, someone to video your ride or someone to adjust music for your freestyle. If you can correctly select and use technology, this can take away some of the dependence on a second person and that allows you to work more independently toward your goals with your horse.”
Michael Matson is an Adult Amateur rider and has competed in freestyles at First Level and pas de deux. He’s the creator of Equimusic, a free online database that catalogs music for freestyles. A past member of the USDF Freestyle Committee, Matson is known for his popular “Ride to Music” clinics, which he describes as “jam session clinics” designed to help riders discover the appropriate walk, trot and canter music for their horses. Matson believes access to the right technology can allow music to become a more integrated part of riding not only for freestyle design, but also for training purposes.
Ironically, the highly traditional sport of dressage lends itself to the incorporation of technology in unique ways. Aesthetic elements of horse and rider performance make video camera and sound/musical equipment especially relevant to dressage riders, while the importance of “feel” can make sensor-based apps a particularly useful supplement to traditional training.
The Video Camera as a Training Tool
According to Rich, “As a competitive sport, dressage is both detail-oriented and visually based, so anything that gives you the ability to really see and critique the important subtle details in your own riding is valuable. This is where the right video equipment can make a big difference.” Like many riders, Rich sees the use of video as a crucial tool for dressage riders, emphasizing that it can be helpful for all the following reasons:
• Positional awareness and corrections for the rider
• Critiquing the horse’s way of going
• Tracking progress of horse and rider over time
Rich says that ideally a rider will have access to both arena mirrors and video, as the two provide different types of visual feedback. According to Rich, “When I watch myself and my horse in a mirror, I might have time to focus on one element—my position or the horse’s hind-end engagement or his head and neck carriage. As I’m coming toward a mirror or glancing from the corner of my eye, I don’t typically have enough time to look at all of it. So I can easily miss details that relate to the big picture of how the horse is going and how I’m influencing him. With video, you can watch the same footage five times over. You can say to yourself, this time I’m going to watch for my position, next time for the horse’s level of engagement.” Rich advocates that watching footage multiple times can help riders make important realizations about what is and is not working in their rides. While mirrors may allow the rider to make a more immediate fix, video allows the same rider to look for deeper solutions and initiate longer-term change.
Rich says any video equipment—from the camera on your cellphone to the most sophisticated camera—is undoubtedly valuable to riders. However, to maximize the advances in contemporary technology, he most appreciates camera equipment that allows the rider to wear a “tag” so that the camera tracks where the horse is going in the arena and is able to capture the entire ride from the best possible angles. For example, in the arena at Locks Edge, the video camera can be set up on a tripod on the arena ledge, and the rider wears an electronic tag that looks like a watch around his wrist. When the system is activated, the camera follows the tag and captures the horse and rider wherever they are in the arena, intuitively seeking the best camera angle. According to Rich, “Camera systems that come with a tag feature allow riders to be extremely self-sufficient and provide optimal footage.”
In terms of selecting a video camera, Rich says consumers need to take a look at their individual situation and what they want to get from the equipment. He advises consumers who are contemplating the purchase of a camera and tag system to consider the following when comparing products:
• Will I primarily use this camera in an indoor or outdoor arena? Is the camera better suited to one or the other?
• What is the camera’s range? Is the range long enough that I can set the camera at one end of the arena and still reliably capture my entire ride?
• What features does the camera offer in terms of videography? Can it pan, tilt and zoom to capture my ride from different angles?
• What quality of footage will the camera offer?
• What is the warranty policy associated with this equipment and what type of technical support does the manufacturer offer? (Barns and arenas can be difficult environments for long-term use of technical equipment due to weather, dust and accidents, so it’s important to understand what support is available to protect one’s investment.)
Rich offers an important training tip—save and catalog (by date, movement or test) your video footage. He says this can provide clients with a dynamic method of tracking their progress, which can be especially important for dressage riders. “Dressage lacks the cut-and-dry element of some other equestrian sports,” he says. “Therefore, it can be difficult to measure progress in dressage, especially when you’re encountering challenges with a horse or not moving up the levels quite the way you planned. For example, it can be hard to track in real time something like the evolution of a shoulder-in from essentially an exaggerated shoulder-fore to a true shoulder-in correctly executed on three clear tracks. So if you can look back at video footage from a month ago and a year ago, it can often make you more aware of you and your horse’s progress. You can look at a video and say, ‘wow, I didn’t think I was getting better but I can see the progress and changes.’” Rich believes that noting progress in this way can help riders stay positive and forward-focused in their approach to training, which helps offset some of the inherent frustrations of participating in such a detail-driven sport.
Music and Sound
Whether one is training in a backyard arena or at an elite facility, access to music is a must-have in the development of musical freestyles. According to Matson, the first freestyle clinic he attended was with Leigh Ann Hazel-Groux, who has a lifelong background in music in addition to a love of dressage and the musical freestyle. She has helped others develop their freestyles and co-authored the book Dancing With Your Horse. “Leigh Ann had a notebook filled with musical scores listed according to their beats per minute (BPM) and a boom box. Her ideas about how to catalog music really got me thinking, and this was just around the time that the Internet was becoming accessible to many. Having a scientific background, I decided to create an online database of songs for musical freestyles categorized by BPM.”
Matson suggests that utilizing his database can make developing a musical freestyle more accessible for riders —and more fun—but it does involve the use of technology in several steps. He also suggests riders download a metronome app for their smartphone and use the app to determine the horse’s BPM at walk, trot and canter. Once that has been decided, the rider can search for music by the BPM of each gait and use music-editing software (he recommends Audacity) to cut and paste the music together, fade in and out of the musical scores and even alter the tempo of the music just a bit if necessary. (Matson says altering more than plus or minus 4 beats per minute will make the song sound strange and become distracting to the listener.)
In this way, the science of the right technology can make all the difference in producing the art of a well-designed musical freestyle. Like music, he says, horses have rhythm and tempo. According to Matson, “Once you feel what it’s like to ride a horse to music that fits the horse, you can use this music for three main purposes. First, you can just enjoy riding to the music. Second, you can get to work on creating your freestyle with a trainer or freestyle designer. Or you can use this music as a training tool. Once we have music that fits, the rider can better feel the horse’s rhythm, when he’s losing his rhythm or needs adjustment. On days when horse and rider are struggling with this, they can put on the music to help re-establish tempo and rhythm.”
In agreement with Matson that music can improve the training experience for horse and rider, Rich considers the installation of the right arena sound system to be a major consideration in the design of training facilities. He explains that a sound system is also a significant factor in the clinic experience that a facility is able to offer clinicians, riders and auditors/guests. According to Rich, “When we designed the system for Locks Edge, a major focus was to have a system that was really clear for clinics.” It allows the clinician to wear a headset that gives a direct feed of the audio to a video camera, providing especially clear audio on clinic videos as the sound is traveling directly from the clinician’s microphone to the video stream (as opposed to the video camera picking up what sound it can from the air). The same microphone also runs directly to the observation room, so that on a hot or cold day, auditors can watch from a climate-controlled room and still hear clearly.
Innovation and creativity can allow facilities to install a sound system that is affordable and still provides a high-quality sound experience. Rich suggests that all components of arena sounds systems should be built using outdoor-rated equipment (even in an indoor arena) so that the equipment will not pose a fire hazard if it gets wet and will be resilient to exposure to moisture and dust in general.
Apps Can Help You Develop Feel
According to Clayton, “We live in a world of technology—but I’m far from addicted to apps. I only want the ones that truly are helpful to me, helpful to my horse, easy to use and inexpensive. If you’ve got mirrors and/or a coach with you all the time, then you don’t necessarily need some of the apps that are available for riders. But if you can’t afford mirrors, there are inexpensive apps on the market that can give you some of the information you need about your ride. If you are someone who doesn’t have access to a trainer for long periods of time, you can perhaps use technology to help supplement your training.”
Clayton recognizes that apps, and perhaps in particular those that involve the use of sensors, can be a valuable tool in helping dressage riders develop feel for the minutiae that allow progress. Clayton says, “We have to be open to technology that can make life better for the horses especially, and maybe for the riders, too.” In her own riding, she benefited from the use of Core X Equine, a device that attaches to the small of the back, displaying and recording real-time posture readings on a smartphone app. The app provides visual readouts, physical vibrations and audio clues for the rider, all of which support the rider’s development of an aligned pelvis and ideal riding form, which Clayton has found helpful both in her own riding and in instructing others.
Clayton’s positive experience with sensor-based products led her to develop her own app and device called the Vert. The Vert attaches to the crownpiece of a bridle and contains sensors to indicate whether the horse is above, at or behind the vertical. Clayton explains that the Vert is by no means a substitution for human knowledge about correct head carriage. In fact, riders (if necessary with the help of an experienced trainer) must initially set the device to their own horse’s correct vertical position. Clayton emphasizes that there’s more than one factor that will influence whether a horse is on the vertical correctly. Obviously, she says, correct carriage begins in the horse’s hindquarters. But, according to Clayton, “If we think just about the angle of the poll itself, well, that is something you can’t see from where you’re sitting in the saddle. From above, it looks different on every horse.”
Clayton emphasizes devices and apps that work with sensors should be regarded as learning tools. When a rider first begins working with such a tool, Clayton advises using it frequently to get a better idea about how the horse (or rider) looks and feels when he’s correct. From there, Clayton suggests gradually reducing the use of the app and device but still employing it only from time to time as a way of checking in on and monitoring progress. Clayton says, “I have to make the point that we’re trying to enhance, rather than replace, the rider’s development of feel.”
Clayton believes that carefully selected technology can improve a rider’s experience and enhance the horse’s well-being under saddle. She says, “Dressage is a very traditional sport, but life moves on. We need to be open to new possibilities.” According to Rich, “Technology can allow riders to work more independently toward their goals. In a way, being able to work more independently can sometimes allow a deeper (or just different) learning experience, can allow the rider and horse to process differently, can allow for a more internal creative process and can also simply be more practical and/or affordable.” So while our time with our horses may be an escape from the real world at times, there are also ways that real-world technology can enhance our time with horses.