Try something new in 2019 — horse agility

If your New Year’s resolution was to be more adventurous in 2019, then we’re here to help. Sara Walker takes a look at new things to try and how to get started, and this week, it’s all about horse agility...

You may be familiar with dog agility, where dashing dogs and their enthusiastic owners tackle a range of obstacles. Did you know, though, that there’s also a version of agility work for horses?

It’s a form of groundwork that you can do with your horse at home, and also an international competitive in-hand sport which focusses on clear communication and positive horsemanship. It helps you build a stronger relationship with your horse, and as it’s in-hand it’s also suitable for horses who can’t be ridden, or for older horses to keep them engaged and interested.

Founder of The Horse Agility Club Vanessa Bee, is responsible for launching the discipline as a competitive sport and popularising it across the world. She developed horse agility as an extension of groundwork, finding it particularly useful in working with young, unbroken horses. She set up the club in 2009, and now there are events and fun taster sessions across the UK.

“The beauty of it as a sport for me is that it’s so inclusive,” says Vanessa. “From the beginning, I wanted to create a non-elitist equestrian sport with cheap or free obstacles. You don’t need to be turned out to show standard — this is about good horsemanship, not looking good. We want everyone to have a chance to compete whatever their physical or mental abilities. We now even have online competitions for people who don’t have their own transport to get to events. In fact, all you need to take up horse agility is a headcollar and a long rope. Bridles aren’t allowed — this is about communication not control and we’re always working towards taking all the equipment off and the horse responding to body and verbal cues. We don’t allow any form of whip or stick either.”

Positive equitation and connection training coach Judith Edel started competing in horse agility when her riding pony retired. She’d already been working on some obstacles with her pony’s field companion Pip, a rescue pony, and decided to take it a step further (seen pictured top, jumping through a hoop).

“Horse agility really is open to everyone and every horse (or donkey) — any age, any size, and any ability,” says Judith. “Pip is a small Welsh Mountain pony who was wary of people and far too sharp to be a safe riding pony for children, but he excels at agility. The sport has given us the motivation to really refine our communication, especially when working at liberty, and as the challenges change every month there is always something new to work on. Even my retired pony now enjoys it! In horse agility, everyone competes over the same course each month, but you can choose your own training approach. The aim is to guide your horse gently and kindly, with as little pressure as possible. I train all my horses and donkeys using positive reinforcement, which is completely pressure-free. I break down the behaviours I want into small steps and reward the horses for each step towards the final goal. That way they enjoy the training as much as I do, and are always happy to come and play.”

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If you’d like to have a try at some of the obstacles at home, you’ll need some basic arena equipment such as trotting poles and cones.

“An easy obstacle to try for a beginner is the S bend,” says Vanessa. “This is a labyrinth made of poles in which the horse has walk through corridor in the shape of an S without stepping out or touching the poles. This really teaches people to slow down and steer each foot of the horse individually. Other beginners’ obstacles include walking through a curtain, through a narrow gap or over a tarpaulin. As you progress, the obstacles get harder. One of the most difficult is the pole back up. The horse must back up over a pole without touching it. It sounds easy, but it’s not — you have to learn to establish a rhythm and encourage the horse to lift his feet over the pole. The obstacle where the horse steps into a hula hoop can be equally frustrating. People always think the big obstacles like seesaws or hoop jumping are tricky but these are easy once you have the trust of the horse.”

For details of competitions and taster sessions in your area, take a look at the Horse Agility website.

For all the latest equestrian news and reports, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday