Liberty horse training techniques can help you build confidence and a strong partnership with your horse.
You’re riding a trail when a bird jumps up and the lead horse spooks, bucking his rider off ahead of you. How can you convince your own horse to trust you more than the leader? It’s your horse’s confidence that will keep him, and you, safe. Liberty horse training techniques can help you build this confidence.
The safety equation
A lack of confidence and connection between you and your horse can be addressed using liberty horse training. Liberty training techniques utilize wild herd dynamics to develop a strong human-horse partnership that can last a lifetime. They do so by meeting a horse’s innate longing for three important criteria:
- Who will keep him safe?
- Under what consistent rules can he access special or rare resources like carrots, apples, cookies, or grain?
- Who moves whom?
Many people think liberty horse training is just like other forms of natural horsemanship involving round pens, ropes and running in circles. These techniques certainly prove you can move your horse and that “who moves whom” is vital to establishing leadership. But it is only one part of the safety equation. Rules around “special resources” and the knowledge that you will keep your horse safe are important elements of training and building confidence and connection in partnership with your horse.
Liberty horse training methods
When a horse lacks confidence, it is often much safer to address it from the ground through liberty horse training than to try “riding through the problem”. Liberty horse training uses wild horse communication (often non-verbal body language) to deeply instill in the horse a sense of what he is looking for more than anything — the feeling that you will keep him safe. Unfortunately, the horse world if often speckled with stories of accidents, trauma and misunderstanding, so this most essential part of horse-human connection does not happen from the get-go.
Take, for instance, conventional horse training and horseback riding. We are taught that we need to tie the horse’s head down with side-reins, martingales or worse. At the other end of the spectrum, we can be pushovers, too kind for our own good, letting the horse walk on our toes, go overtop us for grass, or pin his ears to demand food. If the horse is afraid of something, we avoid it. Without proper rules of engagement, and without knowledge of leadership training and who moves whom, we become a doormat and a Pez machine all in one.
Make no mistake. We are teaching our horses every time we walk into the paddock. We are giving them unintended cues. They are looking for soft yielding and kind guidance from a strong, confident leader, someone, anyone, who will keep them safe. They are longing for their humans to “show up” in the relationship, and will push and push and even become dangerous in a desperate effort to force us to give them boundaries, consistent rules about space and food, and connection. Once a confident bond is formed, that bond is there whether you are walking beside or riding astride.
Assessing and building your partnership
Want to test your relationship with your horse? After riding, drop the tack and watch your horse’s behavior. Does he immediately high tail it to the farthest corner away from you? When you try to catch him for riding, does he run away? Do you have to confine him or keep the halter on just in case you need to catch him again? Getting away and saying “no” is an essential part of liberty horse training. When we allow for a “no” with proper training, we ultimately get a better “yes”!
Here’s an easy exercise that may seem pointless from a human perspective, but is important to the horse. Drop your horse’s halter. Walk side-by-side with him, slowly and methodically, praising him each time he chooses to step next to you without a halter. After only a few steps, ask him to halt. Step out of the paddock or arena to pick some grass for him.
Do not expect anything from your horse. Do not insist on your agenda. How long does he choose to stay with you? If he walks away, stay where you are, looking away from him, and wait to see if he returns to you on his own. If he does, offer him more grass, or a piece of carrot. Other “special resources” can include your fingernails to scratch an itchy spot, access to another horse, or a favorite corner of the paddock. Resources need not be food.
These training techniques work best when he does not have access to these things for doing nothing. His brain and neurochemistry will rewire with liberty horse training techniques like this one.
Tools of the trade
The methods and specific techniques of liberty horse training vary tremendously and can be finely tuned in terms of how and when they are applied and integrated into the time you spend with your horse. By way of example, here is a partial list of techniques that might be utilized in liberty training:
- Pushing the horse from behind.
- Lunging from the center with no line.
- Turning the horse in any direction by pointing your finger.
- Gently leading the horse, beside him in partnership.
This last technique is the most powerful, in my opinion, because the speed, energy, direction and cadence of your combined pace gives the horse more and more confidence in your shared partnership.
Donna Kelleher is a holistic veterinarian, author and horse language interpreter. From childhood she has ridden and competed in dressage and jumping and now working equitation. She moved to England to complete her British Horse Society Assistant Instructor’s certificate. For the past twenty years she teaches riding and horsemanship. Since 2010 she studied liberty horse training with Robin Gates and most recently with Frederick Pignon. She finds many “equine brain problems” are actually human-horse misinterpretations. She lives in Bellingham WA with her husband and three rescued horses.
All photos courtesy of Dee Dee Murry photography.