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

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!!

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