Today I want to talk briefly about liberty training.
People love the idea of being able to work their horse without gear either when being ridden or on the ground. I am not clear what the fascination is with liberty work, but I suspect there is an element of giving people a power trip knowing that their horse could actually run away or at the very least ignore them without the assistance of equipment to impose a response. I think people like the idea that the liberty horse demonstrates a high degree of obedience.
However, it is a mistake to assume that because a horse exhibits sufficient obedience to be performed accurately at liberty that therefore this is a strong and healthy relationship between horse and trainer. It could be the case that there is a good bond between the two, but people often believe that because a horse will work at liberty it automatically indicates a great partnership. There is a difference between obedience and willingness and people naturally assume a horse is offering willingness when they see a performance at liberty.
Like all problems in training, the mistakes we make start in the early training. Liberty work does not start out with a horse at liberty. It always begins with a restriction of liberty. The restriction could be a fenced arena (like a round yard) or a halter and rope or a bridle and saddle or a lariat or a pair of whips in each hand. But whatever it is that we use its purpose is to narrow a horse’s choices. For example, when we begin to teach liberty work on the ground it is customary to work either on line or use a small yard in order that the horse cannot get far enough away from us to escape or avoid any pressure we apply. By doing this we restrict the horse’s choices.
I’m not criticizing this approach, but people need to be reminded that the work they see at a horse expo of horses performing amazing feats at liberty did not start out that way. There was a long process of using very orthodox training to get to the liberty stage.
Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with using equipment in the beginning of liberty training to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy. But just as people who never intend to train at liberty make mistakes teaching these early lessons, so do people who have a goal to train horses at liberty also screw up and mistake obedience for willingness.
I will take it one step further and suggest that a lot of liberty training that I have observed is even more focused on obedience training simply because it is the nature of having a horse work at liberty that if there are holes in the obedience, the absence of gear makes correction much more difficult. So many liberty trainers take a sterner approach to limiting a horse’s choice in the training process because when they get to the stage of working their horse at liberty they have fewer options to correct mistakes. This is when obedience supersedes willingness.
Willingness can only be obtained from a horse when it has searched through the largest possible number of options and finally picks the option we had hoped it would choose. When we restrict the number of available options, we move along the scale away from willingness and towards slavish obedience. The more we limit the options the closer the horse draws to slavishness. It’s hard enough to get a good outcome when we have the equipment to help us give a horse clarity but still search through a wide range of choices. But when we include the added requirement of working with no gear, while still demanding the desired result, it’s difficult to keep the potential to have a willing horse open. It’s not impossible, but the task is made so much harder.
Followers of my work will already know that I believe it is the horse’s mind that determines the quality of the work and the type of relationship we have with our horse. If, in the process of training for liberty work, we impose enough limitations on a horse’s ability to choose a range of options (even ones we don’t like) a horse can feel just as imprisoned by the training as if we had used the harshest and most severe halters, ropes, bits, spurs, hobbles or whatever. Working at liberty is not a test of a horse’s willingness or the quality of our relationship. So when watching a horse work at liberty try to observe the horse’s body language as well as the correctness of the movement. These are much more telling than the pizzazz of the cool tricks without gear.
The final point I want to make is that in my view there is no merit in a horse working at liberty if the movement is incorrect. I feel it is an indication of poor training and there is no benefit to the horse. I would prefer to see a horse offering a nice relaxed and balanced walk or trot on a lunge line than a crooked horse circling at liberty in a large open space. I see no point in working a horse at liberty if the outcome is poor quality movement and poor quality emotions. However, if done well liberty training is a lot of fun and can interest to the work that makes the process more enjoyable for horse and rider.