To Me or Not To Me
TO ME or NOT TO ME?—THAT is the Question!
There are many opinions as to what constitutes liberty training, and I must confess, I don’t agree with them all. One point I do agree with is that the term “liberty” conveys an idea of freedom. But freedom to do what? Some people believe that in liberty training the horse should be free to do whatever they want, even if what they want is to be 200 yards away from you because that is where the herd is. I’m sorry, but if a horse is 200 yards away from you, that is no longer liberty—that is lost. Liberty training is a type of training and it requires effective communication at a refined level. Liberty demands a mental connection, and liberty exposes moments of mental disconnect often masked by physical connection in non-liberty training. Liberty is defined by how a task or behavior is achieved, not by the behavior itself. In this way it encourages us to focus on the process vs the product. Because liberty training is defined by the process, it is not limited to any one skill or discipline; it is not exclusively ground training nor does it exclude trick training or riding.
Liberty means freedom, but it should never mean freedom to ignore us. Having a set of basic rules or boundaries does not mean there is no freedom nor does it mean we shouldn’t consider the horse’s preferences or feelings. During liberty we are not “tied” to the horse through lead ropes or reins, so by default, there is a freedom—a freedom to be with us and a freedom to leave us. How we handle their preferences in the moment will influence to a large extent future preferences.
So how do we find a good starting point amidst the freedom? How do we begin to build the connection? Finding a starting point in liberty training can be challenging and intimidating, so I like to keep things simple. The moment I take off their halter, they are free—free to choose to be with me or to be away from me. But that freedom is not without rules. One of the rules is: I won’t ignore my horse when they have something to say, and they should not ignore me when I have something to say. If the horse ignores me, things get “noisy” (wave arm/stick; smooch; step towards them) and uncomfortable until the moment they pay attention. In order to enforce this rule (when they choose to be away from me), training begins in a space small enough that allows me to get to them within 3 seconds, but large enough they feel they can get “away”—2,000 to 3,000 square feet is a good size to start.
Consider the following metaphor: if liberty was a radio, there would be 2 stations—101.ToMe and 101.NotToMe—and although the horse is free to choose either station, we get to choose the music (activity). For example, if my horse chooses the station 101.NotToMe and leaves me, I say, “Okay, you want to be away from me, but the music that is playing on that station is TROT TO THE LEFT/RIGHT” and I make trotting the “sweet spot.” When the horse chooses to physically be away from me, I simply work at maintaining a mental connection and achieving effective communication from a distance. If they try to ignore me when they leave, I make the environment “noisy” (wave arm/stick; smooch; step towards them) until they pay attention and move the direction I cue, and then instantly make it pleasant once again. After a few interactions of effective communication away from me, I invite them to come to me where they can stand and get loved on. Then we resume whatever had been interrupted by their departure. This approach results in them wanting to be with me physically and mentally without fear of punishment.
This brings me to the next rule in liberty: There is no punishment for my horse choosing one station over the other. A punishment mindset is unnecessary and counterproductive in liberty. If we invoke punishment, our horses will learn to fear and resent us. Rather, we can shape behaviors and preferences by focusing on rewarding what is desired instead of punishing what is not. Another important rule is: In everything I ask, I will create a “sweet spot.” The instant we take away “noise” it creates a sweet spot. Sometimes I see horses being continually bothered by their human with no relief while they’re doing the correct thing. This either teaches the horse to ignore “noise” or they search for a different station and act out. Taking away noise gives them relief and lets them know they found what we had in mind. Horses can learn to look to us for clues (through cues and body language) to help them find the sweet spots.
Refining communication at this “freedom” level will benefit every interaction we have with our horses regardless of performance goals.
Remember, it’s Horsemanship not Forcemanship.