Horse Country Meets Tech
Real-Life vs. Real-Time Rendezvous
By Crissy Neville
The history of mankind is carried on the back of a horse” — an anonymous quote that speaks to the importance of both stead and spirit through time. Now living in the epic time of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath — with quarantines, health hardships and economic distress — a few creative-minded horsewomen have found modern ways to keep riders and trainers connected, favorite pastimes playable and the doldrums of duress at bay.
In mid-March, parent company Whitney Weston Eventing (WWE) of Southern Pines launched Valkyrie Sporthorses Training and Tips virtual lessons. For WWE owner and U.S. international three-day eventer, Whitney Weston, the reasons for the startup were twofold. First, the online learning opportunities are in response to North Carolina’s stay-in-place requirements that put an end to Weston’s regular calendar of training sessions this spring. Secondly, the new initiative fulfills the many requests Weston gets for connection with followers and former students countrywide for whom distance makes in person participation prohibitive.
Rather than looking at electronic equitation as a substitute for her regular work at WWE and Southern Pines Riding Academy, the educational arm of WWE for beginning riders, Weston perceives the web-based workouts for horse and rider as a supplement and soon-to-become permanent fixture in her array of services. According to Weston, with the company making other changes — building a new facility in Aberdeen and rolling out the Valkyrie Sporthorses name for branding — the timing was ripe for punchy programming.
“The launch of virtual lessons and learning modules was always on the backburner, but there was never really an emergency need for the services until the pandemic,” explained Weston. “With shows canceled and the riding school shut down, this was a good time to pivot and start working on a format that was obtainable for us nontech horse people. The chosen platform includes combinations of Facebook streaming, FaceTime and/or Google Duo and only requires two cell phones and a grounds person for videoing. I can see my students in real time, and they can hear me right in their ear via a headset. We keep it as simple as possible. The students say it feels like I am right there.”
Weston is excited to get back to live lessons at her facility as soon as possible. “Nothing can truly replace being able to touch the horse or my being able to hop on horseback and demonstrate a skill,” she said, “But until then, this is the next best thing. Even afterward, I see the site becoming a database for education, insights, and tips that brings my experience to a format that is accessible and helpful to as many people as possible.”
While Weston has had great success implementing techy tutelage, other equestrian centers are trying their hand at horse shows a’ la laptop, desktop, iPad or smartphone, dependent on your device. The website onlinehorseshowing.com touts its service as “an online destination where equestrians can compete against one another from the comfort of their home” and operates virtual shows year-round, not just during the current health crisis. The creator, Jasmine Powell, lives across the pond and brings friendly and varied horse competitions to the international arena to those unable to attend live shows for any reason, including “injury, travel costs or time constraints.” Powell makes it easy to enter and potentially win great prizes. At onlinehorseshows.com, all contests are photo shows and vary from the traditional classes of “Best Condition” and “Best Junior Rider” to more fun classes such as “Best Smile” and “Enchanting Eyes.” Got a horse who is a real looker? Consider entering “Best Headshot: Mares” or “Best Headshot: Gelds and Stals.” Have an affectionate mount? There’s “Best Cuddle,” just for it. Exclusive occasion shows have classes like the “Easter Special,” which encourage riders and horses to dress up and show off their best Easter looks.
Similarly, an equine center owned by a couple of Wisconsin horsewomen specializes in teaching horsemanship for special needs riders. The HART Equine Center held a virtual show series this spring open to riders of all ages and from any location. The “Show Your HART Out!” fundraiser shows were held March 29, April 5 and April 13, attracting many entries across the U.S. and from at least one Sandhills horserider, Rachel Smith of Fayetteville. Smith works as the events manager for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers.
Smith commented, “The virtual horse shows are a great way for riders around the county to connect. As a participant, I received detailed feedback from judges and was able to try new classes without the pressure of the show ring. It’s a creative way to keep my horse in shape when live shows are not available or anytime. I anticipate doing another virtual show in June.”
She explained that participants uploaded recorded videos of themselves riding the predetermined show pattern and submitted it via Facebook messenger or through a YouTube link. Judges watched each video and awarded prizes for the first through sixth place winners for each class, with riders receiving audio feedback from the judges.
Weston does not sponsor virtual shows but informed her students of the opportunities on the web. “They are hard to get into,” she said. “They fill up quickly.”
As shutdown conditions ease, it is nice to note the myriad ways people found to stay engaged, even on horseback.