Everyone wants those pretty pictures and videos of rearing and running with their horses on the beach... especially if they are without tack. We picture this moment in time as "ideal", we want it for ourselves, we too want to achieve that goal and experience that magical moment with our horses. I also dream of having experiences like this with my horses, yet when people say the words "liberty training" I have to fight the urge to cringe. Why?
With the popularity of social media apps such as Instagram, the words "liberty" and "bond" have become grab words to get attention and to get followers. If you can get your horse to rear for the camera, you're sure to have thousands of likes and hundreds of raving comments about what an amazing bond you have with your horse. Even comments like "I wish I had that kind of bond with my horse!" are common. So easily people forget they are only seeing a split second of time that has been chosen to be shared because it's a highlight. It's not the whole picture.
We rarely have any idea the road that horse and handler took to get that picture... and so easily we forget to look at what the horse is telling us in those "pretty pictures". So often I see horses running around, performing tricks, while they are expressing confusion, frustration, and even stress... yet everyone only seems to see the pretty horse on the pretty beach with the pretty rider and we 'oooohhh and ahhhhh'.
Here is the truth about liberty training... Just because the horse has no tack on doesn't mean it's not feeling forced, trapped, anxious, stressed, or frightened.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against correct training at liberty. I've come to realize there is no truer test or more perfect mirror than letting your horse go free and then seeing what happens next. Marijke de Jong calls this the "Handover Style" type of training. Where the handler allows their horse to make it's own decisions and in doing so will find the truth... the truth about whether or not the horse desires to be with you, the truth about how much your horse really understands, and the truth about the horse's and your mental state. It's the perfect opportunity to find holes in the training and in your relationship and repair them.
In fact, I'm so determined to find out exactly what my horses think I've purposed to dedicate the next couple months to almost exclusively "at liberty" work with my mare Tiger. I want to learn from her, and really listen to what she has to tell me. It's a journey I hope to explore, and to find my own faults in. It is NOT a pretty photo taking opportunity. (though I do secretly hope to get a few pretty photos... #gasp #dontjudgeme #imonlyhuman ;)
Doing this is a huge step for me, especially with this particular mare. I'm a controlling type A personality; a planner, a doer. I get things done, I'm an "all or nothing" kind of person, and I'm a perfectionist. Letting go of control is so hard for me, no matter the area of life, but in regards to my horses I have an even harder time with Tiger.
Tiger has never cared much for humans, she's beautiful and gifted, but she experienced very rough training before I brought her home. It left her mentally and physically a "hot mess" to say the least. Bucking, rearing, refusing to be caught, head shy, nervous twitches, ridged hard and tense muscles, a fear of reins (from being smacked with split reins), bolting, constant nervous jogging,... the list goes on and on.
We've come a long way since then, but I'm still not sure what it will look like to "let her go" during a training session for the first time. She's willing to be caught and tries very hard for me, but it's just different when you tell the horse "alright, you have free choice now. You can leave or you can choose to work with me, what do you say?" It's different than round pen work, it's different than catching a horse from the pasture, it's different than lunging, it's different than almost everything else we do with horses. But what it is NOT different from... is correct training.
What I mean by that is that the cues are all still the same, the body language should be the same, the energy should be the same, and most of all your horse's attitude should be the same. Your horse should be willing, relaxed, and eager to work with you. The horse should perform the same movements in the same way whether there is tack or not. Ideally there should be no difference in what your horse is expressing emotionally and physically whether it's at liberty or with tack. This should be the goal.
Obviously, training at liberty wouldn't be such a big deal if it was as easily done as said. There's a huge chance that I'll take off that halter and she won't care one bit about engaging with me. But this is a risk I'm willing to take to find out where we stand in our partnership.