Do you train your horse ‘at liberty’? I use inverted commas here because our horses are never really at liberty. Well, certainly none that I know of. For safety reasons they usually need to be confined in some way, even if it is in a 50 acre field. What is important though, is whether or not your horse feels like he is at liberty.
So what does liberty actually mean? The definition in the Oxford Dictionary that is most relevant here is
‘The power or scope to act as one pleases.’
How often are traditionally trained horses given this freedom? Have they ever felt the power or scope to act as they please? Would they even know how to make a choice if given the opportunity to do so? Hmm, that’s something to ponder on.
I recently watched a You Tube video where a trainer was teaching the audience how to train at liberty. She began by repeating a sequence with the horse over and over again, whilst it was wearing a headcollar. She then removed the headcollar and ‘voila’ the horse did the same thing without it on! Magic! Uh, no, the horse had no idea that anything had changed. It didn’t have a choice before and it still felt that it must complete the boring task if it wanted to have an easy day. He/she probably gave up thinking for themselves a long time ago.
The point I am trying to make is that simply removing tack does not mean the horse is being trained at liberty. If it doesn’t feel at liberty to do as it pleases then it is not at liberty.
It really is great that so many people are now trying bitless, even bridleless riding, it certainly can only be an improvement to those horses lives, but these horses do not necessarily feel at liberty if they have only been traditionally trained up to that point.
When I use the term ‘liberty’, what I mean is that the horse is free to move away and disengage from me at any time and eat something other than what I might have to offer. It is so empowering for the horse to be able to say no and make choices for themselves. The fearful ones become braver as they feel more in control of life and those that have been dulled by intensive training with aversives begin to come alive again.
Only once a horse says no and they are listened to, will they know that they are at liberty to do as they please. You will know when this realisation sets in because you will have a new horse! One that can’t wait to train with you, one that offers up behaviours that they think you might want and even try out new behaviours to impress you! Only then will you see their true character emerge, see their sense of fun, find out what they do and do not like doing, find their favourite games and I guarantee your horse will make you smile every time you train.