Training at Liberty© 2007 Imagine A Horse
At Red Horse Ranch we recently began saddle training two of our geldings in a sort of non-traditional manner. One was Navegador a Lusitano/Arabian who has performed in public since he was about nine months old. “Gator” was already a reliable exhibition horse when we introduced him to under saddle work. He had been worked in a surcingle for a couple of years so introducing the saddle was uneventful. Within minutes of being initially mounted, he volunteered some nice steps of Spanish Walk and then promptly walked to a pedestal and stepped up--carrying his human was just another variation in his work. At Imagine A Horse, we like to say that our horses’ minds are finished before they are started which is backwards from traditional training methods.
Our foals are educated as they mature, not when they mature. Remember the television ad that states, ”A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste”? Amen and ditto for the equine mind. Letting a colt go relatively untrained for two or three years until he gains enough physical maturity to be saddle trained wastes a lot of valuable time. Our young horses are well educated by the time we introduce them to saddle training. If one of our young horses were to be subjected to the traditional join up method it would probably frazzle his/her mind.
Traditional horse training usually requires the horse be attached to the human, be it with a lead rope, a lunge line or the reins while under saddle. The Natural Horsemanship movement has been instrumental in increasing the popularity of round pen or loose schooling usually used with rough stock, untrained or unhandled horses nearing physical maturity. Colt starting demonstrations that culminate with the young horse being saddled and ridden in a short period of time take place in round pens. Although the horses used in these demonstrations are at liberty (no ropes attached) the usually very quick decision by the horse to go along with the human’s plan is most likely due to an instinctual attachment mechanism at work and not so much to do with the talent of the trainer.
A horse after being taken away from his herd companions is usually in a survival mode and is inclined to buddy up with even a strange human. Without the attachment mechanism such demonstrations of colt starting would probably prove less than useful. By using quick join up and saddling methods many clinicians infer that it is OK to allow young horses to mature with little to no training because they can easily be tamed with a minimum time spent. While these theatrical demonstrations are fun to watch, short cut methods just don’t make sense for horse owners whose goal is to have a companion horse that is also a performance horse.
A foal of 24 hours can begin to walk with the handler reliably in a stall using the corners as natural aids to teach the halt. An arm over the foal’s neck to gently guide his direction is augmented with a foal wand in the other hand to urge forward movement. In this manner a youngster learns to walk with the handler long before a halter and lead are introduced-the true beginning of attachment mechanism. Our foals learn to step up onto a small sized pedestal during their early training.
This becomes their place or mark; a place they happily go to for scratching and stroking from the handler and a rest (dwell time) between repetitions. (Enhanced Foal Training) Foals literally grow up in an enriched environment and a constant state of Liberty Training. The attachment mechanism is not a quick fix but rather a state of being that includes humans in a very natural way.
Early training of a foal requires an investment of time and other resources that large breeding operations usually can’t justify for performance prospects. It is usually easier and more cost effective for smaller operations and individual breeders to engage in early foal training. The next best thing to raising one’s own horses is to purchase a weanling that has been raised by a responsible breeder. A young horse with a clean slate and no baggage is a true joy to educate.
Horses that are educated as they mature rather than when they mature are similar to children who grow up in a circus, they think all kids can juggle. We love to push the envelope in terms of a young horses progressive learning and the result is a happy horse that is enthusiastic about his interaction with humans.
Because Gator literally grew up doing Liberty work he stood ground tied from the very beginning when saddled and then willingly followed us to the arena with no line. We treated him as the mature and educated horse he had grown to be. Traditional training strategies dictate that we must always be in complete control and that we not only ask all the questions but supply all the answers as well. For the most part this is true BUT willingness to allow a horse a bit of liberty and freedom of expression can lead to a strong and untraditional working relationship between horse and handler while still maintaining the proper hierarchy. Working a horse at liberty will actually further the attachment mechanism. Instead of a physical attachment such as a lead rope or lunge line, we create a mental attachment.
Horses love to play and they live their best moments when in movement. Our young horses in training work at liberty daily, often with other horses in various stages of their education. During the sessions, they may playfully offer half rears and generously animated steps. Some of the playful moves they give freely and playfully will over time become stylized gaits of the haute e’cole. At the moment of their offerings they are engaged in instinctual yet directed play that in the future, will become piaffe, passage, side pass, roll back, pirouette and other classical moves. On Roy Roger’s last CD is a song with a line that is demonstrative of this training—“Trigger was four and I was 26, it wasn’t like work, just play”. Another Amen.
Progressive methods and realistic expectations will help you to develop your horse’s instinctual attachment mechanism. Start by working through your usual rituals with your horse at liberty. When you engage your horse in groundwork exercises, try it with no lead. Expect your horse to comply and engage, and be sure to convey your happiness with his compliance with praise.
It is interesting to discover just how far trust can go!