Horse-­Human Bonds Grow at BCHA “Challenges Clinic” with Peggy Gurnett

by Suzanne Webel

Saturday July 23 dawned hot and dry at Starlight Farm. Large umbrellas had been set up for shade, coolers of lemonade and iced tea prepared, the pastures mowed, the arena harrowed, and the props given a fresh coat of paint, in BCHA colors, no less.

As the participants in Peggy’s clinic began to arrive, it became clear that this was going to be a fun and educational day. One person rode in from nearby, thoughtfully carrying a water bucket for her horse. Others trailered in and parked in a small meadow near the barn. One participant did groundwork with a retired horse at the farm who was happy to play with new challenges, and there were a handful of auditors who helped out with logistics and moving obstacles. Participants ranged from complete beginners to very advanced, savvy horses and owners ­­ but everyone cooperated, helped each other, and had big grins on their faces throughout the day. From horseless trust­building activities to groundwork to games on horseback, Peggy made sure everyone was challenged in a safe and positive way.

Peggy’s approach was to assume success and then coach people and horses so they would achieve it. At the beginning of the day, she asked each person what they were fearful of, and got some varied responses. For example, a couple of people were concerned that their green horses wouldn’t stand tied to their trailers. So we all stood around casually doing introductions not far from the trailers, where we could keep an eye on the horses – who all stood like statues the whole time. No problem there. One participant feared that her horse would misbehave when too close to other horses. So Peggy gradually introduced the horse to its neighbors and encouraged each rider to reach across and stroke the horse next to her (to show the horse that the neighbor was part of the herd). By the end of the day the horse/rider pair was doing better, and with consistent work will be able to resolve the problem. One participant stated, “I am amazed at the progress we’ve made today. I never thought my horse would be able to do this!” One of the beginner riders exclaimed, “I never thought I would be able to do this!”

The clinic opened with Peggy pairing off unmounted riders and blindfolding one half of each pair, with a rope around their clasped hands to simulate “the horse.” The seeing half of each pair (“the rider”) had to lead the blindfolded “horse” over a series of obstacles using only non­verbal aids such as taps, tugs and strokes. The “horses” reported initial concerns about trusting the “riders” but gradually came to trust them, while the “riders” initially found it frustrating to try to direct the “horses” but eventually devised a system of aids that the “horse” could understand. It was an enlightening exercise and a bonding experience, much like the one between real riders and real horses.

Next, Peggy set up a variety of obstacles such as a tarp, barrels, hula hoops, umbrellas, Frisbees, rails, and a bridge. She had the participants guide their real horses through the course from the ground, focusing on precision and guiding each footfall through the obstacles. Then, the riders mounted and guided their horses through the challenges at their own speed until they felt comfortable. There were even sedate competitions for the fastest walk and the slowest walk, to encourage subtle communication. Most people were pleasantly surprised at how mellow the horses were, even though there were some very new things to experience.

At the end of the day, all the participants agreed that there were many good take­home lessons from the day. “I have so many new communication tools to practice using!” reported one rider. Another participant confirmed, “Peggy brought some great insights to the day, and I really enjoyed working through the challenges with a fun group of horses and riders.”

Thank you, Peggy, for a great clinic! Our appreciation also goes to Amy Bowman and Dirk Arnold for lending us some “objects” for the day, to my boarders for helping to spruce up some others that we had on hand, and to Laura Edwards for keeping track of the logistics. I was pleased to be able to offer my place, Starlight Farm, and to host the clinic there.

If you missed it – well, we hope to see you at our next clinic or another BCHA event!