Having spent the last year diligently working through a systematic training program (GHDC,) it’s time to look at the Liberty training component to find out what our horses have not just physically, but whole heartedly taken on board.
When the reins come off, we are able to see what the horse has learnt academically (in his mind and body,) as opposed to just his physical understanding generated by the framework of the aids.
It is very hard to simplify how two minds and bodies can come together in a step by step process as no one horse human connection in my experience has ever been the same. So, the following steps are very much concepts to play and experiment with and definitely not the rules.
LIBERTY STEP BY STEP
STEP ONE: ENVIRONMENT
Find the environment where your horse is most calm, confident and relaxed. Like us horses think play and experiment with ideas best in a comfortable environment.
I have learnt through experience that due to the way horses vision perceives the space around them it’s a good idea for the space to be no more than 2/3rd's longer than it is wide.
For example, if your horse gets lost in a 20x60m arena, if you are standing at X (in the middle,) and the horse is moving down the long side as they inevitably become closer in proximity to you, they could visually get the impression you are adding pressure to their personal space and increase unwanted tension.
STEP TWO: POINT OF CONTACT
Give your horse a physical point of contact to connect with for greater guidance rather than them feeling the need to run away.
Walking backwards with your hand on their nose can work well, checking out their ability to except our ability to direct and redirect the flow of energy using a whip or hand.
For very pushy, head shy or dominant horses or stallions sometimes us being in front of their face can be to confrontational, and although progressing the way they come to this point of contact will be something you can build on over time, it may be that standing beside them with one hand in contact with the wither could generate the greatest inroad.
STEP THREE: AN AUDITORY QUE
Although for sure body language will always be our horses first language and the best way to a calm focused approach to work, an auditory cue can be a great way of giving them a clue as to a good or less ideal idea before any tension creeps in.
For example, if the horse thinks into contact in a positive way I will whistle then link that sound to something positive like more freedom, stretching, scratching an itchy spot or food. Over time they will connect the positive experience with the sound of the whistle, so that you can whistle to say YES any time your horse connects with your idea in a positive way. I whistle because its more convenient, I don’t have to carry a clicker and it’s not so misused as words like “Steady” or “Good Boy”.
As soon as your horse hears the sound “Good Boy” or “Steeeady” (often from a well-meaning friend, Vet or family member) at a moment of stress we are immediately developing a vocal bridge to that feeling.
So, you don’t have to whistle but pick a sound unique and convenient to you that you can use immediately at optimal moments when your horse is really bringing its A game, and you can be diligent as to which positive feelings you bridge to your YES sound.
In order to say YES more of the time our ability to say NO or NOT RIGHT NOW needs to be just as immediate. Leaving horses lost or unsure just breeds tension in connection with any activity. I use “SHHH” as NOT RIGHT NOW.
So, to start this process I will make the sound “SHHH” and not do something positive, e.g. the stable door will not open by kicking it, then when they step back from the door and relax, I will say Yes and the door will open, thus building a positive pattern.
If the stallion is at liberty and their favorite mare walks past the arena gate and they look over the gate, I will say “SHHH” (NO! THE MARE GETS FURTHER AWAY, THE GATE DOESN’T OPEN, NO FOOD, NO CONTACT, NO SCRATCHING, NO PLAY, NOTHING POSITIVE CAME FROM THAT IDEA)
Then when they look to me or my hand as a point of contact, we can say YES (WHISTLE, FOOD, SCRATCH, GUIDANCE, PLAY) I have loads of ideas lets go on an adventure together. Dressage at Liberty has transformed my life with horses in the most extraordinary way, I have learnt things about myself and my horses on a level that I never imagined existed.
I hope these three tips can help just one horse/human partnership experience more of this incredible equestrian life and be sure to sign up to the Student of the Horse mailing list for more free tips as well as info on our new Liberty Masterclass coming soon.