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Friday 9 December 2016

Stretching the legs and minds of curious horses

New horse agility classes offer a real fun way for owners to train young stock

Published 25/01/2011 | 05:00

Horse
Agility founder Vanessa
Bee gets a horse to jump
at liberty at her
equine centre in England
Horse Agility founder Vanessa Bee gets a horse to jump at liberty at her equine centre in England

Does the idea of introducing a young unbroken horse to new sights and sounds appeal to you? Do you have a miniature breed that cannot be ridden? Are you unable to participate in ridden equestrian events?

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If so, a brand new sport called Horse Agility could be right up your street.

Launched just over a year ago by Positive Horsemanship trainer Vanessa Bee, the first Horse Agility club already has more than 400 active members in Britain and is set to make its mark in Ireland in the coming months.

Loosely based on the idea of dog agility for horses, the competition comprises a variety of obstacles for the horse and handler to complete. In some cases, the obstacles are similar to those used in the canine sport, except for the obvious up-sizing required to make it possible for a horse to compete. These obstacles include a tunnel, a seesaw, a hoop and an A-frame.

Horses are asked to jump poles, pass through a curtain, weave through a series of poles or cones, cross a tarpaulin, pass through a trailer and step onto a podium.

Some of the obstacles are similar to natural obstacles encountered out hacking, such as crossing water, backing through two poles, crossing a bridge, and climbing through branches or poles.

For the young horse, Horse Agility can be an introduction to tasks it will be asked to perform throughout its education and career, such as carrying a light load, standing still in a circle, picking up its feet, passing through a narrow gap or gateway, and passing through a trailer.

However, there are some tasks that a horse is highly unlikely to be asked to perform in its life, such as rolling a ball or jumping through a hoop.

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So who is horse agility aimed at?

Founder Vanessa Bee insists it is suitable for horse handlers of any age and horses of all shapes, sizes and ages.

"It's great for horses that are unable to be ridden for behavioural or physical reasons, ponies that are too small or too young for the owner to ride, or for people who can't or don't want to ride due to physical injuries or such like," she says.

"We have members who compete at showjumping and cross-country but want to spend fun time with their horse, and we have members whose horses cannot be ridden due to back injuries."

Vanessa maintains that Horse Agility is ideal for younger animals that have not yet been broken.

"It gives young, sometimes flighty, horses a chance to see the world and experience new sights and sounds in a safe and enclosed environment," she says.

"It can be much safer than bringing them to a show because we are used to dealing with horses that are nervous.

"By the time it comes to riding that youngster, it will be a completely different animal because it will have seen the world, been to 'pretend' shows, been in and out of a tent and past roadworks. Basically, Horse Agility can help your horse acclimatise to the real world."

The competitive element of Horse Agility is one of the key attractions of the sport.

At the lower levels of competition, horses are led with a headcollar and lead rope, but as horses and handlers progress up through the ranks of the sport, the ultimate aim is to work the horse at liberty.

Obstacle

The sport's scoring system is based on judges awarding a score for each obstacle. The score is based on effectiveness and good horsemanship at completing the obstacle.

For example, an obstacle is marked out of 10, which is made up of two parts: a) effectively negotiating the obstacle (out of five marks); and b) good horsemanship shown while negotiating the obstacle (out of five marks).

Simply put, the horse cannot be dragged or forced into completing an obstacle without losing all of his horsemanship marks.

"Agility is not just about playing with horses," insists Vanessa. "It strengthens the bond between horse and handler without gadgets or quick fixes.

"The ultimate aim of Horse Agility always is for the horse to run completely free of any restraint, directed round a course of obstacles by the handler.

"At the higher levels, this is against the clock with the horse running free, which makes it a great spectator sport in which to participate."

Although the sport is currently attracting an overwhelmingly female membership -- 93pc women compared to 7pc men -- the introduction of a new class called 'wild agility' is set to increase the testosterone quotient.

In this class, which is described as cross-country on foot, the horse is led in hand over a 5km cross-country track that includes jumping logs and crossing water among other challenges. For some obstacles, both horse and handler must jump, while for other obstacles, the horse must jump while the handler stays to the side.

Here in Ireland, Connected Horsemanship trainer Laura Domenica is to host one of the first Horse Agility introductory workshops next month.

Freestyle

Laura has already introduced Winner, her Trakehner dressage horse, to Horse Agility.

"He had been dressaged to death in his native Poland and is just starting to come out of himself now," says Laura.

"He was a solemn, introverted horse that didn't really like people and certainly didn't like being ridden.

"To see him jump freestyle and come cantering towards me all of his own choice is amazing."

The trainer believes that Horse Agility can improve your riding through creating a better bond with the horse.

"You can create more submission in the horse, which makes him more obedient, more trusting in you and more malleable when you're in the saddle," Laura adds.

"It increases the bond between horse and rider and improves the trust within that bond. When the horse is at liberty, it is his choice to take part because you can't make him."

Children and ponies are often quicker to take to Horse Agility, Laura claims

"Ponies are naturally very curious and very brave, while kids have that lovely sense of fun that we as adults have lost," she says.

"If you tell a child to go and play, he will go and play, but if you tell an adult to go and play, he will ask you what to do."

Laura is hosting an introductory Horse Agility workshop at Ballybrack Equestrian Centre in Watergrasshill, Co Cork, on February 20, while the second workshop will take place at Pat Tierney's stables in Ennis, Co Clare, on February 27.

A third workshop in Co Westmeath has yet to be confirmed for March 6.

For more information on Horse Agility, visit www.horseagilitygb.com and to find out more about Horse Agility workshops in Ireland, contact Laura Domenica on 086 8239679 or www.connectedhorsemanship.com

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