Thoughts On Liberty Training

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.


The Symptom Or The Cause?

Have you ever had the experience where a horse seems to be feeling okay and then it’s not? It can be pretty chilled and seem to not have a care in the world and then without even asking anything of the horse the anxiety grows rapidly as if you had asked it to deny the holocaust to a room full of survivors?


I was teaching a clinic recently and a teenage girl brought along a horse that had a tendency to be edgy. The mare was easily distracted and always held its emotions within fingertip reach. A koala farting in another state would be enough to put this horse into orbit.


Anyway, the horse came into the session a little agitated, looking for a safe spot. The girl did a great job of getting it settled and focused. It began to look like a beginner’s horse. Then the girl dropped the lead rope on the ground and reached to the fence to pick up the saddle blanket. Suddenly the horse heard alarm bells, as if somebody yelled fire, and began to fidget. The young owner instantly began to rub the horse all over with the saddle blanket in an attempt to appease the worry that she thought the saddle blanket had created.


Next was the saddle and again more fidgeting and distraction. This was followed by the bridle, which resulted in the level of worry starting to overflow.


At each step, the owner assumed it was the saddle blanket and the saddle and the bridle that caused the anxiety. But this horse had been ridden extensively and was very familiar with being saddled and bridled. It did not need desensitizing to the gear. The problem was not the equipment. To the owner, it appeared the paraphernalia was the cause of worry for the horse because each item was followed by more anxiety. However, this was not the case.


How did I know the problem was not the gear itself?


Firstly, the fact that the horse had been saddled many times in the past was the first hint that it may be a deeper problem than just the saddling.


Secondly, there was no sign of ill-fitting gear or soreness.


The third clue was that its reaction was just to become fidgety and be distracted and not buck or run away. This suggested the gear might not be a serious problem.


Fourthly, when ridden, the horse was more difficult to handle than when doing groundwork.


Lastly, as the horse improved how it felt under saddle each day of the clinic, so did its reaction to being saddled. We didn’t work much at being better to saddle but instead focused on improving the emotions when ridden.


The real reason for the trouble was that the horse had learned to associate the process of saddling and bridling with being ridden. It was the riding that was the problem. Over time the horse had learned that saddling meant it was going to be ridden and the horse was worried about being ridden. It’s like having a nice time conversing with someone until they say, “we need to talk.” Gulp! Suddenly, what was a nice relaxed conversation turns into a stress-filled head-to-head.


So the horse had quickly learned that saddling meant riding and riding was a bad deal. Therefore, saddling was a bad deal.


The solution was to make the riding a better deal. Take the trouble out of the work under saddle. We could have done all the desensitization we liked with the equipment, but it wasn’t going to make much difference until the horse learned to not dread being ridden.


As I have said many times, horses are brilliant at learning patterns. It takes no time at all to learn the patterns they like and the ones they don’t like. The difference is that it only takes a couple of bad experiences with patterns they would normally be okay about before they are no longer feeling okay. But with patterns they don’t like, horses take a lot more convincing to learn to change their minds about them. It’s the nature of horses that makes it harder to prove something is good for them than something is bad for them.


I could have concentrated on getting the horse less reactive towards the saddling, but it would have been a temporary solution and in a couple of weeks, the young owner would not have been any further along. The causes of a problem don’t always reveal themselves easily and we have to be open to the possibility that what we see is not always what we need to fix.


Photo: This is a funny photo. Ellen was working with Kahlua (not the girl and horse in the story) on getting more comfortable with the saddle, but before she girthed the saddle it slipped off to the side. Luckily, Ellen saved the day at the last moment. Kahlua didn’t see too bothered.

The Cranky Horse

I’m sure most of us have seen horses that pull a cranky face when being worked. They pin their ears back, often stretch, screw or toss their neck in a snakey fashion and sometimes bear their teeth in a threatening manner. This is the cranky face. It’s an expression of their feelings.


Have you ever asked somebody to do something and they grumbled about it the whole time? Or maybe you’ve had to attend a family barbecue when you’d rather be home watching Australia versus England in a test cricket match and were poor at hiding your thoughts. It’s also another form of the cranky face.


Different people handle a horse’s cranky face in different ways. It ranges from ignoring the behaviour at one end of the scale to punishment at the other end. I hear from time to time people call their horse all sorts of uncomplimentary names and use unflattering adjectives to describe their attitude. People often take the cranky face personally and see it as a horse’s disrespect or an attempt by the horse to exert dominance in the relationship.


There are lots of possible triggers to the cranky face.


Sometimes the trigger is physical discomfort. Our mare, Six is barefoot and if I ride her on the gravel road that runs past our property her feet hurt. This triggers the cranky face. But if I ride her with boots on her feet, she walks along smiling while whistling the 1960s tune “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”


Other times it is triggered by emotional discomfort. One of our other mares, Birch came to us just after being started by another trainer. It seemed cranky face was her normal expression. She was always pinning her ears flat and snaking her neck every time somebody asked her a question. She would even walk up to a person from the far end of the paddock with her ears flat all the way. We figure she had bad experiences and this had left her with scarred feelings about people. She was not going to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.


But the thing that both physical and emotional triggers have in common that prompt cranky face is that in all cases, what a horse wants to do is in conflict with what we want it to do. The horse’s thoughts and our thoughts are at odds. When a horse and their human share the same idea there is peace and harmony in the world and cranky face is an unknown expression.


For many of the physical issues that lead to cranky face, the solution is often simple (although, not always easy). If sore feet are the problem, you can fit boots or shoes or treat the problem. If it is a saddle fit or muscle tightness, get a new saddle or treat the muscle problem. If it is poor riding that causes the horse’s discomfort, learn to ride better. You get the idea.


While the physical discomfort persists, it’s a huge ask for the horse to put it aside and get its mind in synchrony with ours. It would be like insisting a person do their best work while suffering a migraine headache. In this case, a cranky face is justified and reasonable.


If the cranky face stems from emotional discomfort, my best advice is to file it away but do nothing to directly address it. Remember, a cranky face is an expression of ill feelings. It’s only a symptom and not the problem itself. The problem is the cause of those ill feelings. Once again, that means the solution to overcoming ill feelings (and the cranky face) is by addressing the thoughts of a horse.


In my experience, most of the time that cranky face develops in training is when we use driving pressure to yield the desired response. In order to get the outcome, we want we often use driving pressure to make the feet obey. This is very different to using directing pressure to influence a horse’s thought. I’ll remind you that driving a horse is when we get a horse to do one thing while it is thinking about doing something else while directing a horse is inspiring a thought that operates the feet.


So in training, the cranky face is taught when we use pressure to create obedience, but ignore the importance of directing the horse’s mind first.


The many times I have seen the cranky face at clinics it is often a well-established behaviour – perhaps even habitual. But in my experience, it can be eradicated or at the very least minimized to large extent. I know with Birch it is a rare sight to see her pull a cranky face these days.


Photo: This is how Six feels when her feet are not hurting.

Progression To Collection

A topic came up at a clinic recently that was important enough to those listening that they suggested I write my thoughts down for my Facebook followers to read. So here goes.


It’s about the progression from a young horse learning to yield to the inside rein when first being started to the development of collection as it rounds out its education a sometime later.


From the first time I put a halter on a foal, I begin the journey of teaching the horse the importance of giving to the feel of a rope. It’s not just about employing the horse to move its feet in the direction the rope pulls it. It involves the feel of the rope inspiring the young horse to change its mind from what it is already thinking to what the rope is telling it to think. The rope is the medium by which the human’s idea is conveyed to the horse to become its idea. To me, that’s the definition of yielding or giving when it comes to communicating with a horse. If it’s just about moving the horse’s feet then it’s giving in, not giving.


Now that we have that cleared up, the importance of yielding to the feel of the lead rope for a foal is only a small step away from teaching collection! Well, maybe two small steps away ☺!


Teaching a horse to yield it’s thought to move its hindquarters and its forehand in response to a feel of the inside rein or the lead rope is among the top few most important skills a horse must learn in my view. I first begin by teaching a horse to disengage its hindquarters independently of its forehand. Then I accompany this lesson with teaching it to yield its forehand independently of its hindquarters. These forehand and hindquarters yields form the basis of everything that it is to come.


Once the forehand and hindquarter yields are well established it becomes much easier to have both ends of the horse working in unison with correctness. Let’s look for example at a circle. A correct circle is nothing more than a smaller version of a forehand yield and a hindquarter yield performed simultaneously. By that I mean, a circle should consist of a horse laterally flexed along the arc of the circumference of the circle (inside bend), the inside fore follows the line of the circumference of the circle (forehand yield) and the inside hind steps to the outside of the circumference of the circle (hindquarter yield). So you can see that the essence of a correct circle is the horse giving (with its thoughts) to a feel of the inside rein to have the forehand and the hindquarters working together.


So where do we go next from a correct circle to head towards collection?


One the biggest obstacles to horses carrying themselves in a manner that leads to collection is tension in the muscles along the back – usually called a tight topline. Without a relaxed topline the best we can hope for is a false collection or frame where the horse only softens from the poll to the wither. The back refuses to relax, which makes the engagement of the hindquarters necessary for collection, damn near impossible.


Once we can get a soft bend and our horse accurately following a curved line, we can use this to encourage our horse to elongate its frame and relax its topline. It is important to understand that a correct lateral bend in a horse is a major resource in getting a horse to relax the topline. It is biomechanically impossible for a horse to have a strong brace in the topline IF the bend is soft and correct. That’s why using the inside rein to influence the lateral flexion is such a powerful tool in minimizing the resistance a horse may hold in its back.


Now that we have a horse relaxing its back it can now stretch forward and down. This opens up the length of stride of the horse and encourages the hindquarters to work harder through engagement. The result is a slow strengthening of the muscles that will be required later when we finally ask our horse to carry more weight on the hindquarters.


To be extremely brief about this (otherwise this essay will be several chapters long), collection comes from working a horse in an open and relaxed frame to build up muscles and mental relaxation. We then begin to shorten the frame by asking the horse to raise the base of its neck and carry more weight on its hindquarters. In time the horse learns to lower its hind end as it raises the base of the neck. All this takes a lot of time and a lot of work and can only happen if the horse remains soft and yields to the reins through its entire body. This why people who believe collection can be established in a few months are misled.


I am not saying there are not other ways to teach collection to a horse. There are always many roads to Rome. But it is my experience that utilizing the power of yielding to the inside rein to establish a soft and relaxed mind and body is prone to fewer errors and wrong turns than using both reins to attempt to impose softness and eventually collection.


It all begins with teaching a horse to be soft to the lead rope and yield its hindquarters and forehand while maintaining a soft lateral flexion. In my view, there is no more powerful tool than a soft bend in response to the inside rein.


Photo: Dorinda is encouraging Maggie to stretch down and relax her topline in the trot. There is a way to go, but it is a beginning.

Methods Are Not The Same As Principles

There seems to be widespread confusion between the principles that training methods are founded upon and the application of those principles. I have noticed over several years that both professional and amateur horse people confuse principles and methods a lot.


For example, an Australian horseman recently wrote on his FB page that a person should never use tarpaulins or flags when training a horse. He says, “… Every day, all over the world, horses are chased and harassed with tarps and flags.” He’s right. That does happen every day to some horses. He has also stated categorically that round yards should never be used in training, only square or rectangular yards because round yards encourage a horse to run. It’s true. Some horses do run in round yards. But he confuses what some people do with “that’s what all people do with flags and in round yards”.


Another Australian trainer has written that natural Horsemanship (whatever that is – he doesn’t define it) is only good for teaching ground manners to horses and not for educating horses under saddle. Again, there is confusion between what some people ride like who practice natural horsemanship and what all people ride like who practice natural horsemanship.


In my regular perusal of the internet to keep up with what is being taught and advocated in the horse world, I see blanket statements like these all the time.


I understand where they come from. They come from ignorance and bigotry.


Why ignorance?  Because for example, they see or hear about somebody chasing a horse in a round yard and instantly dismiss round yards and people that use them as anti-good horsemanship. They don’t bother to look deeper into the use of the round yard. They got the information they wanted and therefore they are not interested in examining the ways a round yard is used by other people in other ways.


Why bigotry? I say bigotry because when a person sees a method that they don’t use, being applied badly, it reaffirms and justifies their non-use of that method. It makes a person feel better about their own horsemanship when somebody else stuffs up. Gore Vidal once said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Well in the horse world the reverse is also true, “Whenever another trainer fails, I feel better about myself.” This form of self-induced ego inflation creates a bigotry and bias that causes people to look for the bad in another’s training methods (which is different from critical analysis of other methods). So people who see bad results from horses trained with flags or whips, or in round yards or square yards, or with bits or without bits, or with hobbles or without hobbles, or using natural or traditional or classical horsemanship, want to make blanket labels that allow no room for a conversation regarding the principle behind a method and the method itself.


For example, the fellow who stated categorically that flags should never be used in training happens to use whips a lot in his training. He also rides a lot with spurs. No doubt he has seen flags used poorly resulting in bad outcomes, but has he also not seen whips and spurs used inappropriately resulting in bad outcomes? I know I have. I tend not to use whips or spurs, yet I don’t condemn the use of all whips and spurs because I know they have a purpose and can be used to benefit a horse when applied well.


Every method and piece of equipment exist simply because it worked for somebody with some horse at some time. That does not mean to say I think that every method or piece of equipment is okay and justifiable. I choose the methods and the equipment I use based on how they fit into the set of principles I bring to my horsemanship.


If I can apply a method in a way that is consistent with my principles, then I have no problem with using it. For example, I like round yards, but I have worked many times in rectangular yards and achieved just as much and remained just as true my philosophy and principles. I also like flags, but have used whips many times and have always felt they were almost interchangeable in the way I use them. I have ridden with bits and without and have had as much success with one as the other. I don’t use the Parelli’s 7 games in my normal training, but I have taught some Parelli fans to apply the games in a way that fits into my approach to horsemanship.


The point I am trying to make is that people confuse a person’s ability to apply a set of principles for training horses with the principles themselves. When they do that, they make judgments about the principles when they should be making judgments about the practitioner. When two people use the same method in their training, but one does a better job than the other, where does the fault lie – the principle or the practitioner? No doubt the trainer with the better feel and a better understanding of accommodating the emotions and thoughts of a horse would still do a better job whether they used a flag or a whip, a round yard or a square yard, a bit or no bit.


Photo: Here I am using coffee as a training and teaching aid. I find coffee is an invaluable asset in my teaching tool box when used well. But of course, it takes great skill and experience to be able to use coffee in a way that benefits the horse and rider. You shouldn’t condemn coffee just because some trainers have not learned to incorporate it properly into their training principles.