Well what a fantastic day we all had yesterday :-D The Berkshire Horse Agility Competition Day was a resounding success, with entries in 6 classes: Starter, Liberty, Open, Long Reining, Pairs and Equagility! The venue was fabulous, the weather was lovely and lots of happy, smiling faces on both humans and horses :-) Congratulations to all who took part, everyone was a winner :-)
I have been seeing Noodle obstacles pop up in various "unofficial" guises within the Horse Agility and Trec communities and it has now been adopted into the International Horse Agility Club (IHAC) Handbook, in the horizontal format, as "The Noodle Walk".
In all cases, the thinking behind the Noodle Walk appears to be the simulation of pushing through soft branches or undergrowth whilst out hacking (although for horse agility it is very much a led obstacle). The IHAC version of the Noodle Walk starts with 2 noodles at Starter Level and increases to a total of 10 noodles at Advanced 1* Level. The noodles are attached horizontally to a frame of either fixed or moveable height and should, ideally, be at the horse's chest height. As this was the first time I was building one of these, I used the only "frame" that I had to hand and the noodles ended up first at leg height and then, as they drooped, more at ponies' knee height, lol.
In the Trec world, the noodle obstacles that I have seen have a vertical format, possibly to avoid the horse trying to jump the obstacle, or perhaps this is felt to be more representative of a ridden horse having to contend with an overgrown path. I have yet to try this one for myself! This is not an official TrecGB obstacle and the idea seems to have originated in the US, however it has been used in the UK in Fun Trecs and I suspect will become seen in competitions more often as the idea spreads.
Wow! What a difficult course has been set by the International Horse Agility Club this month! There are lots of new variations on obstacles that Fat Pony and I haven't attempted before. Added to which, I don't even have half the materials needed to build it! And I thought I had a good supply of equipment already! Goodness knows where I would (cheaply!) get 4m of carpet from! And the see-saw is one I haven't built yet either (strangely enough, ha, ha, although I am very envious of anyone who has one :-)
If I could get all the equipment together, then Fat Pony and I would give the course a jolly good go, but it may just prove a challenge too far this month. There are some really nice individual challenges, though, so we'll certainly be practicing some of the obstacles from the course in isolation, even if we can't attempt the whole thing.
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.
Now that we're working at the higher levels of competition, we're facing interesting new challenges that will test our partnership and communication but also to some degree our "schooling". November's course includes one trot-halt and two halt-trot transitions and points will be lost if any walk steps are seen by the judges.
The 2 halt-trot transitions involve "parking" the pony in front of an obstacle, the handler passing through and then asking the pony to join the handler at trot. At the lower levels, we had to learn to park the pony in front of an obstacle and then join the handler at a walk. So we have the elements of "halt", "wait" and "join me" already in place and Fat Pony is really quite good at that now. The challenge is now to teach Fat Pony "join me at trot" and to have him be able to understand the difference between "join me at walk" and "join me at trot", since either might now be required in a competition and I don't want Fat Pony to start anticipating one or the other. The parallels with schooling and dressage training are clear!
The trot-halt transition is even more interesting, as the obstacle is to trot the front feet only over the pole and then halt. So not only does the transition have to be super accurate, but the pony has to be quite confident about halting with the pole under the middle of his tummy, where he can't see it very well! To trot over the pole without touching the pole will require an active trot going into the halt - the beginnings of collection and taking the pony's weight back onto his hindquarters!
The more involved I get with Horse Agility, the more I see the benefits and the challenges. It started out as something fun to do - and it still is fun, more than ever! - but it's also taking us on a journey that is about developing and refining communication; and about developing the pony's suppleness and fitness; as well as keeping his brain busy and having fun :-)
Yesterday, Berkshire Horse Agility ran its first Trec obstacle (PTV) clinic with great success. There are clearly things in common between working an equine around Horse Agility obstacles and working an equine around Trec obstacles. Particularly in the area of confidence building around unusual, potentially spooky, or claustrophobic obstacles; as well as in the communication and control required to complete an obstacle correctly and thus achieve maximum marks in either a Trec or a Horse Agility competition.
I often get asked what the difference is between Trec and Horse Agility. If one knows very little about either, it's a fair question! Almost the only thing they have in common, though, is the use of obstacles!
Trec is almost exclusively a ridden sport. In competition, it consists of 3 phases, of which the obstacle (PTV) phase is relatively minor. The Control of Paces (CoP) and Orienteering (POR) sections carry more points in the competition and a mistake on one or both of those sections (CoP & POR) usually (although not always) delivers far more penalties than a simple mistake on the obstacle section. Trec obstacles, although they may cause a horse to be wary of them on first encounter, are all designed to simulate hindrances that you may come across whilst out hacking, as such they are predominantly "rustic" in nature and the differences between Levels 1 and 4 are relatively minor: higher, wider, narrower, etc, but not massively so.
Horse Agility is almost exclusively a non-ridden sport (In Hand or Liberty) and there are more parallels between how a Horse Agility course is judged and how a dressage test is judged, than how a Trec obstacle is judged. Horse Agility obstacles are marked out of 10 points, with maximum 5 points allocated for correct completion of the obstacle and maximum 5 marks allocated for the relationship between the horse and handler. Horse Agility is unique in being judged on the relationship between Horse and Handler. Horse Agility obstacles are almost all inspired by Dog Agility obstacles, scaled up for equines. As such, they tend to be far more brightly coloured, more "artificial" looking and have far more "spookiness factor". There is also a different levels system within Horse Agility obstacles, with the degree of difficulty in which the obstacle is to be completed increasing significantly between Starter level and Advanced 1* level. Not only do the obstacles themselves get harder (e.g.longer, narrower, etc), but the level of communication and connection with the equine also has to be much higher. E.g. Horse and handler to walk through an S bend at Starter Level; Horse to back through an S bend at advanced 1* level, while the handler stands at a fixed point and does not move his/ her feet!
What both Trec and Horse Agility obstacles have in common, especially for training purposes, however, is that they are very useful for building your horse's confidence around a variety of obstacles in a variety of situations; they are great for building up trust and communication between horse and handler; and they are great fun! :-D
The International Horse Agility Club runs monthly competitions, which are entered by building your own course at home and having someone film you completing the course. You are given the exact course design that you need to build, you submit your video and then you get judged against a score sheet, a bit like dressage scoring.
There are 10 obstacles in a course and each obstacle has a maximum of 10 points. These points are awarded as maximum 5 points for correct technical completion of the obstacle and maximum 5 points for good horsemanship. Good horsemanship is judged on relationship and communication between horse and handler, which can be evidenced by the handler leading the horse with a "smile" in the line, the horse having a positive expression and whether the handler needs to make corrections to how the horse is completing the obstacle.
These competitions are split into on line competitions (using a lead rein that is at least 10 feet long) and liberty competitions. There are levels within the league, from Starter level through to Advanced 1* level, allowing you and your pony to compete against partnerships of a similar experience to yourself and to progress from relatively simple courses to very challenging ones!
There are also some real time competitions available, depending on how active the Horse Agility community is in your area. These competitions may be organised by a Horse Agility Accredited Trainer (HAAT) or by a local group of Horse Agility members, but for the results to be recognised in the international league the real time competition must be judged by a registered HAAT.
I suppose any blog should start with what it's about :-) Horse Agility is an international equestrian sport that was inspired by Dog Agility and involves horse and handler negotiating a course of 10 obstacles in a set order, sometimes within a time limit. The equine (horse, pony, donkey, mule....) is usually not ridden in Horse Agility (except in Equagility), but may be either led on a long lead rope (at least 10 feet long) or guided around the course at liberty.
I discovered Horse Agility when my old boy retired from riding and I was looking for a way to make ground work more interesting. Horse Agility turned out to be great fun for both the ponies and me; it gave a structure and a focus to our groundwork that turned work into play.
For the younger, somewhat cheeky, pony it engages with his strong play drive, he doesn't even notice that we're working on obedience and respect (his, for me!) at the same time ;-) As for the old pony (23 when we started), it completely transformed him. His personality was kind and gentle, but very un-confident, he didn't run away but he would freeze when situations got too much for him. Within a couple of months of doing Horse Agility, his confidence soared, he came out of his shell (so to speak), his separation anxiety more or less disappeared and he just became much more relaxed all round. The ponies and I are hooked!
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.