Horse Agility and Calming Signals.

It’s that time again. I fill a cart the dollar store and a glimpse in the rear view mirror while driving away looks like a clown exploded in the extended cab of my truck. Then the wading pool comes out of the rafters and I dust off the bubble makers. Cones, barrels, and hula-hoops make their way to the pasture, and I hang my favorite sign: Snakes in the Llama Room.

Horse Agility is back! Or I could call it a Calming Signal Event and really elevate the conversation. Horses would come running.

Horse agility is a game of partnership without coercion. Most of us have done obstacles in-hand with our horses, but Horse Agility is different. The eventual goal is to work off lead, just like dogs do. So we begin using a long, loose lead rope and just like dog agility, we do the asking and the animal does the obstacle. Instead of leading the horse over the obstacle, we send the horse while we stand at a distance.

Begin with leading exercises. And since we all know there is no pulling on his face, that means we cue with breath and our body. Begin by asking for his eye with your eye. If he looks towards you, reward him with a scratch and a kind word. If he looks away, it’s a calming signal. His way of saying he is no threat, which means he thinks you’re acting aggressively. (Read about Calming Signals here.)

For crying out loud, you say, I am just holding the rope! If you think you are not pushing, and he acts as if you are, who wins? You want to get this right; if the first step of working initiates a fight, you will never get his best work. At this moment you are setting a tone for the day. Go slow and give him a chance to volunteer. He might be slightly braced waiting for you to pull on the rope. Just don’t do it. Take a breath or two, and he will look back. Then reward him while you feel the entire universe shift towards partnership. It’s a quiet internal feeling that might take a minute to recognize, on both sides.

Walk on, out of his space, and cue with your inhale and your feet. Halt with an exhale and stop your feet. Reward lavishly, let him know you like his listening. The lead rope may only be used as a last resort, then just a slack jiggle or a quick ask and release. You might have a feeling being impaired or disabled without the rope, that’s your cue that you over-cue by habit.

If your horse looks a bit confused at this point, it’s because he is a bit surprised by your peaceful cues and he might need a moment to thank the horse gods. This is the perfect time to reward him, go slow and stick with him. Reward any slight movement in the right direction. Instead of punishing him for looking away or going slow or seeming distracted, hear him. Acknowledge his calming cues and find a smaller, quieter way to ask. Then feel the universe shift one more time. It feels small at the beginning, almost like you are imagining it.

Start with an easy obstacle and listen to your horse. Walk up to a simple tarp or a hula hoop on the ground. Now, resist the temptation to manipulate him with the lead, instead you will stand out of his space and send him over it by asking his hind to step forward. Remember the foundation of dressage is rhythmic movement; the art in agility is that same relaxed mind and body.

He calmly crosses and you reward his quiet success. Next time, halt him half way over without pulling the rope. Your horse especially likes the no pulling clause here. Exhale him to a stop, let your body language rest. That release is the reward. Walk away and take a break. Next go, how about backing him over, again with a long rope with quiet cues. Can you ask his left hind hoof to stand on the tarp, step by step, by sending and breathing?

Here’s the secret: Approach every obstacle the exact same way, whether it’s a wading pool with invisible ankle-biting trout or seemingly 2″ wide teeter. Never let the obstacle be bigger than the conversation with your horse. Then ride that way too. I know, I know: the simple things are never easy.

Obstacles are not pass/fail tests. In fact, the obstacle isn’t the point at all. Sometimes people drag horses through the course like it’s a race and the horses have the glazed look, resisting the rush. Are you pulling on his face? One reason it matters is that if you do it on the ground, you probably do it in the saddle too. Maybe you have dominated all obstacles in record time and you’ve finished first. I will be just as unimpressed as your horse. If you want speed and confidence, understanding has to come first and going slow is the fastest way to get it.

The goal in agility is sweet partnership, in a soft relaxed and forward way, with the horse doing the work and the handler quietly asking. Sounds like dressage to me: Ground Dressage.

Any horse, any size, any age can do it, but are you fit enough for Horse Agility? I mean emotionally fit, of course. The secret to agility, or anything else with a horse, is maintaining a calm energy. Can you stay present in the moment with your horse without distraction or frustration? Can you lead with positive confidence? The first obstacle is always our own attitude.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

I’ve written about horse agility before (here) and I recommend a book written by the founder of the International Horse Agility Club, Vanessa Bee. (find book here.)

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Comment by Anna Blake on March 24, 2015 at 3:41pm

You are totally on the right track, the first line says it all, the rest is negotiation. Good for you!

Comment by Marlene Thoms on March 24, 2015 at 3:16pm

First I have to calm myself better. Otherwise he can tell I am lying with "calming signals". I am trying to get him to step over a step through gate (already a contradiction to a horse). Last year we worked this out and he was finally doing it. Now we have regressed somewhat. I need him calm to step over, but he gets a bit anxious (probably because I am pushing too hard), then he pops it (not my preferred way of going over a low obstacle. So he is trying to comply (sometimes), but he either balks or pops. I know it's me, I have to find the right level of asking without letting him refuse altogether.

Comment by Anna Blake on March 24, 2015 at 2:33pm

Maybe not wrong so much as sideways... we can always tell when we get it right, they let us know... so explain it a bit differently, until he says, "Fine with me!"  Calming signals are huge for us to understand... did you see the other blog on calming signals too? (This is the second one, so I assume you did.) Thanks for commenting.

Comment by Marlene Thoms on March 24, 2015 at 2:01pm

Thankyou. I can think of how this helps me with a few issues I am having with my guy. You have helped me see perhaps what I am doing wrong. Nice explanation.

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