The pandemic threw a spanner in the works for many activities, including horsemanship clinics, especially for mentors based abroad. However, with a group of determined learners and access to inspiring lockdown technology, the foundation for Virtual Clinics was laid. 


How It Works 

David Stuart Total HorsemanshipDavid resides in Australia, which posed technical challenges and a 9-hour time zone difference. When David is physically present, our work with the horses extends from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., followed by a lunch break, and continues from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. This entails a combination of groundwork, riding, and discussions. 

To make the virtual clinics effective, Tina Griffen, who oversees Total Horsemanship and skillfully organises these clinics, adjusted the plan. David now collaborates with us from 9 am UK time (7 pm Aus) to 1 pm UK time (10 pm Aus), with a roughly 40-minute break allowing David to have dinner. This dinner break concept arose after students one year were amusingly distracted by David munching on tortillas over the microphone! 

To provide some context: David has already completed a full day of work on his cattle station, tending to his own horses, working with horses he's been asked to assist, and teaching at his own Australian clinics. We are truly appreciative that he dedicates his evenings to mentoring us. Despite this, he brings not only an eagle-eyed attention to detail and a (somewhat questionable!) sense of humour but also a meticulously crafted plan for elevating our horsemanship skills. 

The afternoon is then left free for us to practise what we've learned in the morning, guided by Sally Brett. She's a long-time student of David's and an accomplished horsewoman in her own right. Sally excels at breaking concepts down into manageable portions, which can be pivotal, particularly when dealing with new exercises. Fortunately, Sally's partner, Tom Blockley, possesses talents not only as a skilled photographer but also as a tech expert. Tom has been capturing stunning images of all the clinic participants for the past few years, and his wildlife and landscape photos even earned recognition on the David Attenborough Fans Facebook page. 

Tom devised a way for us to connect with David via Zoom. A phone camera, operated by Tom, links us with David, who watches us on his large TV screen (so, no, we can't escape unnoticed!). A speaker attached to the camera tripod carries David's distinct voice across the arena or field where we're working, and a directional microphone enables us to respond. 

Tina also records videos of the participants, which are uploaded to a private page for personal development purposes only. During our sessions, David often calls upon Sally to demonstrate the exercises he wants us to try since Sally has usually done them before. I appreciate this approach as I learn best through observation.  

Nonetheless, on occasion, David will request someone else to step into the spotlight; he seems to relish pushing us beyond our comfort zones! 

The most effective way to approach this 'challenge' is to inwardly groan, attentively heed David's instructions, and give it our best shot. There's no expectation of nailing the exercise on the first try. David promptly emphasises that this serves as a starting point to build upon throughout the clinic and beyond. 

David's knack for adapting exercises to suit each horse and human, wherever they are in their journey, sets these clinics apart. 


The Challenges 

First and foremost, a reliable internet connection is imperative on both ends. I recall several instances in the initial year when David ascended a roof next to a koala to stay connected! That year, we lacked a directional microphone, so speaking to David necessitated close proximity to the camera. Additionally, a slight time delay, which holds significance in horsemanship, can prove a bit challenging, given the critical nature of the moment of release. 

For those uncomfortable with being on camera or inexperienced in media, conversing with the back of a phone might be a tad intimidating, especially given the time delay. 

Despite these obstacles, all participants depart the clinics in improved harmony with their horses, having acquired new skills (or not!) in card playing. 


Looking Ahead 

We had aspired to have David return this year, but regrettably, Brexit has complicated the process. However, with diligence and determination, we eagerly anticipate his in-person participation next year. Tina works tirelessly to bring the finest horsemen to the UK, despite the challenges, while also providing top-quality equipment. 


The Bonds of Friendship 

The camaraderie within horsemanship clinics is integral. We all strive to enhance our connection with our horses, and when someone encounters difficulty with an exercise, genuine support emanates from fellow riders and spectators. We've all been there, and undoubtedly, we'll find ourselves there again. 

Since most riders stay onsite or nearby, evenings are filled with merriment and laughter, complemented by barbeques, discussions about the day's activities, and spirited card games. The clinics are hosted nationwide, often at one of the participants' charming properties. This approach minimises costs, and everyone collaborates to maintain orderliness. 

Spectators are warmly welcomed, whether they're present onsite or through Zoom. They're encouraged to join discussions, pose questions, or share observations. 


Virtual vs. In-Person 

Undoubtedly, having a mentor physically present yields an optimal learning experience. Nevertheless, I have personally gleaned substantial benefits from virtual clinics, especially this year. Over the past couple of years, my horse has encountered physical challenges, and I've faced my share of obstacles. However, with valuable assistance, we're back on track. In my view, David ranks among the foremost horsemen, and his influence on my education has been profound. 

Over the last 7 years, I've been fortunate to participate in the UK clinics as a spectator or rider and have imbibed extensive knowledge about horsemanship and myself. This year, it genuinely feels like Loki and I are forging a harmonious partnership. Despite not always having as much time as I'd prefer to dedicate to him, I strive for quality over quantity, and this approach yields positive outcomes all around. Hence, the virtual clinics have unequivocally underpinned my horsemanship journey, my rapport with my horse, and life in general. 

I'm optimistically looking forward to David's potential return in person in 2024, with every intention of participating in as many of his clinics as possible.