Horse agility is a fun new sport that challenges and benefits the horse-human partnerships and is great for all ages and abilities!
We all strive to create an enjoyable, trusting and mutually respectful relationship with our horses. There is no doubt that our horses desire the same type of relationship with us. The fun new sport of horse agility promotes just such a partnership with your horse!
What is horse agility?
The IHAC (International Horse Agility Club) was founded in the United Kingdom by Vanessa Bee in 2010. The club’s purpose is to promote a safe, fun and unique competition experience for humans and horses of various ages, levels, abilities and breeds.
There are divisions for ponies (including miniatures), donkeys and horses. One of the many benefits of horse agility is that it offers a fun and positive experience for those who don’t or can’t ride. It also offers the retired or rehabbing horse some fun and stimulation when he can’t be ridden, benefiting him mentally, physically and emotionally.
Training for agility fosters clear, positive communication (not control), improved confidence, and healthy emotional interactions between horses and their handlers. All agility play begins on the ground in a halter, and progresses to liberty work. It is an ideal activity for camps, lesson programs, therapeutic riding programs, and anyone interested in improving the overall relationship they share with their equine partner.
Here are four things I love about this sport:
1. Training: The training for agility is not about dominance — it is about leadership and partnership. It is about communicating with the horse in a way he understands and creating positive interactions. The focus is on developing a trusting, enjoyable relationship though patience, understanding and primarily positive reinforcement.
2. Tools: No sticks, whips or ropes are allowed in competition. Interactions are reduced to your body language, your ability to communicate through sending energy, obedience training, and the overall understanding you have developed with your horse. You many choose to use an artificial aid during training but must wean yourself and your horse off them in order to compete.
3. The rules:
Rule #1 — It must be safe.
Rule #2 — It must be fun for you and your horse.
4. Scoring: 50% of your score in competition is based on your horsemanship skills and the overall attitude of your horse. The other 50% is based on the effectiveness of how well the horse performed the task or managed the obstacle.
For example, if the lead rope gets taut during your run, you lose a point off your horsemanship score. It doesn’t count against the horse’s performance. It simply demonstrates that the horse is staying with you due to pressure on the halter, not because of obedience training and desire. This happens to everyone, especially in the beginning. In agility, we are always working towards performing without halter and lead, thus requiring us to be much more aware of ourselves and our ability to communicate clearly to our horses. Judges are looking for the horse to be attentive and have a pleasant attitude during each run. We really want to see clear, calm communication between horse and handler. You should both be enjoying yourselves.
Training for agility
Horse agility training promotes safe and respectful partnerships. Simply put — it is just good horsemanship. It begins with self-awareness, an understanding of equine behavior, and fosters development of a good set of skills on the ground. The goal is to achieve clear communication and the ability to move your horse through the use of body language, not through applying pressure. It begins with developing a trusting relationship, teaching proper leading skills, working on your body language, obedience training and then progressing to obstacle work.
Many students have reported how much agility training has enhanced the overall relationship they share with their horse. Under saddle they find that their communication, confidence, behavior and trust are much improved. These students, from all disciplines range from pleasure trail riders to those who compete in various events such as hunter paces, competitive trail rides and horse shows.
Here is what one student had to say about their horses’ behavior at a dressage show following a day of horse agility: “I love how obedient my horse is after spending a whole day doing ground work. It seemed like he was an entirely different creature than all the other horses on the grounds. There were so many horses having issues with basic ground manners, trouble bridling, trouble mounting, trouble standing, trouble loading, some with all these issues. It made me appreciate every moment I’ve spent gaining my horse’s trust and being able to communicate so clearly with him.”
How to get started
Simply visit thehorseagilityclub.com to learn more and join the club. Be sure to check out the very popular OLHA (On Line Horse Agility) competitions, which allow you to compete from home. You simply print off the month’s obstacle course, videotape your run, and send it to the club. Your performance will be judged. Your scores will be posted on the IHAC website and e-mailed to you. On the website you will be able to track how you rank in your country and in the world. You will even receive a ribbon from the UK! Have fun and enjoy!
Heidi Potter is a HAAT (Horse Agility Accredited Trainer) and the owner of the New England Center for Horsemanship (NECH), located in Southern Vermont. She is a Certified Centered Riding® Clinician and CHA (Certified Horsemanship Association) Master Instructor/Clinician. As a Natural Style trainer, her mission is to help improve the relationship between horses and humans in a safe, compassionate manner by combining education with patience, praise, clarity and a sense of humor. For information on hosting a horse agility event at your facility or attending one scheduled at NECH visit heidipotter.com.