Many of us have cheered the peppy pups that perform as part of the SuperDogs™ troupe at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto or elsewhere around the country. Dog agility is a great way for owners of high-energy dogs to train and exercise their hyperactive animals. But what about horse agility? It’s a sport that’s gaining popularity around the world and was started in the United Kingdom, where the International Horse Agility Club (IHAC) was launched in 2009 by horsewoman Vanessa Bee.

Bee got the idea from watching dogs compete in agility classes and wondered if the same principles could be applied to horses. In the canine version, the dogs are free from restraint to move freely over obstacles. Bee decided to give it a go and the club was born.

“Initially we wanted it to be just like dog agility with the horses working freely with no lead ropes, but that proved too much for our beginners,” Bee explains. Instead, the club developed a six-level system from Starter to Advanced Two Star for on lead line, and four levels of at liberty, with both categories given the option to complete special courses at the walk only for any horses and/or handlers who cannot run.

(IHAC photo)

The Club also has what is called Equagility courses (with seven levels to choose from) where five obstacles are done from the ground then the handler rides the horse over the same obstacle course. Handlers/riders have the option to ride bridle-less if they wish. In addition, the Club also offers extra courses every month including those for young horses, long-lining, juniors and even a “mystery” course.

“It’s come a long way since we started with just one competition at one level in 2009. The ability to run competitions over the internet by video has really helped the Club grow,” Bee says. “We are unique in that sticks and whips are not allowed, and good horsemanship is rewarded. Even if the horse does not complete the obstacle the handler can still gain a mark for quitting at the right moment or showing sensitive regard for the horse.”

Bee explains that the key benefits of horse agility are how it creates and enhances a positive relationship between horse and handler. To complete an obstacle is not the goal, but rather to increase trust and ability in the horses is always rewarded. There are also practical real-world applications such as helping to reduce spookiness. “I would absolutely recommend horse agility to help a horse to come to terms with the spooky real world,” Bee says. “We don’t want to take the spook out of the horse ‒ that’s what makes him a horse! ‒ but we do want to help him think about new situations and whether it’s worth running away from.”

Bee told that her top tip would be to lead your horse well before you go near an obstacle. The horse must go, whoa, go backwards and move left and right before you even get near an obstacle. Once you’ve mastered those vital lessons, then the obstacles can be added. “I always start with walking over a tarpaulin as there’s lots of room to move safely, then I go through the narrow gap checking that the horse will wait until I am safely out of the way before he comes through the gap,” she says. “I then look at going under things like the curtain frame, but I make sure all the streamers are tied right back when I start. Start small and you’ll get there more quickly than if you scare the horse at the start and lose his trust.”

(IHAC photo)


Bee discusses the importance of consistent commands, both verbal and non-verbal, for agility training to work. She calls out how many people let the horse lead them rather than the other way around. But the key for agility is for the lead rope to be loose. She suggests if your horse starts to pull you in another direction to make an abrupt turn so the animal learns to follow your cues. Eventually you’ll test your training by letting your horse off the lead.

Each month the club releases courses that members can recreate at home. There are multiple obstacles that are sanctioned by the club, including a seesaw, tunnel, hoop, tarp, poles, as well as activities such as picking up feet or passing through a gate. The site has downloadable courses for you to set up at home to practice, but you must be a registered member for this access. Same goes for competitions; both handler and equine (competitions is open to donkeys, mules, etc.) must be registered with the IHAC.

Take a quick look at a sample starter course and you’ll find such obstacles and activities as leading your horse across a tarp, through hoops on the ground, and something called “send away and return” which requires you stand still and ask your horse to walk around a marker one metre away and return to you.

The competition is judged by a marking system out of 10 for each obstacle completed. The marks are out of five for “effectively negotiating the obstacle” and five marks are up for grabs for showing “good horsemanship” while negotiating the obstacle. An official handbook for full members is also available.

While there aren’t any “live” horse agility events in Canada currently, the IHAC has a slate of online competitions that you can enter from anywhere in the world. You simply upload a video of you and your horse doing the course. This segment of the IHAC is called the Online Horse Agility (OLHA) and allows you to compete in a league without ever having to leave home. Indeed, as this snowy holiday video on YouTube proves, we Canadians have discovered the newish sport, witness BC’s Ron Burfoot’s online entry, which saw him and his horse Dreamer, crowned Walk Only League & Liberty Cup World Champions.

Both the IHAC and its affiliate, OLHA, have a presence on Facebook  where you can see photos and view videos of competitions as well as training examples with accredited horse agility trainers. There is also a list of IHAC accredited trainers, including several from Canada, here.

Horse agility certainly got our attention as a new way to work with our horses in a kind and productive fashion that is beneficial to both handler and equine. Bee says the feedback she’s received most from horse people who have tried horse agility is that the horse becomes centred, which should be a goal in all disciplines. “The horse comes first; it’s all about allowing him to say ‘no’ and giving him time to think.”

Bee has also authored several training books on the subject including The Horse Agility Handbook: a Step-by-Step Introduction to the Sport, all are available on the club website.