Teaching From Afar

Jan 8, 2021 - 7:58 AM

An Italian business professor on Twitter suggests that being forced to conduct much of our lives online is making us sick. The constant video calls and Zoom meetings are draining us because they go against our brain’s need for boundaries: here versus not there.

“It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence,” Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote, “than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.”

I can relate to that.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation took the brave and, as it turns out, correct decision to go ahead with the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in August. All year, I look forward to that show as my absolute favorite of all shows worldwide. The venue at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois, is fabulous, both compact and spacious, offering space and green surroundings for the horses and intimacy and comfort for the people at the same time. We get to see our up-and-coming young horses all in the same place, and the youngsters tend to both entertain and amuse us.

The running of the show has always been top notch, whether you’re there as a competitor, coach or judge. You can easily keep track of the action in the two championship rings by walking from one to the other, and yet they are separated and do not interfere with each other. Some years ago, there was discussion about moving the Festival to Kentucky, and I was on the committee that had to make the case. Many of us spoke passionately about our conviction that the Festival should remain in Chicago, and luckily the decision was made to keep it there.

This year the show included the juniors and ponies and also the FEI children’s classes. This division focuses on the ability of the young rider to keep the horse on the aid and performing while sitting properly and using discreet but effective aids. I understand this feature was well received, and it appears to have a bright future. At this event, though, perhaps putting them in the Grand Prix ring at prime time and having the always spot-on commentary by Kathy Connelly focused on them for hours on end was a bit much of the same. Why am I whining? Because I was home being sensible about traveling in the time of pandemic and was completely frustrated.

When half of my qualified riders pulled out because of the virus, I decided the risk of flying and living in hotels was too great to gamble with my or, more importantly, my husband’s health. So we prepared with videos and online lessons before the students departed. We asked colleagues and students who would be there to help (thank you Christine Traurig and Katie Poag!), and we hurried up and waited. The one-hour time difference did not help. I never was quite sure which time was the actual time for my students to ride, and fitting it in between rides and lessons at home became “interesting” in the Chinese sense of the word. Thankfully my students were on the ball and kept me informed.

The event appeared to be a great success with a number of lovely rides in the young horse ring and nicely consistent and correct judging. Although I was thankful for the opportunity to follow the action online, I must admit I have never been as tired after a show as the one I was not attending! That brings me to lessons online.

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“It’s weird not to be able to pet the horse between sets of work, look him in the eye and give him a treat,” writes Anne Gribbons. Sara Lieser Photo

Bad Technology Karma

Separated from my students who live far away, including those I normally fly to teach, I now reach for the electronics to stay in touch. First of all, I am useless around anything that requires an engine, electricity or internet. Far more than challenged, I have bad karma with machines. My computer groans if I try to use any function other than email; my printer malfunctions almost daily, and I am barely starting to get on the right side of my car. It is 12 years old. So, there are my perky technology-savvy students sitting on their horses thinking all is well while I am sweating in the other end of the instrument, begging it to function. When it does, my relief is immense.

Although the communication works fairly well with the riders and horses I’m familiar with, it’s more difficult being productive with new combinations. It’s frustrating not to be able to walk around and see the horse and rider working from different angles. It’s weird not to be able to pet the horse between sets of work, look him in the eye and give him a treat. And I cannot tell how he breathes, which is a good indicator of his tension and state of mind, or tell if the bits need an adjustment or the saddle sits correctly. The horses I work with consistently know me, even if I do not ride them. They understand that they, their rider and I are a team, and they look for me to reward them when they feel they deserve it.

Another drawback is that while the horse relaxes between exercises, the “shoptalk” between the riders and me becomes limited because the people helping to set up and/or follow the ride with the camera become impatient and want things to move on. The majority of my students are professionals, and we need to discuss strategy and show plans as well as whatever specific issue a horse may have.

And then there is the internet. We live in the outskirts of Orlando, what was not long ago considered “raw Florida,” all cattle and orange groves. Well, that changed completely in a dozen years, and now there are no oranges, few cattle and a great deal of McMansions. We have a weak and unreliable network that fails regularly in this epicenter of thunderstorms. You can imagine what that does to your image of the horse, not to speak of his rhythm, the holy mantra of dressage.

Many of my students are out in farm country, and the same thing occurs there, so the problem is at times two-fold. Then there are the time changes across the country and the light changes and the arenas that need to be reserved for just one horse, things you can work with when you are on location but have problems scheduling to work out ahead of time.

Remote education works well when the people receiving it are stationary, but with a horse in action, instruction involves a lot of moving parts. I am not a coach who sits on a chair or in a corner and pontificates; I like to be in there with the horse. Being trapped behind some device is not making me sick yet, but it does make me crazy to be constantly reminded of each other’s absence!

I have the greatest admiration for people, such as Michelle Sheridan, who is my student and a technology wiz. Without her help I could not do anything with the internet, and I am constantly in her debt for getting me out of trouble. I never thought I would miss being on a plane, but virtual lessons are becoming more painful than flying.

It was never before as clear to me that so much of the joy of working with horses is derived from being physically close to them and their riders. For me, teaching from afar sucks, but like any adversity, the virus makes us refocus, and it surely brings home to us all the things we miss. Hopefully we will one day remember to appreciate all of them if we can recapture the world we took for granted less than a year ago.


Anne Gribbons was the U.S. Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 of her own horses to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships, as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CDIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been named U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games silver-medal winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book “Collective Remarks.”


This article ran in the December 2020 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse in our Sport Horse Breeding issue.

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