Liberty Play: Doing “with” or Doing “to”?

Horses and humans playing at liberty has always excited me. I love the idea of the horse being free to interact and play. When I watch horses I innately become aware of how it “feels” to them. I am elated when filled with feelings of joy, concentration, desire, and pride. I feel great sadness when the the feelings represent a horse that is just doing his “duty”, not being allowed to express himself. Like a trained “soldier”, he performs what is asked through fear of repercussion, not through willingness and not with joy.

As a Trainer for the International Horse Agility Club of England I never forgot feedback I received from the club founder, Vanessa Bee, many years ago. After viewing one of my Liberty Competition videos she commented that while it was good, I needed to allow things to go “wrong”. The point was that liberty play should always be a dynamic conversation between the horse and human, allowing space for the horse to express himself. The point was not to “micro-manage” it with the goal of perfection and obedience. It should be a demonstration of connection, conversation, mutual respect and fun.

Trusting Me, Trusting You…….

On trail rides with Riley I balance elements of fitness with time for enrichment. For Riley the enrichment moments generally involve food, especially in winter. We go out into the fields to forage through the snow for buried acorns or patches of grass.

A few rides ago I sat on a rock while he was foraging with the lead line draped over his neck. I reflected on how strong our connection was and how much he trusts me. Because he lacks confidence he does things for me that he would never otherwise “choose” to do. I realized that I needed to trust him and our relationship as well, so I turned him loose. I let him forage for quite some time and then it was time to head home. We were two fields away, off property, but far from any roads or houses. There was no reason to think that he would want to go anywhere else than back home with me. Turns out I was right. It took a little extra time, because he had a voice, and because it was a conversation. Below are a couple clips of our liberty excursions this winter. Think about the partnership you have created with your horse. Consider some scenarios where you could put all that work to the test and show him how much you trust him. Be safe and have fun.  

Evaluating What You Are Observing

Can you determine if a horse is happy in work or play with a human, or just being obedient? Watch his expression and observe his body. Are his ears floppy, perky, back slightly in concentration or pinned? Is his tail swinging and lifted, or clamped and tight? Are his facial features and expressions bright, interested, and relaxed, or pinched and dull?

If you want to improve your observation skills I recommend learning Horse Speak®, the exact and specific language of the horse. Founder, Sharon Wilsie has created a learnable, teachable format based on the postures, gestures and signals that horses use naturally in communication with each other. Begin your journey by watching some of the free videos on https://sharonwilsie.com/webinars-and-online-courses/

Off-Property Liberty Walk VideoSee video below

Thank you, thank you. I have just begun this transition in thinking with my horse and myself. After years of mastering traditional natural horsemanship training and “liberty” work, I realized there was no liberty in what I was doing. Such a lot of rethinking for me to learn but I am experiencing a shift in our relationship that I feel is right. I am in Ontario Canada. Your article and Off-Property Liberty Walk video was just what I needed to read.

Trail Ride Conversation & Bare Naked Stroll Home-See video below

Conversations during our ride…….

Riley: We can’t pass by Captain because he walks through fences (which is true!). After lots of breathing, requests for movement, getting mini steps and waiting some more, I finally really listened. I broke a branch off the tree and moved Captain away from the fence. Riley thanked me by willingly moving forward right away.

Riley: This is A LOT of work, stopping several times in the deep snow.

Me: The snow mobile trail is just up there………

Me on the way home: Let’s stop and I’ll wear the bitless bridle.

Riley: Fine……

However, Riley vacillated between being okay and feeling a bit stressed. Sometimes he followed and twice he went ahead, waiting for me both times, once at the wood line and once at the bridge. Once home he stopped before the paddock, took inventory of the herd, nibbled the tree and dumped a lot of stress. After watching the video clips, I promised him I would remain present and fully connected on our next venture out. Filming and sharing is fun but prevents me from being fully in the moment. Thank you Mother Nature for sunshine, mild temps (30’s) and good footing, all at one time!!

Paying Attention to Intention

This past summer I was asked to ride this silly boy Cooper by his owner. On this trail lesson I was also working with the farm owner riding her horse Rhett, Cooper’s best buddy and herd leader. Cooper’s owner had been working on his confidence and had varying degrees of success, even just hand walking him away from the farm had its challenges. Sometimes his balking began in the arena before they even got to the driveway. Having owned this little chestnut Quarter Horse for many years myself I understood the balance of sensitivity and leadership he required. He could really dig his heels in and just refuse to move. I felt his apprehension as soon as we left the barnyard.

During the ride he vacillated between looking behind him for the boogeyman, being jittery and accepting some calming cues from me. Once we were headed back to the farm his pace picked up a bit, clearly stating how much he wanted the safety and security of home.

About a football field away from the farm I dropped my “magic wand” in the field. I decided to use retrieving it as a training opportunity. I dismounted a bit before the entrance to the farm and clearly stated our mission to Cooper as Rhett proceeded back to the barn. Knowing this would be a challenge for him I exaggerated my language. I pointed in the direction of the whip, verbalized out loud what my intent was, and took off marching at a good clip, keeping my eyes and energy focused on where I thought the whip was. I was thrilled when he matched his energy to mine without an ounce of apprehension. Occasionally he had to pick up a jog to keep up. He did so willing with the reins remaining slack in my hand.

Suddenly he stopped. I was envisioning that the wand was still about 20’ ahead and to the left of us. I backed up a step to better align myself with him and began to request that we continue. He was squared up in front and pretty committed to not moving. That is when I saw it. The wand was lined up exactly to the right of his front legs. I promised him that we were only leaving the farm to go get the whip……….and he held me to it. 😊

It is amazing how much horses understand us when we pay attention to our intention. Being congruent, honest, and clear is the way of the horse. They don’t know any other way to be. Amazing things happen when we base our interactions on how horses interact with one another. They are never not listening. Be honest, be clear, be a good listener and reap the benefits of a safer, calmer more enjoyable relationship with your equine friends.

Trailer Loading Success in Under 2 Minutes

Riley came to me for training as a 2-year old with the goal of helping him overcome his many fear issues. One of his biggest hurdles was trailer loading and this still plagues him 13 years later. We trailer out a few times a month and he always loads, but with varying levels of anxiety. Over the last 6 weeks I have used a Horse Speak® routine that has had amazing, lasting effects. This routine takes less than two minutes and has a calming, grounding, centering effect on both the horse and the human.  

The sequence I use was discovered during a filming session for the 2020 Horse Speak® Buttons Webinar Series at my farm. (visithttps://horse-speak.teachable.com/)  One aspect of our work involved combining a “Hold Hand” and a breath on two Buttons simultaneously. With Riley standing at liberty in the barn aisle Sharon instructed me to place a soft, open palm on Riley’s Follow Me Button and the other one on the Bridge of the Nose Button. I held for one breath, released, and paused, repeating it three times. After a short set of three I stepped away and relaxed. When I stepped back Riley took a sideways step towards me, saying “Do it again.” I did as he requested, repeating the series multiple times. Previously, he had been nudgy and restless. After each sequence he became calmer and calmer, softening his eyes, deepening his breathing and lowering his head.   

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Helping a Youngster Understand Bubbles, Boundaries and the wonder of Zero

“Horse Speaking” with young Dillion at Maple Woods Farm last March was one of the highlights of this clinic. Although lovable, confident and cute, Dillion was a “Bubble Popper”. Using the language of Horse Speak, his “Go Away Face” (GAF) Button was non-existent. He just had no idea that a sending of energy or touch to that part of his face was a request for space. He crowded me in an attempt for affection, protection, connection, you name it. When I gently asked him for a little space he didn’t know how to respond. To clarify my need for space I added the Mid-Neck and Shoulder Buttons to the GAF Button. I did this by facing him, pointing my center in the direction I wanted him to move towards and asking him to not only turn his face away but take his front feet and shoulders with him. That’s when the light bulb went on and he began to understand.

He honored my request for space by stepping over with his front end, and then he bounced right back saying, “Do it again……” After repeating the same request multiple times he suddenly didn’t bounce back. He stood quietly, keeping space between us. That’s when it was clear that the seed had been sown and we could take a pause, allowing time for processing. We quietly shared space with me stepping away a bit but leaving a “Hold Hand” up to define the edges of our bubbles. We were still connected, our Bubbles still touching, but not collapsing into one another.

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The Boogeyman in the Field

Our 17-acre Southern Vermont property provides our horses with several grazing areas, one of which takes them up to what we refer to as the “back pasture”. The pathway leads along a brook, over a bridge, up a little rise and through the gate.

Over the past 7 years their ritual has been to graze for several hours, head back to the barn for water and brief respite, and return to grazing until being called in for dinner. Scout is the herd leader and in general dictates their schedule, which they dutifully follow.

This past summer something changed. They would follow me up to the back pasture only to return to the barn within a half hour or so. Then they would stand around in the shelters for hours. Not normal behavior! I would go out, walk back up, they would follow me, graze for a bit or sometimes not even at all and head back to the barn. I searched the field multiple times never finding any reason for their behavior.

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Offering a BLM Mustang Something New

Fiddle at the end of our session………

Last winter in Florida I was asked by friend, student and Yoga teacher Melissa to do a session with her horse. Fiddle was a BLM Mustang that was captured as a three-year-old stallion, gelded and adopted out three times, only to be returned three times. This earned him the title of a “Three-Striker”. Not a good place for a horse to be. Melissa was planning on adopting a different horse but then noticed Fiddle. She watched him canter across a field and felt him canter straight into her heart.

Fast forward three years to last winter. Melissa had made some very good progress with Fiddle using Natural Horsemanship and Positive Reinforcement training techniques that she had learned. She hired a few different trainers to help her problem solve and start him under saddle. However, there were still some issues that needed resolving. Fiddle could become very fearful and skittish in the ring. At other times he would just take charge of the ride and give Melissa a very hard time.

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