Some people talk about training equipment in terms of its ability to communicate an idea in a soft or harsh way. For example, some people think of bridles with bits as being harsh and bridles without bits as being gentle. But experienced people know that the severity or otherwise of any training device is mostly in the way it is used. A bit is not severe until somebody pulls on the reins too strongly.
But let’s be clear here about what it means for our training to be harsh or gentle. When we describe training in these terms we are not so much describing the amount of pressure or the amount of discomfort. Instead, we are really talking about how the horse perceives our action and the anxiety it creates. We often view our actions as gentle or harsh by the way we imagine how they must feel to our horse. But our perception is largely irrelevant. It is the horse’s perception that is the determining factor, not ours.
This brings me to the topic I really want to discuss, liberty training. A lot of people are attracted to liberty training because they perceive it as gentle and an indication of a special relationship between horse and human. But let’s be clear about this. All liberty training began as non-liberty training. To get a horse to a stage of education that it can be worked to a reasonable degree of performance (not just hooking on) requires initially using non-liberty techniques.
I have seen a few videos lately of horses being worked at liberty. They are either being ridden bareback and with no headgear or worked on the ground without ropes or halters. Sometimes the horseperson uses whips, flags, food treats to direct the horses, but sometimes not. Some people work in small-ish yards and other people work in large open spaces. Sometimes multiple horses are worked together and other times it is just one horse. The variety of maneuvers that are performed is almost limitless from flying changes ever stride to several horses galloping side-by-side on a beach.
Nearly every time I see these videos or watch demonstrations at horse expositions, the overwhelming consensus of the general horse-loving public is “wow”! People are amazed at the bond that must exist between horse and human for the horse to perform such stunts without the need for equipment to control them.
To begin with let me say that in my mind the biggest positive to working a horse at liberty is that it reveals all our flaws. When we screw up in our liberty training, it’s obvious to the entire world. This is especially true in the early stages of training. In the later training, it may not be so obvious because most horses have learned enough about their job to fill in for our mistakes. But when a horse is still figuring out what is being asked, it doesn’t take much screwing up on our part for everything to unravel very quickly.
The second aspect of liberty work that I like is that it is fun. It’s lots of fun for us. I don’t think it is necessarily more fun for horses than non-liberty work, but it is lots of fun for us. I think that’s an important reason for training at liberty because after all, working with horses is meant to be fun.
The only other plus of liberty work that I can think of is that there is less wear and tear and expense on gear. But for somebody like me who has never owned good or expensive equipment, that’s not a big advantage.
But there are downsides to liberty work too – big ones. In my experience, it is rare to see horses working well or contented when performing liberty work. It’s rare enough to see when the gear is used, and almost unseen when the gear is not used.
I believe it is because most training (of any ilk) concerns itself with obedience. But gear is designed to provide clarity to a horse. So when the gear is missing two things can go wrong. The first is that when we are training a horse with the aim of performing at liberty we tend to drill obedience at the expense of okay-ness. By its nature, liberty work requires a high degree of obedience (because the gear is not available to impose obedience), which means we tend to value the movement more highly than the emotions that accompany the movement.
The second issue relates to what I described above as the biggest positive of liberty work. Having no gear available when a horse makes a mistake does show up our flaws, but it also makes the job of correcting a horse’s mistakes more difficult and often a lot less subtle. Look at the video below. Notice the woman scrambling with the whip to correct mistakes her horse makes. If she had a lead rope and halter or long reins, corrections made with the rope or reins would be a lot more subtle and present greater clarity because she would be directing her horse’s thoughts. But with the whip, she is just chasing away which end of the horse she wants to move. The training is about micro-managing the movement of the feet and shape of the body with no attempt to get a change of thought.
One of the statements I hear a lot from people impressed with liberty training is “but the horse could run away if he didn’t like it.”
It is tempting to put that sort of thinking down to people thinking like humans and not like horses. But in truth, it is not people thinking like people, it is people not thinking at all.
The reason why we can ride horses is because our training makes their mind so malleable that we can convince them of most things. This includes believing that at liberty they are trapped in their performance just as much as if we were using the harshest bits, the biggest spurs, strongest ropes and highest fences. If you don’t believe me, think about all those poor women trapped in abusive relationships. They feel trapped with no possibility of escape. It’s a very real and tragic phenomenon. And for some horses, this is how liberty training can feel.
I’m not suggesting that all liberty training is abusive, just like not all non-liberty training is abusive. But I do believe there is nothing so special about liberty training that it should be looked at with blind awe. Bad training or bad riding should not get a pass just because it is done at liberty. There is no point in liberty work if it is not held to the highest standard we would use for judging non-liberty training.
I am far more impressed by a trainer who can ask a horse to offer a relaxed and balanced trot or canter irrespective if the horse is wearing gear or not, than I am of a trainer who has taught a horse fancy movements that are incorrect and accompanied by worry, but with no gear.
Video: These are horses in the early stages of liberty work on the ground, so I am not concerned at the accuracy and correctness of the movements. But watch how the trainer trains. There is a lot that can be discussed about this clip – both good and not so good. – that relate to what has been said in this post.