I started the adventure of training at liberty with my mare Tiger a couple weeks ago, with the desire to learn more and to take a good honest look at our working relationship. Since then we've only been able to work together a handful of times (four to be exact), but already I've learned so much.
During our first session at liberty I quietly walked Tiger into the arena, slipped off her halter and lead rope, shut the gate behind us, then walked to the center of the arena and waited. I was waiting to see what Tiger would tell me about our relationship; if she cared that I was present or if she would rather be somewhere else.
Honestly I was fully expecting her to walk off and not care to interact with me, but as I watched her walk towards me I felt such relief and joy. She did want to engage with me, and it was in that moment I learned that had done something right.
Out of all my personal horses she's always been the one least likely to want to be caught from the pasture, she has the most trust issues, and has a tendency not to want to engage during our training sessions. For her choose me over the grass around the outside arena, or to just wander off, or even to start calling to her buddies in the barn since she was all alone in a wide open arena with no other horses around.... I discovered that day that she was more than willing to work with me and she actually wanted to engage with me.
Over the next few sessions I learned another very different, but very valuable lesson. As much as Tiger wanted to engage with me, I easily overwhelmed her. By asking for a behavior too strongly, or having too high of standards, I would create anxiety in her and she would disengage; walking off to alleviate the pressure she felt. I may have only been using positive reinforcement but my body language and my criteria were causing more pressure than she could mentally handle.
I had known this was an ongoing struggle for me; that any anxious behavior Tiger was exhibiting were due to my over controlling and perfectionism tendencies. But when I could use ropes or equipment to keep her attatched to me she had no way of alleviating this excessive pressure I was unconsciously applying. Instead the pressure and the anxiety was building up in our training, leaving me frustrated and unsure of what to do.
Somedays were better than others, but any time I approached training a new behavior or a particularly challenging one for Tiger the anxiety would immediately rear its ugly head again. On the ground she would display actions such as "checking out" (not paying attention), pawing, head shaking, inconsistency, rubbing her head on any object close by, running through cues (when asking for mostly stationary behaviors like turn on the forehand or haunches, or backing up), and many more. Under saddle it often would turn into "checking out" which would then turn into taking off or bucking.
When we started working at liberty (on the ground only for now) some of these same behaviors showed up again, but now it was different. I had to learn how to bring her back, or better yet not trigger it at all, without the use of any restrictive tools. Much like when a beginner student's instructor tells them to drop the reins and ride just from the seat, I felt handicapped and uncertain.
Thankfully though, with years of experience behind me, a deep self taught education in equine behavior and learning, and a strong will to do this not only for my horse but for me, I took a deep breath and did the hardest thing I could ever do.... drop all expectations and be patient.
It's amazing how hard it is to just... not do anything, and when you do something, to be incredibly patient with no expectations. I'm a very driven, type A, multi-tasking, perfectionist. The concept of just sitting and waiting, or relaxing and enjoying, is so hard for me, but I'm discovering that it's potentially the most vital lesson I could ever learn; for every aspect of life. I fully believe Tiger is here to help me grow in this area of my life. I may train horses, but they teach me more than I could ever teach them.
As a result of even just a few sessions I've started to notice big changes in Tiger. One of the first I noticed was when we returned to working on a new behavior after a couple week break and she was so relaxed and focused. Within minutes we had made more progress then we had made in multiple sessions before. We didn't practice completely at liberty, as I needed to keep a halter a lead on her, but I did my best to not restrict her in any way and as a result she was unusually focused and relaxed.
In our most recent at liberty session I noticed changes too. Besides the normal progress made during effective training sessions, I noticed a more engaged horse. She would get distracted on occasion and wander off, but it wasn't due to stress, and when she was with me she was really with me. So much so that we experienced our first at liberty trot together.
This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but this was a huge deal to me. Side by side we trotted in small sections around the arena, matching pace in a relaxed and fun way. No chasing, no pushing, no pressure, no driving, no woahing.. just plain and simple trotting. It was a beautiful moment and I feel endlessly blessed to have experienced this for the first time, especially with my beautifully challenging mare Tiger.
Tiger was the one that changed the way I work with horses, it makes perfect sense she would be the one to take me down this new path further still.