Recently, I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk to Dawn Westcott, a liberty trainer who has dedicated her life to working with, and protecting, the gorgeous Exmoor Pony. She has taken countless ponies in from the wild and worked with them to build an incredible partnership, using the principles of liberty and freedom training. Dawn has had a huge amount of success in the agility world, being crowned World Horse Agility Champion in both 2011 and 2012 with her very special pony, Bear. Dawn talked to me honestly about exactly why agility training is so important, and why everyone should give it a go...
What are the benefits of training a horse in agility?
“To me, agility training is beneficial for any young horse. It provides a youngster with a fantastic foundation of trust and understanding which makes future training so much easier. If a young horse or pony has never been handled before, you can’t just walk up to them and expect them to know what you want. Instead, you need to teach them to learn to learn, to learn to walk under things, through things and have things draped on their back. This will mean that when you come to put a saddle on a horse, they are used to being handled and know what you, as a human, expect from it. They need to learn to listen to you and to trust you, and I really think agility is a good way to do that.”
Watching your videos is really moving as it’s so clear that they trust you completely. How are you able to form such an incredible bond with your horses?
“The process of building trust is very much dependent on the horse that you are working with in that they are all so different. It needs to be achieved in stages and not rushed. It is about working with the pony at liberty and allowing them to come to you rather than simply grabbing them and expecting them to work with you. It’s about working out what suits the horse best. For example, some ponies would prefer to sniff you and touch you with their muzzle first, whilst others can be incredibly head shy and would far rather you approach them from the rump. An important part of my training is to never shut a pony in the stable without turnout which is simply a way to drive them nuts. Instead I give them liberty in every aspect, and give them the time that they need to come to me. I always work at the pace of the pony, and make every effort not to put them under unreasonable pressure.”
What would you say is the hardest part about training a formerly wild pony?
“This is dependent on the individual ponies. With some ponies, simply standing in the same enclosed area as them can cause them to feel immense pressure and we have to understand that their responses vary enormously. So the hardest part of training wild ponies is learning to read them correctly and get your timing right. We have a pony here who wouldn't let us put on a head collar for two years and was prepared to defend himself if we tried. I had to back off completely and let him tell me when he was ready. With a stallion like Bear (the pony with whom Dawn became World Agility Champion), he could produce explosive reactions when we first started to learn agility, which taught me the importance of pausing and ensuring he was ready to do what I asked him.”
Is agility training easy for people to do at home?
“Definitely, anyone can give it a go! The basic principles are getting a pony to go through something, over something and under something in a relaxed and willing manner with no force or coercion . You can literally use anything from around the yard like cones and buckets and tarpaulins to practice simple exercises. It is really just about teaching your horse to move willingly and calmly with you and for that all that’s needed is a head collar and a lead rope of decent length, at least 10ft .”
Do you ever get any negative reactions from other equestrian spheres?
“To anyone who laughs at what I do, I would suggest they try leading various horses and ponies with a smile in the line and without resistance, and then try doing that at liberty. It’s all very well riding in a strong bit and a flash noseband, but you’d be amazed by the number of people who can’t actually lead a horse with willing partnership. With so many horses, if you unclipped the lead rope they’d be gone, and that says a lot about the relationship between horse and human. Horse people with empathy tend to stop laughing at that point and get interested.”
What would you say are the essential attributes that an agility trainer needs?
“I think it's key for an agility trainer to ensure that they are calm, mindful and in the present moment when approaching their horses. It's so crucial to empty your mind of everything else or you can appear chaotic and distracted to the horse, which they find unnerving. Being mindful allows you to observe, convey your intention to your horse, read the horse, and be clear in your requests, which in turn, allows him to process and understand. Establishing a good connection, being aware of your core energy centre, allowing two-way communication - and offering choices - all enable the horse to express how he feels and respond as a partner rather than an object. Erratic, unclear requests cause horses to become annoyed, alarmed, mistrustful and fearful. This can often be the cause of them not doing what you want, so as a trainer, you've also got to manage your own ego. It's usually our fault, not the horse's, if they don't understand or don't want to do something. And above all, be kind and go softer.”
In my next blog, I talk to Dawn all about the Exmoor Pony and Bear. It has definitely made me want to get my own Exmoor!
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Dawn’s new book, Wild Stallion Whispering, is available to buy now. In her book, Dawn writes the story of her incredible Exmoor Pony, Bear, and their journey together towards achieving the incredible bond that they share today. She also has another book, Wild Pony Whispering, which follows the story of a very special pony called Monsieur Chapeau, who Dawn rescued when he was close to death due to being separated from his herd as a foal and being left to starve. Both books contain in depth practical tips and insights for socialising, taming and training semi-feral ponies.