Agility training forms partnership with mule or horse
Lickory, a 22-year-old mule, followed Estella Holmes’ voice commands and hand commands last week near Eckert and, without the aid of a lead rope, whip or other prod, stepped onto a narrow board, a sort of equine balance beam. He stood there quietly for a few moments until Holmes told him to step down.
Lickory and Holmes spent many years riding trails in the mountains of Colorado and Arizona, but a few years ago, a leg injury Lickory suffered made it necessary for Holmes to eliminate strenuous trail riding from his regime.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be something else we can do,’ because he likes to have a job,” she said. “So, I got on the Internet and I found horse agility.”
Like dog agility competition, horse agility uses obstacles that the horse (or mule) must navigate with the aid of its handler, who is on the ground beside the animal. At beginning levels, the handler uses a lead rope, but it is mostly loose. The handler doesn’t try to drag the horse through the obstacles.
The objective, however, is to remove the lead rope and get the horse to navigate all of the obstacles relying entirely on voice and hand commands, and to do it at a trot or canter.
Lickory handles some of the obstacles in Holmes’ course with only voice and hand signals. For others, he still needs a lead rope.
Horse agility began in the United Kingdom in the past decade with a woman named Vanessa Bee, who was looking for a means of partnering better with horses, and who eventually wrote a book about the practice.
In 2009, Bee founded the International Horse Agility Club, which sets rules and sanctions competitions. Through videos, certified instructors and other resources, the club also offers assistance to those who want to get started in horse agility.
There is one certified instructor in Colorado, Holmes said — Autumn Haney of Longmont. Holmes has worked with her and the International Horse Agility Club in developing obstacles at her farm.
Holmes will sponsor a horse agility competition and clinic at her house June 8. The event will be limited to 15 horses and handlers, and it is already full, she said. But those who would like to audit the event are welcome. There is no fee, although donations are welcome to help with the upkeep of the obstacle course. Donations may also be made to HopeWest in Delta, where Holmes volunteers.
The competition Saturday won’t really be very competitive, Holmes said. Judges will score horses and handlers and let them know areas where they may improve.
“But it’s really about learning to get a relationship with your horse,” she said. “It’s between you and your animal, as opposed to you competing against 10 others.”
Members of the Women’s Surface Creek Saddle Club will help serve as judges and assistants, Holmes said.
“I’m really blessed to have them nearby and willing to help,” she added.
Holmes’ experiences with horses go back to childhood.
“I’m from Maine and Montana,” she said. “My parents ran a resort at Glacier National Park there, and I grew up riding mustangs.”
Later, as an adult living in the East, she showed quarter horses. In between jobs as a dental assistant and a surgical tech for oral surgeons, she toured as a groom for the Lippizaner stallions, then managed an Arabian horse barn in California.
Eventually, she settled in the Prescott, Arizona, area. There, she met a woman who was active with mules and with her attended the annual Mule Days Celebration in Bishop, California, one of the largest mule gatherings in the country.
Her interest in mules piqued, she began looking for mules of her own. She spotted Lickory and another mule in a pasture near Prescott and stopped to ask the owner if he was for sale. He wasn’t, the owner said.
But, as Holmes tells it, “A year and a half later, I married the man,” Bud Holmes, “and I got the mule for free.”
Ten years ago, Bud and Estella, looking to get out of Prescott, discovered the Eckert area. They bought a small ranch there. Bud, a retired jeweler, and Estella grow grass hay and enjoy the rural community.
Estella said she is beginning slowly with the horse agility, eager to see how much regional interest there is and hoping to expand the number of clinics and competitions. She hopes to have people such as Amanda Haney participate.
She is determined not to force things.
“We’ll take it slow and see how much time it takes to develop,” she said.
That’s much like the advice she and others give to people wanting to get their horses involved in agility work.