Online Extra

Virtual Lessons

April 5, 2011

Using technology to take lessons from anyone, anywhere in the world.

Journal photos.

By Andrea Caudill for The American Quarter Horse Journal

Sometimes I feel like I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere.

I am an avid rider, and I enjoy learning to improve my horsemanship and riding ability. That requires taking lessons from knowledgeable horsemen who can help me improve as a rider and help me train my horse more effectively. There are a number of great instructors locally, but there is a dearth of instruction for one of my chosen disciplines, dressage. With gas approaching $4 a gallon and the nearest instructor eight hours away (round trip), what’s a gal to do?

While discussing the conundrum over dinner one night, my techie boyfriend helped me hatch an idea – what if we could use technology to get lessons from someone who lives 2,000 miles away? There are programs that offer online educations (see sidebar), but part of what makes riding lessons so effective is the immediate feedback that helps you feel what is correct.

Virtual Lessons

Obviously, the ideal situation is having a good instructor that can help you face to face. But if that is impossible, given the distance, how could we put together the next best thing – a live virtual lesson?

Technology is a great thing, and having someone who can figure out the mysteries of said technology is an even better thing. Here’s how we figured out the process (the technical specifications are listed below in “Requirements”):

The process starts with video so the virtual instructor can see the rider. We chose to use Skype, a free service that allows you to stream live video. Both rider and instructor need to download and use Skype to get the video working. A video camera connected as a webcam allows for zooming in and out so the instructor can see clearly. We used my laptop and mobile wireless Internet, allowing us to take the setup to the barn. Make sure your computer has adequate processing power or it will cause the video to become poor and hard to see.

It is important to have a solid high-speed Internet connection so that the video quality is good. If the connection is too slow, the video will be choppy or impossible to see. If you’re not sure what your upload or download speed is, you can click here for a free test.

The American Quarter Horse Journal offers innovative, helpful stories like this every month. It’s your source for great showing advice, training tips, in-depth health articles and more.

Once the video is up and working, the final technology puzzle piece is audio. Skype allows free phone calls as well as video, but I found using my cell phone to be the easiest method. Since I’m riding, I can’t hold a phone up to my ear, so I merely connected my Bluetooth headset and called my instructor on the phone.

Obviously it’s a requirement to have help. A still camera is possible, but would be difficult for the instructor to see when you’re at the far end of the arena. In my case, my boyfriend mans the video camera, keeping me zoomed in and in frame as I ride around the arena, allowing the instructor to see what I’m doing. The upside is, your help doesn’t need horse experience – just an hour to assist and a steady zoom hand.

The final step is finding an instructor. The instructor’s technology requirements are simply a good Internet connection, a phone and the patience to teach a rider over the computer.

The dressage instructor I found lives in Florida. She is familiar with Quarter Horses, adult amateur riders and technology, so it seems like a great fit for me! She was willing to roll with the technology issues, such as sometimes the video feed jumps for a few moments, and the camera can’t move to different locations in the arena. She is also able to accommodate both my full-time work schedule and the time difference between our respective residences, another important consideration when scheduling the virtual lessons. I send lesson payment via PayPal, the virtual equivalent to handing her a check after the lesson.

With this technology, it would be possible to get lessons from anywhere in the world. It has a great potential, and I am excited to see how it develops. I hope it will open educational doors for me, and I hope it works for you, too!

Online Educations

There are a number of at-home education options available, all of which require a membership or subscription. These are a few, although you should check with your favorite trainer to find out if they have others we might not be familiar with.

The United States Dressage Federation recently launched “e-TRAK” online learning, which gives access to educational videos and articles to its members. Along a similar vein is Dressage Training Online, which offers educational videos to subscribers.

AQHA Professional Horseman and reining trainer Tom McCutcheon offers a similar program for reining training at his Video Horse Help.

Dressage trainer Jane Savoie offers a home study course she calls the “Guide to Training a Happy Horse.”

AQHA Professional Horseman Al Dunning’s Team AD International offers an online learning service with not only educational videos, but also a program where subscribers can submit videos for him to critique and offer personalized suggestions.

Technical Requirements

For Rider

  • Laptop running Windows XP or Windows 7. A computer with a dual core processor of 1.8ghz or more and 2G or more of RAM. The computer needs to have firewall exceptions for Skype and be free of viruses and spyware. The virtual lessons have not been tested with Macs or other operating systems, although a similar computer would probably work fine.
  • A video camera with audio/video jacks and optical zoom. I use a Sony Bloggie.
  • A USB audio/video capture dongle adapter. Available on Amazon.com for less than $10. The USB goes in the computer, the A/V cables go in the camera. The computer will sense it as a webcam.
  • Reliable Internet connection with upload speeds of 768k or more.
  • Skype (a free-to-download and use program)
  • Bluetooth hands-free headset and compatible cell phone. I use a Jawbone (to help with wind noise).
  • An on-the-ground assistant capable of operating the video camera

For Instructor

  • A computer with a firewall exception for Skype and free of viruses or spyware.
  • Skype (free-to-download and use)
  • High-speed, reliable Internet access. High speed means the download speed is 1mbps or more.
  • Phone