Once Fat Pony was happy going through 2 noodles, it turned out not to be a problem to make it up to 4 noodles, then 6 noodles (Liberty Silver course) and then 8 noodles (Advanced Level on line course). Before long, he was walking through, trotting through and happily standing in the middle! Backwards needed a little more care to build it up, but soon that was no problem either. In fact, the noodle walk quite quickly became both the ponies favourite new toy! They would offer to do it if I was around and they also went through it on their own when they didn't know that I was watching. I don't know whether they enjoyed the noise it makes when they go through or whether they liked the feeling of it "massaging" their legs, but they definitely enjoy going through it! :-D
With any new obstacle, I build it up slowly, even if I think the ponies will be fine with it, but they do like to surprise us like that. It's not uncommon for horses to not bat an eyelid at things we think might worry them and then to be completely sceptical about something we think they should be ok with, lol.
So I built version 1 of the noodle walk with just 2 noodles. In some instances, I might then have started with the frames further apart, leaving a gap in between the noodles. However, in this case, I decided to begin with the noodles overlapping by 3cm, as per the competition instructions. The ponies appeared whilst I was still building (they have a 6th sense about such things ;-) and the New Girl (aka Mrs. Confident Dominant) walked up to it and walked straight through. Satisfied that it was New Girl 1 Noodles 0 she then moseyed on off to go and have a drink and a snooze.
Fat Pony, on the other hand, was more sceptical. That may seem strange, since Fat Pony is now at Advanced Level in Horse Agility and is also very playful, however Fat Pony came to me with a history of fear issues and restraint and things around his legs are a particular cause for concern for him. I decided to try to work it out at Liberty, giving Fat Pony complete freedom of choice and engaging his curiosity and play. I used "draw" rather than "drive" i.e. I put no pressure on Fat Pony to come through the obstacle, rather I positioned myself on the other side and I invited him to come through. Fat Pony wants to do things and he also knows that there will be a reward waiting, however I must stress that I never "bribe". I never hold treats under their noses, trying to get them to follow. The treat is retrieved and offered only AFTER completion of the desired action. But I digress. I invited Fat Pony and then I waited. I was ready to give him all the time that he needed to investigate and to puzzle it out for himself. After some sniffing, Fat Pony decided to try going through. He didn't like the feel of it on his legs and he shot off to a safe distance, but turned to face the obstacle and he was watching intently. So I decided to demonstrate that the new "thing" was safe. I walked slowly backwards and forwards through the obstacle myself (feeling like a bit of a twit, thankfully no-one else around to see, lol ;-) and eventually Fat Pony came over to try again. This time he was fine with his front legs and then did a funny bunny hop with his back legs to clear the noodles at the back. The 3rd time, he didn't hop with his back legs, the noodles brushed them and he shot off again. Again, I did my "look this is safe" demo. Again, Fat Pony came back to try again for himself. This time, he went through, a bit rushed but he didn't run off, he stopped, turned and looked for his reward. I then took him through the noodles another half a dozen times and by now he was much more calm and relaxed about them. A good place to end the session and leave him to process the experience over night :-)
One of this month's obstacles that is new to me and Fat Pony is the "Leg Lift". At Starter Level, the obstacle reads "The horse must place one front foot up onto a solid block (any height) he must not step up just rest the foot on the block for a count of three. You may lift the foot on or he may do so himself."
At Advanced Level, the obstacle reads " The horse must place one front foot up onto a solid block (any height) without the handler lifting the foot. He must not step up just rest the foot on the block for a count of five."
Well, of course, I didn't read the Starter Level course (getting lax!) and so it didn't occur to me to teach this obstacle to Fat Pony by lifting his leg onto the object and then rewarding him! In fact, that would be a very good way forward and a very good analogy would be to think of the farrier's stand. Or, in my farrier's case, the farrier's knee! Thinking of the farrier's stand then also gives you a purpose for the leg lift obstacle. In the case of the farrier's knee, I'm sure he's doubly grateful for a horse that lifts its front leg politely, places it gently where asked and then holds it still until released!.....
But, no, this didn't occur to me to start off with and I went gung ho for teaching by modelling. Meaning that I perform the action, wait for the horse to copy me and then reward. Now, there's nothing wrong with teaching by modelling either. Once your horse is quite tuned in to you s/he will naturally start to mirror you and then teaching in this way is great fun and quite cool :-) With Fat Pony it would have worked very well, except for the other mistake that I made, using a log that would roll! The log just happened to be what was lying around and it was a reasonable size, but also quite round. Fat Pony got the leg lift pretty much straight away, but then the log rolled, my timing was off with the reward, Fat Pony thought the task was to roll the log and, hey presto, I've taught him to paw the log :-o Taught very effectively too, I might add!
Back to the drawing board....
What instantly appealed to me about Horse Agility was how well human-horse body language communication (of the type promoted by, but not exclusive to, "Natural Horsemanship") lends itself to the successful completion of a testing course of Horse Agility obstacles. Only now and again there appears to me to be a mis-match. This month, its the "Snow drift jump" that I'm having some difficulty with, although a solution has presented itself.
For Medium level and above, the obstacle states "Create a jump that looks like a snow drift by draping white material or tarp over a jump, the horse must jump handler stands still at end of jump as horse goes over." (A top tip here is not to worry if you don't happen to have a white tarp, it's fun to get into the spirit of the season, but any jump-able object will do, it doesn't actually have to be white - and it doesn't have to be very high - but the horse must do a proper jump over.) My problem with this obstacle is that I've been busy teaching the ponies to tune into what I'm doing and to mirror me quite closely. This is fantastic for leading with a loose rope as well as for effective Liberty work. The pony goes where I go, matches my direction and also my speed. I walk, pony walks, I trot, pony trots, I halt.......
So now, pony and I approach the jump in trot. For a warm up, I jump the (very small!) jump and pony jumps with me. Fantastic :-D So next pony and I approach the jump in trot, pony is all set to jump..... and I stop dead "at end of jump". What happens? Well trained, tuned in, pony mirrors me perfectly and slams on the brakes just before take off, nearly skidding into the jump, then looks at me with a "what did you do that for?" expression!
For me, on first inspection, this poses a dilemma. It would appear that I either have to re-train pony to stop mirroring me, something I am very reluctant to do as I feel this would be a step backwards for our relationship; or I have to somehow get pony going more ahead of me approaching the jump, so that he's already taken off before I come to a standstill, possibly with "chasing" him over the jump as well, which I think would be quite hard for me to co-ordinate accurately and I also feel would not do a great deal for pony's confidence in approaching the jump (or any jump in the future!). Or I choose not to come to a standstill and jump the jump with the pony and loose marks.
So can I approach the problem from a new angle? I think I can and this is where the solution that works for me lies. The alternative solution is for me not to come to a standstill, but to be stationary throughout. As we have done some Parelli groundwork together, Fat Pony is used to both me moving with him (mirroring) and also me standing still and directing him from more of a distance. So the solution that works, without compromising our training, is for me to ask the pony to wait at a suitable distance, for me to position myself by the end of the jump, and then for me to ask the pony to trot and to come around me in a slight semi-circle, over the jump and then to slow down, stop, turn and face me and wait for me to re-join him and reward. As the jump is small (about 30cms) and we have been working on jumping confidence, this is a fairly easy task for Fat Pony to complete (famous last words!) and is in complete harmony with the training methods we have been using. Phew - dilemma over!
It will be interesting to see what techniques other competitors adopt, but this is the one that I'll be using.
Every now and again, an obstacle comes up in the monthly video course from the International Horse Agility Club that I think "that's too easy". Invariably, whenever I think "that's too easy", I am wrong!
In the 2014 October course, obstacle number 9 was "put on a cape or cloak". That's just a sap to Halloween, I thought to myself, a daft bit of fun for the big kids amongst us.....
So, of course, I did not practice the putting on of the cape or cloak before starting filming. Only to discover that, once I was wearing the cloak, obstacle number 10 (send horse through the scary corner at trot whilst the handler stays outside) went completely to pot. Fat Pony did not seem to understand that he was to go through the Scary Corner (at any pace, let alone trot!), whilst I went around the outside. Fat Pony would only follow me through the corner, or follow me round the outside, although both with some hesitation and a slightly unhappy look on his face. Since we have the "handler goes round the outside" version of the scary corner pretty much nailed, at both walk and trot, this was - surprising!
So we stopped filming and I set out to understand what was going on. In fact, it was quite simple. The cloak was hiding my body language from Fat Pony. In particular, it was masking my shoulders and completely obscuring my arms and hands! As soon as I pushed the cape back and freed up my arms such that Fat Pony could see them clearly, he did the obstacle perfectly! Quite a revelation!
I know that we've been building up body language communication, but I didn't appreciate quite how subtle it really is, how significant the putting on of the cape was to hinder Fat Pony's reading of my shoulder position. I also didn't realise just quite how much Fat Pony is reading my hands! He is clearly reading them to a very great degree in determining which direction to go in, even more remarkable given that ponies don't possess these digits themselves!
I started Horse Agility as a way of making groundwork more fun. It was something I could do with my semi-retired old boy and his small, cheeky, pony companion. What amazed me was how much it improved the ponies' general confidence in the process. I compete at Advanced 1 star level on line and at liberty.