There’s something that exists within the horse-human relationship that has the power to bind us with these animals in a way that feels absolutely magical. Working with horses at liberty teaches us to generate this kind of connection.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, interacting with horses without any sort physical restraint is referred to as liberty work. Liberty work can be practiced anywhere you feel comfortable releasing your horse to roam freely but a round pen is an ideal place to get started.
It’s important to note that quality liberty work has nothing to do with flooding the horses with adrenaline or chasing them around in circles until submission is obtained. Good liberty work is about communication and establishing a balance between sending and receiving energies so that the horse binds dynamically with his handler. Advanced liberty work feels almost as if we are telekinetically connected to the horse. The sensation is unlike anything else I’ve ever felt before.
When I work with a horse at liberty, my job is to find ways to use his natural language (energy) to teach him a common language (cue system) that can be used to communicate with him in our day-to-day interactions. This sort of work provides a strong foundational layer for other disciplines and is also highly effective for resetting the minds and behavior patterns of troubled horses.
Working at liberty helps horses learn to relax in our presence. Restraint often creates tension because horses feel trapped. These animals are claustrophobic by nature and a lot of anxiety can be generated when you take away their option for flight. Training is far more effective and healthier for the horse if his muscles remain relaxed and supple during work. A horse can also only process things cognitively if he is calm. Many modern training methods focus solely on the horse’s physical development. Imagine the progress one can make and possibilities involved if we not only condition the body of the horse, but also his mind. Offering horses this kind of education often results in them becoming safer and less reactive. It also tends to turn them into outstanding learners while simultaneously deepening the bond between the horse and his human companion.
Liberty work is highly beneficial for helping handlers eliminate the confusion, contradiction, and hierarchy-related issues that often lead to behavioral problems in the horses. When the horse is permitted the freedom to move his body naturally without restraint when interacting with us, the truth of the relationship is exposed so that it can be improved methodically. It offers us the opportunity to observe his compulsive tendencies and natural mannerisms, while also helping us locate the more heavily guarded areas of his body. We are then able to work carefully through his blocked areas and fear zones to establish the trust and relaxation necessary for him to think his way through his education.
Much like humans, horses are highly social animals. Individual horses occupy different roles within the social hierarchy of their herds. The role of leadership is generally occupied by the individual that holds the highest level of awareness. She has more control of her energy than the others and is able to move them in the direction of her choice at will. If you look at this from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense as this horse would be the most capable of locating precious resources necessary for survival and steering the herd away from danger. The role of leadership cannot be faked because the lead horse only holds the position because she is the best suited for the role.
When we work with our horses at liberty, we are projecting our energy in different directions with varying degrees of intensity to move the horse in different ways. The only way to work with the horse at liberty in a way in which he is learning our cue system effectively, is to hold a higher level of awareness than him. This automatically places us above him in the social hierarchy and qualifies us for the role of leadership. In this way, we earn respect from the horse without causing fear. As the horse builds confidence in our ability to hold this position, he gradually begins to feel more comfortable in our presence and less concerned with environmental stimulus ... because he has turned that responsibility over to us.
Of all the ways liberty work can improve our equestrian practices and relationships with our horses, perhaps one of the greatest benefits is how this sort of work can impact our own personal development. In order to work effectively with horses at liberty, we must be able to influence his energy, which means we must be in control of our own. We must also obtain a high level of self-awareness, master control of our own compulsions, observe perspective, and develop our capacity for patience and empathy. So essentially, the horse teaches us just as much as we teach him.