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 last weekend's clinic out of the way (in the nicest possible way :-) I have been able to turn my attention to this month's International Horse Agility Club course and a very exciting course it is too :-D Lot's of new challenges - again :-) but at least I have most of the equipment this time, or at least materials to build!
The most exciting new obstacle is the Noodle Walk, depending on the Level that you are at, from 2 Noodles up to 10 Noodles, attached horizontally to a frame (2 meaning one each side of the corridor, 10 noodles being 5 each side of the corridor). The Noodles are soft foam swimming pool noodles, or tubular pipe insulation works just as well and can be found from as little as £1 for 2 x 1m lengths (perfect for the Starter competition :-) The idea is that the horse has to push through the noodles, preferably at chest height, although mine have ended up more at knee height due to the limitations of the frame I had for attaching the noodles to.
Another new obstacle for us this month is to pick up a closed umbrella, open it whilst standing next to the horse and then carry the umbrella over the horse's head whilst walking 4 metres. Fat Pony LOVES flags on poles, but an umbrella is new and a bit of an unknown quantity!
The S bend is also back this month and for the Advanced Level, the requirement is for the handler to stand in a fixed spot outside the poles, whilst guiding the horse through the S without the horse knocking or stepping outside the poles!
And the stand and wait has morphed from "horse to not move it's feet" to (at Advanced Level) horse and handler to stand COMPLETELY still for 10 seconds! Eeek! That'll be a challenge then! Pony to not move a muscle, not lick his lips, not move his ears...... Ha, ha, ha! I expect that blinking and breathing are allowed, but not much else.
There is another park the pony at the curtain this month, which I'm not too worried about as Fat Pony's stand and wait is pretty good these days. But at Advanced Level, the horse then has to join the handler at a trot (from a standstill and not allowed to pull on the rope). We can do this in walk. Time to work on our cues for trot then, methinks!
So, LOTS of challenges, again, but the ground has dried out, the weather is lovely and the course looks really exciting (and buildable!). Have a feeling I'm really going to enjoy this one :-)
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 :-)
The non-horsey OH likes to play with the ponies, sometimes, especially Fat Pony, as he's so playful and likes to engage (FP, not OH ;-) So, as we need to work on the Hula Hoop for this month's horse agility, I asked the OH to please practice the hoop if he plays with FP.
Clearly something got lost in translation somewhere, as OH came to me and said, "FP's doing really well at the hoop, he puts his foot in at least half the time without touching the hoop. But I think I've taught him the hokey cokey"...... Fat Pony's "putting his foot in, but he won't wait, he puts it in and then takes it out, puts it in and takes it out"........ LMAO!
It didn't take long to work out what happened. In all training, timing is critical. In order for learning to take place, there needs to be a release or a reward (we work on reward) and if the timing is wrong there's a good chance you not only don't teach the desired action but you may inadvertently teach an undesired action!
Whilst the OH has grasped some of the principles of breaking a movement down in order to teach it, he doesn't always see all of the components. In this instance, the 3 components are 1. step cleanly into the hoop (when asked); 2. wait until further instruction; 3. step cleanly out of the hoop (when asked). In the teaching phase, all 3 of those components get rewarded. Once firmly established, you can then move on to combine all 3 elements into one movement, without having to reward each one (increasing reward intervals). The OH had realised only 2 of the 3 components, namely 1. step cleanly into the hoop and be rewarded; then OH was asking Fat Pony to step out of the hoop and be rewarded. It didn't take many goes before Fat Pony had "learned" that you step in the hoop, get a reward and then step out of the hoop and get a reward. In Fat Pony's mind there was no "wait" element. In Fat Pony's mind, you put your foot in, you put your foot out, you put your foot in, you put your foot out.....
And that..... is how you teach your pony the hokey cokey :-D
The "box" obstacle this month is one we haven't tried before. So I tried it out yesterday, for the first time with Fat Pony. The results were..... Unexpected!
The box is actually 2 obstacles in 1 and the instructions are:
4. Create a gap that is closed at one end. You can use a corner so that you only need to create one side. Sides must be solid as the horse must walk into a ‘box’. The ‘box’ must be at least 3m(10ft) long, no more than 1.5m (5ft) wide and must have solid sides at least 1m (3ft 3in) high. Send your horse into the gap, handler stays at entrance. Halt for a count of 3.
5. Handler backs horse out of 'box' by standing at opening of box and backing horse towards him, handler may move feet.
I actually thought this one would be easy. Ha, ha, silly me! I thought it would be easy because we have previously played around with a narrow gap that was effectively an open ended version of the box. Fat Pony has quite happily walked, trotted and backed through the open ended box, as well as halting in the middle of the gap. And we have been doing our stand and wait exercises almost every day for the last 2 weeks at least. And Fat Pony's party trick is to back towards me when I am standing behind him, quite often when I don't want him to, ha, ha.
So I stood with confidence at the entrance to the box and sent Fat Pony in. At first he didn't want to go in and tried to go round the sides. I made the communication clearer and he realised I wanted him to go in. So then he rushed in, quite obviously looking for the way out. Seeing where this was going, I gave him the cue for wait. That did get him to stop and think for a moment, but he was quite clearly feeling trapped and in the end his desire to get out of the tight spot won and he jumped over the end of the box. Not bad from a standstill! At least the jump confidence training has paid off, lol. The second time he turned himself around, quite a feat in a 1m wide space!, and came back out of the entrance.
I'm not sure exactly why he should feel claustrophobic about the box. He is reasonably good within the tight confines of a horse trailer and other narrow spaces. I think the fact that I am "driving" him from behind (as per the course instructions) has something to do with it. Also the fact that I've been building his confidence over jumps and teaching him to stay straight and go over when pointed at 1m wide objects will have contributed to him jumping out. I don't think that he's scared of the obstacles that make up the box. I think the most likely explanation is that the course is set up in an area where he is regularly bossed around by The New Girl and he is genuinely worried about being trapped (and then kicked). So the approach to teaching this one will probably be to: 1. break the task down and teach it to him in smaller pieces until he understands the pattern; and 2. try to build his confidence that he is not going to get trapped and kicked as long as I am doing the obstacle with him (New Girl may have to be banished from the area during training!).
It's a very nice challenge, a good reminder not to take his confidence with the other obstacles for granted!
I was quite surprised to discover that for a non emergency I had to wait a week to see the vet! Patience #1. Just as I thought that all was looking well with Fat Pony, he developed a skin condition :-( Not knowing what it was, I felt it best to keep him isolated until the vet could take a look. Good for his ongoing diet. Bad for Horse Agility! Patience #2. To keep Bored Fat Pony amused, I had a think about what I could still practice with him, in the confines of his fairly small diet pen.
Three of this month's Horse Agility obstacles involve variations on "stand and wait" and as Playful Fat Pony's brain goes at a million miles an hour, he's not very good at patience, standing still, waiting, doing nothing..... And as practicing Stand and Wait doesn't need much space, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to get some serious practice in. Patience #3 :-D
I find that "positive re-enforcement" training (such as clicker training or treat training) works really well with something like the stand and wait. With Fat Pony I use treats (sugar free polos!). I appreciate that there are arguments against feeding from the hand, but that would be a separate subject all by itself. There are other ways to reward the desired behaviour, I just choose what works for me.
To make it more interesting, we are practicing a number of variations on the theme: how far away I can go; how long he will wait for; waiting without recall (I return to pony); waiting with recall (he comes to me on cue after the wait); and him standing still while I walk all the way around him (not as easy as you might think, try it!). The most difficult one to work on has been me walking away from him with my back turned. The reason for that is that we had previously been doing some Parelli and I had taught him to stand and wait with me facing him square on, with the signal for him to come to me and/ or to follow me being to drop my shoulder (passive body language) and turn and walk away. Most of the time, there is quite good alignment between the body language of "Natural Horsemanship" and directing the pony around a Horse Agility course, but occasionally it doesn't quite work out. Another topic in its own right!
"august": "inspiring reverence or admiration; dignified or imposing"
There are definitely some interesting new challenges for us in the August course. Three obstacles involve variations on "stand and wait". One of these is a relatively simple stand and wait. The horse to stand on the tarp for 5 seconds without moving his feet. Made slightly more challenging by specifying an area of 2m x 2m, but otherwise fairly straight forward. The other 2 varations, involve the horse waiting whilst the handler goes through an obstacle first and then joining the handler when invited. At Medium level, the horse has to join the handler at a trot i.e. the horse stands and waits until the handler is through the obstacle, so some 2-3m away, then the horse goes from halt to trot through the obstacle and the handler is not allowed to achieve this by pulling on the rope!
One obstacle is completely new to us this month and that is for the horse to step cleanly into a hula hoop with its back feet. We have done this obstacle with front feet, but never with back feet. I have seen videos of nice TB or Arab type horses with dainty feet doing this very delicately. My chunky native ponies with their soup plate feet can barely fit 2 feet into a hula hoop, let alone do it delicately, ha, ha, ha. It will be..... Interesting :-D
Our nemesis, the single pole, is also putting in 2 appearances this month. There is backing 4 feet over a single pole without touching or stepping on the pole. And there is also trotting over a raised pole of 30cm. Most of the time, I'm very happy that my ponies are confident to put their feet onto strange surfaces when I ask them to. But when that extends to them standing on the poles as they go over then it's not so good for a high score....
So, all in all, its going to be a month of nice challenges!
Phew, so that's the Equagility course filmed! Some of the ridden parts a bit rough around the edges, but the ponies are still green under saddle so that was to be expected. We had alot of fun doing it and that was the main thing :-D
July is marching by, so time to move on to another course. We are within sight of promotion from Medium level up to Advanced level, so I need to enter this month's levels course (not just all the fun Summer of Sport courses, lol). There are a couple of challenges for us in this month's Medium Level course, things we haven't done before which are going to require some practice to get right.
Trotting through the U bend is going to be challenging. The U bend is made of jump poles arranged to create a U shaped corridor that is just 1m wide. The pony is going to have to trot all the way through without touching the poles or stepping outside the corridor. At the lower levels this is done at a walk, but for the medium level it gets harder! The pony trots with alot of energy and enthusiasm, he tends to get a little bit excited as well, he then also gets a little bit less attentive, so this will definitely be tricky.
The "stand and wait" obstacle is also harder at medium level. This month the pony has to be "parked" and then the handler has to trot onto the tarpaulin, before inviting the pony to join her (on the tarp) at a walk. We do have a reasonable stand and wait, which works well when I face the pony and back away from him, using body language to communicate "wait". We also have a good re-call, if I drop my shoulder and turn half away he knows that's his cue to re-join me. However, he has been taught that when I have my back to him and I move away that is his cue to follow me (with his nose at my shoulder). We don't have a verbal "wait" command in place. If I trot away from him, he will think that he is supposed to follow me! So we need to move this up to the next level of training as well.
Passing a garland, scarf or sash over the pony's nose and placing it around his neck will need some work as well. I'm fairly sure that the pony received some rough handling in his early life, as he was VERY headshy when I got him and although he's improved alot with considerate handling, he still has a very strong reaction to hands approaching his face and particularly his ears high up and directly from the front. Time spent building up the pony's confidence with this obstacle will be time very well spent this month. It will be another step towards helping the pony to recover from whatever experiences it was that have made him so fearful around his head and neck.
So, LOTS to practice!!! Time to get started :-D
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.