There is far more to play than playing with objects like a ball or having at go at Equine Obstacle Challenges aka Handy Pony aka Agility. (I use a broad description as it comes in may shapes, forms and delights). The Art of Play is far more than this which you can read for FREE in the articles I had published in Horsemanship Magazine. I remeber as a child at small local shows handy pony classes (sometimes partly non ridden or completly non ridden). To navigate a series of obstacles or challenges and being awarded marks on the merit of not only the task completed but in ethical handling skills and the pony's manners. The equine world has certainly moved on since my childhood and there are many merits for enjoying this activity with our equines.
It provides us with an excellent opportunity to fully engage with our horses on many levels: cognitively, physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. It teaches horses and humans about sharing a learning experience. In horsemanship play is a wonderful tool in development of a shared language as it opens up two way communication. It builds self-esteem and self-confidence in both equine and human participants which enriches a shared supportive relationship. This and play are wonderful for building mutual respect, trust and bonding.
If you want to have a go at it is very easy to get started. Many obstacles can be made from things you already may have at the yard. For example a selection of ground poles can be laid out to create a simple maze to walk through. A tarp can be weighted down for your horse to walk over. Cones to weave in and out. A mat to practice as a stop, stand and park place. A heavy weight pallet can with handyman or handywoman skills we turned into a podium with marine ply on the top then attach a non slip mat. Other pieces of kit are cheap to purchase, flags, ribbons, hoops, barrels, etc... Our own horse has certainly tested all our equipment and managed to destroy stuff. So I strongly urge you to make your obtacles robust and ensure they are safe. Never leave your horse unattended. And if you are new to this please work with a professional.
Here are just a few of the many benefits equine obstacle challenges
If you want to ignite cognitive development in your horse these activities and play are a great way to encourage your horse to think. Horses are very able to cognitively process, problem solve and think things through. These activities allow horses to explore the world and is fabulous for conquering their fears. Using play you can help your horse think, to look to you for guidance rather than react. It’s great for spook busting and bomb proofing your horse. Horse and human together through play around facing fears, develop new competencies, enhanced confidence and a resiliency in facing future challenges. From practicing spook busting games as a partnership, you and your horse will have tools and strategies in dealing with scary situations. Once practiced and skilled you will view tricky situations as golden training opportunities not to be feared.
These activities teaches humans about patience and understanding. As for true horsemanship it should be 50 / 50 with the horse. So here it is essential we listen to the horse, as how best to help our horse with each new task. We want to ignite fun and for the horse to see Equine Obstacle Challenges as one type of play it enjoys. When we observe natural play in our horses we are given a unique opportunity to see the world from their view point. Horsemanship is looking into their world so we can learn to communicate more effectively. There is a place for human led structured activities, but be mindful to incorporate time for horses to select and decide their own play.
Equine Obstacle Challenges builds active and healthy bodies. Physically play enables participants to practise certain physical movements so it is great for developing better reflexes, balance, core strength, coordination, increased joint mobility, flexibility and muscle tone. Physical exercise makes you feel good as it raises the levels of the natural mood-enhancing hormones. Plus it can be one useful tool in burning calories keeping waistlines in check.
Despite the many benefits, many don’t place a high value on it. Many people lead stressful, hurried lifestyles and opportunities to interact with their horse are often about training for an equestrian discipline, or human led agendas. For us, play is a wonderful way to get off the wheel and practice emotional well-being. Many horses are managed to meet their physical needs, and have abundant resources and live in relative peace, however due to management practices they may not be receiving the full benefits of play. Some people are unaware of how non ridden activities can be a wonderful part of enhancement of training their horse. Play is so important to optimal equine development. It helps horses to adjust to schooling as it enhances learning readiness and learning behaviours. Through play horses develop emotional maturity and the ability to concentrate. Exploration is the heart of play and it is the ignition to curiosity and problem-solving skills.
Too many of us get hung up on being serious with our horses. Letting your hair down, laughter and joy in play is a wonderful way to spend time with your horse. Play should be a cherished part of horsemanship. It sets you up for a meaningful close bond and friendship with your horse. It is sociable, rewarding, motivating and sets us up for success mentally, physically, socially and emotionally. Most of all play is fun.
If you enjoy this as an activitiy there are many platforms you can take this up as a sport and compete, or attend clinics. I will not list all of them with links as I did on the Non Ridden Equine Association UK website. As this was a large part in why the association was closed. We received a formal letter from one horse agility provider. In it stated sharing links to another provider she would prosecute of the Non Ridden Equine Association UK. The stress from legal threat along with other harrasment and bullying over the years lead to the closure of the assoication.