Monday, June 3, 2013

Blessi and Horse Agility

I had always thought that doing agility with my dog Ollie was fun and wondered what it would be like with Blessi my horse--you know the agility with ramps, hoops, and tunnels.  Vanessa Bee from the UK had that exact same thought and developed a sport around it.  Here is a link to her organization's site...

...and a link to her promo video:

As you can see, I have reverted to using a tight lead line.
Blessi is dermined to visit Vanessa.
Vanessa is giving her first tour in North America.  She will be at various locations in Canada and the US in June.  I attended her clinic in the Seattle area this weekend.  One of the first things that Vanessa mentions in her clinic is that all "sticks" (carrot sticks, longe lines, crops, etc) are forbidden in class.  Our goal is to partner with horses and get them to do the obstacles on a loose lead line.  Vanessa's background is education so she has an excellent instructional style.

She talked about getting the horse to work with you using feel and timing. Having attended a Buck" Brannam clinic, she talked about how we should be striving to work with our horse in horse agility by "feel."  In a video I viewed recently, Tom Dorrance defined "feel and iming" as like balancing a broomstick on the tip of a finger--you need to move just enough to keep the stick balanced. If you move too fast the stick falls over, if you don't move fast enough the stick falls over.  The feel itself is very delicate with almost no pressure. So our challenge during the obstacle training is to lead our horses through the obstacles by feel and body language with float in the lead line.

Vanessa emphasized that the horse dictates the rate of exposure to an item.  She demonstrated how to introduce a horse to flag waved at the end of the stick. She waved the flag slowly from a distance.  She then walked slowly towards the horse until she detected the horse seemed nervous and then walked away from the horse.  She kept up this approach and retreat effort until she could wave the
flag gently under the horse's nose.  And then Vanessa said that was enough for the day.  The mare trusted that Vanessa would remove the object as soon as it became scary and this trust could be built on during another day.

She also chunks down the activity.  So for instance, trailer loading is practiced in several stages on the ground first a) go through barrels that are gradually brought closer together, b) go up ramp, etc.

Many horses have an instintive fear of putting their feet inside
a hula hoop since it looks like a hole to them. 
The purpose of this challenge is to direct your horse to step
into the hula hoop, then step into your hula hoop and have
your horse wait for you for the count of 3 or more.  Blessi got
this one immediately. 
Vanessa had some excellent ground exercises to help a horse develop straightness and flexibilty. For example, she talked about how some of the natural horsemanship methods to backing up your horse by shaking the leadline back and forth often result in a horse backing up out of balance--high headed and hollow backed.  She suggested some alternative ways.

Horse agility is scored--just as in dog agility.  One of the things that I loved about Vanessa's approach to evaluating results is that you are scored by both how well your horse does an activity and how well you set him up for success. All activities should be done with a loose lead line with float in it.  Each
time that your tighten up the lead line, you lose a point.  You can never strike your horse for any reason.  If the horse does not want to go through the barrels, you can invite the horse through but you cannot drag it through or threaten it with the lead line to get it through.

For example one of the activities is to lead the horse through a serpentine of poles.  The horse can step over and kick over the guiding poles and may get a 1 for the activity.  However if the owner keeps coaching, keeps the lead line with float, etc., she may score a 5 out of 5 (full marks) for the event.
 Vanessa also trains with safety in mind.  As you start out in horse agility, you want the horse to do events calmly rather than through excitement.  For example, when introducing your horse to the car wash (assuming your horse will approach
it willingly--otherwise you need to start with approach and retreat method), you start by asking your horse to stop in front of the car wash, you then step through the car wash and invite your horse to step through after you.  This really helps if the horse tries to crowd you at gates or when exiting stalls, etc.

Blessi is making me look good. See the loose lead line.
The truth is that when Blessi sees a bridge-like object
he just crosses it for me no matter how badly I set him up
Vanessa has worked extensively with Exmoor ponies so she is familiar with horses with Icelandic-like temperments and she enjoys working with them.  I often judge a clinician by how Blessi reacts to him or her.  The clinic was held in a pasture covered in rich grass so Vanessa challenged me to make Blessi think the grass was "poison" and not let him eat by using my body language and by making
him work when he dived for grass. Vanessa demonstrated how to do this with attitude and body language--it was subtle but effective. (I have gotten so tired of instructors telling me to hit Blessi to get him to stop diving for grass.) Blessi immediately bought into Vanessa's view point.  In fact he was fascinated with her.  He kept following her movements and several times took steps towards her as she kept bring out new items to introduce how to work with them.

I was either partly successful or partly unsuccessful in managing the grass diving depending on how you want to think about it. This continued to be a challenge--go through two barrels placed closely together--no problem!!! However lead Blessi through with loose lead line, have put his head down in a relaxed position, and then try to stop him from eating grass at the end of the tarp under the barrels--problem. I must also confess that I am inconsistent on handling the whole grass diving issue.

Another obstacle is to lead your horse through a square filled with empty, plastic, water bottles.  Every time (except for the actual test) that I led Blessi through the square, he had to stop and investigate the bottles.  He would pick up each bottle and shake it to see if it had treats in it.  Some he even threw some out of the square.
Blessi tries to fool me by keeping a low head while
crossing the tarp--oh my is that grass!
Blessi never did lead through the barrels well.  The challenge was to stop the horse before the barrels, you walk through the barrels, and then invite the horse to walk through the barrels--another great safey exercise so the horse does not push into you as you go through gates.  None of the other horses at the clinic noticed that there was some flakes of grain on top of the barrel.  So every time we did the exercise, Blessi would stop, I would walk through the barrels, and he would take the opportunity to lick up a few more flakes of grain, bite the barrel and pick it up in his teeth and shake it hoping to get
more grain, etc.

Via the International Horse agility organization, you can compete in various categories by submitting a video of you and your horse trying pre-defined course with mostly equipment you can make at home.  You get judged and compete with others at your level in many different countries.  The champion in 2011 was an Exmoor pony stallion named Hawkwell Versuvius:

I have to say that this was a wonderful, fun clinic in which I learned a lot. The clinic was filled with great horse owners and lovely horses.  Breeds ranged from other Icelandics to Arabs, minis, draft crosses, Welsh ponies, etc.  Humans ranged in age from 8 to 50+ so it really is a sport that just about anybody and any horse can do.

I was challenged to refine how I work with Blessi.  I really thought that I used a lot of float in the lead line when I worked with him on the ground.  What I discovered with feedback from the clinic is that I work that way when events go well, but when I am confused or tensed up or Blessi misinterprets what I am doing, I tighten up that lead line as a default method.  As Vanessa says, I need to trust my horse, trust Blessi and he will work with me.


MegF said...

I'd run across this UK lady's agility work before, but didn't know she was coming to North America. I'd so love to have a fun outlet like this with my horses that didn't require riding. Sometimes folks can't ride or have a young horse or horse with some injury that prevents riding. Even if one does ride most of the time with your horse, then having fun on the ground provides a different relationship that is also quite fun. Great post to present this concept to your blog fans.

Wonder if I could get a group going in my area for agility and also clicker methods. This would seem to be ideal for using clicker training.

LOVE it, Pam!!!

Blessiowner said...

You could contact Vanessa to see if she is willing to do a future clinic in your area. Most of the equipment at the lower levels is fairly easy to put together by somebody with elementary carpentry skills (except for the bridge that will support a horse).
And the great thing is that you can do this with your horses, have somebody film you, and compete internationally without ever leaving your horse.
In fact, I can almost guarantee that the results will be better at home since the horse won't be as distracted by a new environment and strange horses.
However, I must admit that it would be a lot more fun with a group of interested people. And Vanessa said that carrots and clicker training are a suitable match up for what she is trying to present--although I don't think she uses them.
Let us know how this works out!