Meeting the public...
Anyone who spends time around stable yards will know that where horses jump, kids and dogs often follow. Possibly when no-one is looking. That was certainly the case at the yards where Stephanie King spent most of her teenage years. She grew up mad about horses and impoverished her mother with weekly riding lessons. Steph spent her days dreaming of having her own pony. She begged to go to Olympia to watch the horses and the dogs jumping. Although she would never have admitted it at the time, the dogs were always the best bit. But really, truly, while watching was great, she wanted to be doing it.
Then, in one of those glorious 'sunbeams and singing angels' moments, my aunt gave me a pony, and we learned the true meaning of broke. I'm not sure my mother ever forgave her.
And the thing is, even when I achieved that moment of horsy nirvana and had my own pony to jump over jumps (if all the planets were aligned and she felt like it) I still towed the family's portly old collie cross over the show jumps in the field, over brooms carefully balanced on dustbins, over logs in the woods. Over anything I could find, because it was fun. More fun than the horse most of the time because a refusal didn't entail an equine emergency stop and an undignified sprawl over her neck and, if I was unlucky, over the poles.
Note to self: never allow son to take up a danger sport. I don't know how my mother's nerves stood it.
Fast forward an undisclosed number of years. Let's just call it 'a lot.' I go to my agility club demos and I see children like me, everywhere. They watch, they clap, they're thrilled if some of our more sociable mischief makers stop to introduce themselves, but what they really really want is to have a go themselves. I'm willing to bet that when they get home, the broom is going to mysteriously disappear, to be found later balanced over bricks or plastic boxes. Garden canes will be liberated from the shed to be stuck in the ground in a row, and planks will be walked over if they can be found.
So why not give them
The demo was at the British Festival of Eventing, at Gatcombe Park no less. One of our members has the back of Princess Anne's head in a photograph, but she maintains she was trying to get the horse in the ring. We believe her. Really.
Many, many horses. Nearly as many kids and dogs.
We did a normal agility demonstration in the Main Ring each day. First place on the cheer-o-meter: black teddy bear of a GSD breaking free in the relay and going back for another go on his own. Second place: WSD, that I will deny owning under oath, saving time by crashing head first through the wall, but for the rest of the time we offered a 'have a go' ring which we manned in shifts.
It had its own space near the entrance and near our caravans. This was a vital point in making it a success, because we could keep an eye on the queue and come and go at short notice. In the ring we had a small course of fun agiity equipment, rented from Premier including a tiny dog walk, tiny A-frame, six weaves, long jump, half a dozen jumps set at a very low height and a pipe tunnel set up straight and very short. Experienced club members, many of them trainers, manned it in groups taking shifts of an hour each.
The key was not to just let them loose to traumatise their dogs. Instead what we offered was essentially a mini first lesson. We had plenty of treats on hand and a stock of leads to use if the dogs turned up with check chains or flexi leads. We took them round the obstacles one by one, introducing them pretty much the way you would in a first lesson. We let the kids jump the poles with the dogs - it worked a treat - and made sure they did a safe, steady walk over the contact equipment, explaining about encouraging the dog and making it fun.
Having three people on the ring at a time made it really good fun. Making jokes and chatting made it easier for people to approach and join in. In quiet moments, we put a 'ringer' in – ideal time to get in a bit of training as well as advertise that we were open. The nuttier collies got a lot of people stopping to watch; the 'oohs' were audible when they saw a fast weave and a queue would form pretty fast after that.
We had leaflets from the Kennel Club to hand out to people who wanted to know more, and we directed a fair few people to Agilitynet for the club finder. Although we had a rota, we ended up with a lot of the club members down there all the time, chatting to people about dogs and agility. If, like me, you like teaching beginners, you'll love it. Just have a strategy for pushy parents and make sure they give their kids a chance.
So what did
I'd recommend it.
Having a go in the Have-A-Go Agility Ring
Photos: Doug Smith
First published 30 August 2010