Equine AgilityBy Suzanne De Laurentis and Allen Pogue ©2006
Canine Agility has become a very popular sport globally and is watched live and via television by folks who are dog breeders, trainers and lovers and also those who have never owned a dog. In Dog agility a dog and handler maneuver, off leash an obstacle course in a timed competition. The course is creative and presents a real challenge to both canine and handler. The dog must respond with split second accuracy to the requests he is given and the handler who works right along side of him coaches him through the course. Canine Agility is big business and big sport.
Dog Agility is modeled on equestrian stadium jumpers' competitions, and has its own scoring, obstacles and performance requirements. Agility as an entertainment for spectators is the most rapidly growing dog sport in Europe and America. Spectators are usually awed by the dogs' and handlers' mutual enthusiasm and unity in their race against the clock.
Canine Agility trials original international rules call for the highest level of agility from the dogs both in terms of speed and ability to perform the obstacles. Challenges are appropriate to the class and experience level of the dogs competing. Handlers may give an unlimited number of commands or signals to their dogs, but may not touch either the equipment or the dog.
Most animal lovers today are familiar with The Dog Whisperer, featuring Cesar Millan, one of the hottest programs on television these days. In his top selling book, Cesar's Way, he repeats many times that the three things a dog needs most are exercise, discipline and affection. Although canines and equines are at opposite ends of the preditor/prey spectrum, there are many similarities in what is required to keep both species happy and well behaved within their natural herd or pack.
At Imagine A Horse we have worked diligently for years to stress that Trick Training is not about teaching tricks but rather about teaching horses to be willing and compliant partners with skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Many aspects of Trick Training or Equine Agility promotes and maximizes the development of each horse's physical, mental and emotional growth. Personal best performance and meaningful companionship are the goals, not the clock and not the winning of ribbons or even financial reward.
If we look at what horses need most, it is forage, exercise, and companionship (not necessarily human). Forage is self-explanatory.
Exercise is a different story. Does being driven in endless circles in a round pen equate to proper exercise? What about dozens of repetitions of flexions and under saddle exercises of walk, trot and canter? Think about the typical exercise routines that horses go through at human request, do they make sense to the horse? We propose that horses need meaningful exercise; exercise they can make sense of. One of the major reasons that horses resist in giving free flowing forward movement is that they don't understand or are tired of or bored with mundane exercises. Equine Agility offers variations on a basic theme and variations are often accepted and praised by the astute handler. This is part of molding desired behaviors in our equine companions.
Being herd animals, horses need companionship and appreciate both human and equine companionship. Horses do express affection to each other and often to their handlers as well. When a horse is allowed a measure of self-expression as is acceptable in Trick Training, he will begin to look forward to human companionship as something he sees as fun, not just pointless (to them) work. Agility training really helps to bring out the individuality of each horse.
Trick Training or Equine Agility uses exercises and challenges that actually make sense to the horse. What if Dog Agility consisted of animals making repeated circles or laps at a variety of speeds or gaits in a show arena? Boring, of course, and much below the aptitude and intelligence of most animals. Have you ever seen a dog running the agility course that looked bored?Of course, basic ground work and in hand skills should be taught prior to Agility Training to establish a good working relationship and herd hierarchy: the human is the leader and the horse is the follower.
Many horses suffer through daily routines that are thoroughly boring.
We believe that age appropriate Equine Agility Training alleviates boredom and will help a handler to develop a horse's intelligence and ability to learn, his physical ability, his mental resources (concentration/attention span) and his emotional capacity. We believe that Agility Training can give a horse a sense of accomplishment and self-expression. Most horses who go through A T
display a high sense of satisfaction when performing the learned behaviors and poses. This is in part because the horse understands exactly where the completion point is in his work; with most other exercises, the end point is nebulous. With A T, we expand upon the wide range of physical stretches and poses that a horse does on his own, by molding the behavior(s) and adding a cue. For example have you ever watched a horse half rise from a lay down and pause to rub his belly (where it itches) back and forth on the ground while in a sitting position?
Each molded or taught move is a basis or building block for other more complex moves that follow. For instance the natural progression of teaching a horse the Jambette is to mold it into the Spanish Walk.The Extreme Cowboy competition that is popular on television, Working Cow Horse competition, some Trail Classes and Eventing all require horses to perform multiple learned tasks but most other disciplines are very specific and narrow with NO room for self expression from the horse.
As in Dog Agility, Equine Agility requires the use of props such as pedestals of various designs, balls, and even bean bags. What would agility be without the use of props or obstacles? Where a horse has difficulty understanding esoteric requests perhaps such as traveling in circles, he will easily distinguish success when he steps up on a pedestal. The action is easily understandable by most horses, even if they at first resist. Think of agility props as man-made obstacles.
Let's look at the equine's ability to learn. To quote Dr. Robert M. Miller in Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse's Mind: "However if intelligence is rated by qualities such as retention (memory), and speed of learning, then the horse must be considered extremely intelligent. Its memory often exceeds ours and its speed of learning nearly always does." Dr. Miller also refers to the horse as the most intelligent of all domestic animal species. Most horses possess intelligence that usually far surpasses the discipline they are trained in.
One of the goals of Trick Training and Equine Agility is to mold a horse who has learned how to learn and to willingly and enthusiastically interact with the handler into a genuine companion animal who, though mute, is extremely eloquent.