Online coaching allows riders to maximize their time and skills with help from top trainers who might otherwise be inaccessible.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the horse trainer of your dreams was only a short drive down the road from you and your horse? Or, if every time you wanted a lesson you didn’t have to put fuel in the truck, load up the trailer with tack and equipment, fill a hay bag, hook up the trailer, load your horse and then drive an hour or more?

The reality is that many folks don’t live near a trainer or coach who can improve their horsemanship. It often isn’t practical or financially feasible to send their horses many miles away only to be ridden by a trainer or to haul long-distance for a mere hour lesson.

Virtual riding lessons are a great way to improve horsemanship.
Virtual riding lessons — sending a video electronically to a trainer for feedback — are a convenient way to improve horsemanship. Photo by Ross Hecox

But thanks to information available online, help is just a red “record” button away. Riders can now get one-on-one help from some of the world’s leading trainers through online videos and coaching. A variety of programs exist. Some require submission of a well-shot video to a trainer who then critiques the ride and offers commentary and guidance. Other websites simply provide access to instructional videos featuring other riders. But all can be used in conjunction with an in-person lesson, training books and magazines, and DVD sets.

For professional horsemen, the convenience of the Internet increases their accessibility to riders and horses. All they have to do is review an at-home or show video and provide constructive criticism.

The only thing simpler than finding a virtual coach is submitting your video. (Check out these tips before recording your ride.) So charge your smartphone, saddle your horse and hit “record.”

Personalized Programs

Rynde Thurston’s admiration for champion reining, cutting and cow horse trainer Al Dunning began long before the World Wide Web was mainstream. The Utah native grew up reading Dunning’s training books and studying his videos, but that was the closest she could get to coaching from the notable horseman.

Cowgirl taking video of girl on horse
Enlist the help of a friend to record a ride. Photo by Ross Hecox

“I’ve always loved and respected Al Dunning and his techniques, even when I was really young,” says Thurston. “But he’s far away from me. He’s in Arizona and I’m in Utah. And when he started Team AD, I thought, ‘This is a perfect way for me to learn from somebody who has been there and done that.’”

Dunning created Team AD about 10 years ago as a digital platform to share video clips of him riding, with helpful voiceovers synced with his videos. But he found the site fell flat in terms of content and he wanted to create a way to connect with riders.

With the help of his daughter, McKenzie Parkinson, and business manager Kelsey Roderique, he developed two coaching systems under the Team AD name. The first is a video coaching program in which users can upload a video of themselves riding at home or at a show, and Dunning will narrate the video with a critique on riding, tack and equipment, and showmanship. Users can purchase a single lesson or a set of three.

“I have people send me videos of reining, cutting, in the show pen or at home, barrel horses and ranch riders,” says Dunning, a judge for the National Reined Cow Horse Association and a multiple American Quarter Horse Association world champion.

“Sometimes they just want to know from the judge’s perspective what they can do better. Others want to win and revamp what they have. Is my horse good enough? Is my outfit good enough? And some just want to know about their showmanship. But I kind of give them it all.”

The other Team AD program is the Skill Assessment, in which Thurston enrolled. It’s a step-by-step curriculum that consists of 53 skills Dunning believes a well-rounded horse and rider ought to be able to perform. Riders send one video at a time as they attempt each skill, and Dunning judges the video on a pass-or-fail basis and offers pointers on how to master the skill.

“In the first skill, you have to show how to pull your reins properly,” says Dunning. “You have to know how to pull your reins properly because your horse is not going to respond until you pull properly. The second one is riding posture and how you use your feet in rhythm with your horse at all three gaits. Then we talk about ‘doubling a horse’ and drawing their head around, and then things like backing, looking at head position, and rhythm of the feet.”

It took Thurston, a busy mom with two children, about eight months and two horses to complete the Skill Assessment program. She found time to record herself riding between driving her kids to school, keeping up the family’s small cattle and horse ranch, and helping her kids with their 4-H cattle.

“The way the program was laid out, I felt like I was investing in my education and my future,” she says. “When I signed up, I treated it like I was going to school. I was the first person to ever complete it.”

Dunning isn’t the only accomplished trainer to offer virtual help. Bret Beach, a three-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier and Bob Feist Invitational champion, founded in 2013 in conjunction with his RFD-TV show, Total Team Roping. Like Team AD, it started as a website that featured only roping runs of professionals.

“I was noticing that although I had 3,000 great roping runs on the website talking about roping and how to do it, the people watching them and who were roping weren’t getting particularly better,” he says.

Beach modified TTR so ropers could purchase a monthly or yearly membership and send in videos for critique.

“So, you’re not watching the greatest guys in the world rope. Now you’re actually seeing yourself and the things you need to fix at the precise moment it’s happening,” he says.

He also enlisted the help of topnotch ropers like Clay O’Brien Cooper and Charles Pogue to coach and tailor feedback, whether they’re talking to headers or heelers, calf ropers, steer ropers or breakaway ropers.

“I always try to get different guests so that people can get it from different aspects. People might tell you the same thing but tell it to you in a different way that resonates better,” Beach says.

Equip Yourself

With the incredible capabilities of smartphones today, documenting a ride with quality photos and videos is quick and simple.

solo shot recording horseman ride
John Mannebach of Wichita, Kansas, uses a SoloShot to record his ride, then sends it to horseman Al Dunning for a virtual lesson. Photo courtesy of John Mannebach

Tripods—or in many cases a little cowboy ingenuity using baling twine and a fence post—can be used to prop up a phone or video camera and record a ride. New devices, such as a SoloShot, track riders by using a GPS tracking device attached to the rider’s arm, much like a cutting flag remote control.

Joe Stricklin, a veterinarian and heeler from Greeley, Colorado, either has his wife record him with an iPad, or uses a SoloShot to record his heeling runs when he’s riding alone. He submits the videos to TTR.

“I can compare my runs to each other and get feedback from Bret,” says Stricklin, who has been sending videos to Total Team Roping for about three years. “I’ll get advice on my delivery, horse position, and even the way I lay my rope down. Bret will watch the video in slow motion and regular speed to see details in my roping we’d otherwise miss.”

John Mannebach, a graduate of Team AD’s Skill Assessment program, used a SoloShot when he was going through the program and continues to use one for video coaching. Mannebach trains stock dogs and runs a boarding kennel from his home near Wichita, Kansas, and finding time to ride, let alone coordinate with someone to video his ride, is difficult. As a solution, he built a wooden stand next to the arena and places the tripod and SoloShot on the stand to avoid getting the arena fence in the shot.

“When you go to a clinic, you get a lot of information thrown at you all at once and you get overwhelmed,” says Mannebach. “There’s a lot of pressure.

But with the video program you take it one day at a time. I could go back and look at the videos, so it was like a trail of progress I made.”

Thurston, on the other hand, used a video camera.

“I would find a good spot on a fence post in the arena, ride past and press record, and ride off and do my thing. When I was finished, I would ride back up to the camera, press stop and then upload it to YouTube,” she says. “I didn’t have to have anybody here or enlist help from my husband or my best friend. “Thurston believes that, at the end of the day, the only person standing in the way of better horsemanship is the same person you see in the mirror. “You don’t get anywhere sitting on the couch,” she says. “You can whine and complain all day long and tell yourself you’re not good enough or worth it, but you have to find that passion within yourself to grow and change. And that takes standing up and taking action.”

TTR users upload videos directly to the website, while Team AD members upload theirs to a private account on YouTube. “I think the key to the online stuff is to keep it simple,” says Dunning. “You don’t have to be a technical genius to do this. We have you sign up, and set up a private YouTube account for you so others can’t see your video. But you can make it public if you want.”

Beach and Dunning try to turn videos around in less than two days, and email confirmations are sent once they’ve dubbed over the film. If there is feedback Dunning can’t fit within the time constraints of the video, he’ll send it in an email.

Communication between teacher and coach is paramount to the process, says Mannebach. “If you ride by yourself and you truly want to get better, you’re not going to do it all by yourself,” he says.

Stay Consistent

John Mannebach completed Dunning’s Skill Assessment course in the record time of four months. Dunning says in the nearly 10 years of the program, only eight people have passed, with some students taking up to two years to finish. Though he’d ridden most of his adult life, Mannebach says he was amazed at how little he knew going into it, and credits dedicated riding and his horse to his achievement.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” says Mannebach. “I found that I struggled when I rode by myself, and I didn’t have any way of knowing I was doing it wrong. Plus, with my job, it was hard for me to go anywhere and go to a trainer.

“I used the same horse for the entire program. I wanted to do some cutting on him. He was way better than I was, and I’m sure I totally messed with him during the course. But he was real forgiving, and now I’m using what I learned on him on a 2-year-old I want to cut on.” The cost to participate in online coaching may deter some riders, but Stricklin says investing in your riding will pay dividends later.

The cost to participate in TTR ranges from $25 to $75 a month, depending on how many videos you’d like to submit, and Team AD’s programs start at $75 for one video coaching lesson, or $150 for three lessons. The Skill Assessment program is broken into three stages, and starts at $250 for the first stage, $500 for stage two, and $750 for stage three.

When comparing the expense of a face-to-face lesson—typically about $50 for one hour plus fuel, energy and time—to the cost and convenience of a virtual lesson, the cost balances out.

“If you’re going to put the effort in day after day, you need to be putting the correct effort in,” Stricklin says. “Online education is a tool that people may not think of because we didn’t have it 10 or 20 years ago. But if you dedicate yourself to it and make the time to ride, you’ll see phenomenal results.”

Thurston says the convenience of online help worked best for her hectic schedule. Every morning she set time aside to video her ride. “You get out of it what you put in it,” Thurston says. “I made myself ride every morning; that was my mindset. I took it very seriously.

“I would impatiently await [Dunning’s] response so I could get back on it. I would fix things and send [videos] back. Online coaching means you’re not just flying by the seat of your pants. You have a goal. Each step is laid out for you and you check them off as you go. It’s fun and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel as soon as each step is checked off. You feel good about it.”

Years of coaching enable Dunning to distill his critiques to what the rider needs to know.

“It is amazing what I can see in a four-minute video,” he says. “I can give you a month’s worth of work in a four-minute video. I try to make it a positive critique for people.

“It’s every bit as good as a one-on-one lesson. You could take a lesson for one hour. And during the lesson you might have a few questions, but you’re going to forget some questions, and you’re going to forget some answers, also. Online, everything is recorded so you have time to think about what you’re going to ask me. It gives me time to answer you properly and then you’ve got it down for posterity. You have it down forever in a video.”

Beach says it’s about going back to the foundations of riding and roping, and working up from there. Keeping those fundamentals in mind makes teaching through the Internet simple for the coaches.

“I try to narrow it down to the major things they need to work on,” Beach says. “You can’t move on to step C until you finish A and B. I want to see them develop a pattern. If someone sends me only one run, I can only see what they did once. I can’t see what they did in the last five [runs]. If I can watch a few more, I can see the pattern and what habits come out every time.”

Beach says the best tools ropers have to become better are video coaching and roping clinics.

“But the problem is, if you’re going to do a school, there’s only a select few good instructors out there, and they’re probably $500 [ for a clinic],” he says. “Then you’re going to be gone at least four days, including two days of travel, then two days in between. But with a video you can record at your own convenience, watch it over and over, and see yourself versus getting in a school and competing for attention with 15 other people.

Video coaching is like a continuing education class.” Video coaching isn’t magic. It won’t replace a committed rider who is willing to put in the wear in their saddle and dampen some saddle pads. But it does provide invaluable access to trainers who are otherwise off limits.

“If you’re going to ride even halfway decent with the horse, you have to set aside an allotment of time to ride,” says Dunning. “If you’re in a hurry, you’ll never do a good job.

“It will take you a maximum of 10 minutes to take a video and send it in. If it’s not worth 10 minutes of your time, you must not have very much desire. “I want you to enjoy your horse and I want your horse to enjoy you.

“I want you to be able to ride in and out of the arena successfully. If you just want to ride and enjoy your horse, we can work on that. But if you want to go in the show pen and win, I’ll take you there, too.”


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