I’ve been doing Halter Obstacle at Miniature Horse Shows since I was 7 years old (which was 30 years ago, for those who were wondering.) I taught 4H for years with a focus on obstacles, I’ve competed at the AMHA World Show in the class, and we’ve always worked with our horses over obstacles, whether they were planning to show in the class or not. Obstacles teach horses good skills, and give them the confidence to deal with new things in other areas of their lives too.
When I started doing Horse Agility, about three years ago, what appealed to me was the monthly online competitions put on by The International Horse Agility Club. What could be better than having a competition goal you could work towards from the comfort of your own barnyard, even in the winter months? I signed up, not for any reason other than giving me something fun to do with my horses in the winter.
On the surface, Halter Obstacle and Horse Agility have a lot of similarities. Both teach your horse to negotiate obstacles. Both improve your ability to communicate with your horse, and your horse’s ability to give you the right answer. Both are fun, and challenging, for both horses and humans.
I went into Horse Agility thinking that my years of Halter Obstacle would set me up for success. Turns out, deciding to do something fun with my horses in the winter was also a great way to improve my horsemanship.
The biggest difference that I found, was the Horse Agility rule that deducts a point every time your lead rope is tight. Coming from a world where your ribbon depends on your horse placing every foot perfectly, giving up the control of a tight rope was a huge challenge.
I had to unlearn the way I’d been doing it for so long, and as I did, I made a discovery. When I gave my horse the freedom to navigate the obstacle without my micromanagement, there was a huge change: he was more engaged, more focused, and more careful. Before, my horses weren’t thinking for themselves – there was no need they’d just do what they were told. They were obedient, but they weren’t truly partners.
When the simple “no tight lead rope” rule made me give my horse responsibility for how they navigated an obstacle, they took it and elevated their performance accordingly.
It’s a lesson I’ve tried to take to heart in all my horse interactions. Give them the responsibility. Let them make the mistake. Reward the effort, and ignore the missteps. Build a partnership, rather than a dictatorship.
It doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes I slip, get frustrated, and insist instead of explain. But my experience has taught me, and keeps teaching me every day, that isn’t the path to success. It’s a hard lesson for us to learn, but taking that step back, giving your horse the freedom to learn – that’s a challenge worth working on.