Updated: Apr 5, 2021
Liberty training is an EXCELLENT way of gauging your horse's interest, understanding, and welfare during her training experience.
What is "Liberty" Horse Training?
In simplest terms, working a horse at liberty means the handler doesn't have any direct contact with the horse or ability to control it. The horse is literally "at liberty" with no halters, bridles, ropes or lines restricting the horse's movement in any way. The horse may be worked in a limited space, such as a round pen or arena but is moves freely within that space.
What Are the Benefits?
When your horse has the option of interacting with you, you are offering her a choice. Choice is very empowering to horses, and is something that very few have the opportunity to experience while relating to humans. Choice builds confidence, develops relaxation, and trust. Intimidation, coercion, and force works and leads to compliance and obedience but the horse has no other option and a high probability of emotional and physical damage.
What other benefits are there to working your horse at liberty?
Your Horse will Think More and React Less, Especially in Stressful Circumstances
Freedom of Self-Expression Gives You Valuable Insight into What Your Horse is Thinking and Feeling
Your Horse's Memory and Ability to Learn Will Increase Dramatically
Your Horse will be FAR Less Stressed and MUCH More Relaxed
Your Horse will Become Far More Trusting of You and the World Around Her
Your Horse Will Enjoy Greater Emotional Stability, Physical Welfare, and Quality of Life
Your Horse will Feel Empowered to Increase Enthusiasm and Offer Greater Effort
Your Horse will be FAR More Motivated to Work and Interact with You!
There are other advantages as well. If your horse has the choice to be ridden or not ridden, a "no thank you" may prompt you to check to see if your usually willing horse is in pain. I saw a horse refuse to walk forward once her owner was settled in the saddle. The owner stepped down, checked the tack, and discovered a dangling girth. Once it was adjusted properly, the owner remounted, and the horse walked off without hesitation. We gain so much in regard to safety, relationship, and welfare when we open the doors of communication.
Are There Any Drawbacks?
Let's call them tradeoffs vs drawbacks. Liberty work gives your horse the option to behave in a way that more accurately reflects how she's feeling. In other words, if she feels comfortable expressing herself, she will! (Some horses have been taught to suppress emotions and physical pain.) This may lead to the discovery of things about your horse and your relationship that you may not have been aware of.
You may learn that your horse doesn't want to work with you. That can be a real bummer to be sure. However, it is also very valuable information that you can guide your future choices as you build a better relationship with your horse. (This begs the question, "How can I make my horse WANT to interact with me?" a topic I'll take on in future blogs.)
You may also realize that your horse is doing things because she has to vs. wants to. Horses, like any other creature with a brain, would much prefer to have some say in how they experience life. Any horse will certainly be happier when giving the opportunity to choose to say yes or no.
You may also see that she has more trouble focusing and figuring things out on her own. At first she may get upset more intensely and often when you give her the chance to express herself, especially if it's a new concept for her. This is not uncommon for horses that have had little opportunity to express themselves when they are exposed to this level of freedom.
Are You Up for the Challenge?
I'm going out on a limb to speak for the human race in general here, so bear with me. WE LOVE feeling in control. We feel accomplished, safer, and more successful when our horses do what we want them to do, EVEN IF IT TAKES some degree OF PRESSURE, FORCE, PUNITIVE and/or CORPORAL PUNISHMENT to get the job done. We are rewarded by the result we get and are really good at justifying what we did to get there.
**Disclaimer** (If I need one...) I am speaking about the human race and society as a whole. I am also referring to the well-documented neurological response to external reinforcement. This is a powerful motivator in us as well as our equine friends.
I know not everyone thinks and responds to their world in this way, but I have experienced it myself. I lived there as a "traditional" trainer back in the day and still find myself going down that road to "get the job done," on occasion. We are all human after all.
Freedom Isn't Always Free
Can you still put a whole lot of emotional and physical pressure on a horse without touching them in any way? Absolutely! These can include whips cracks, chasing, yelling, clapping, anything that the horse finds aversive and wants to get away from. One popular method for getting a horse to come to you on command is to chase her (sometimes relentlessly or to the point of exhaustion) until she "chooses" to make the decision to come to you. That is not liberty by any stretch of the imagination and has a MAJOR negative psychological impact on the horse. It puts the horse into a state of learned helplessness. While it is highly effective in getting the job done, it is also incredibly damaging.
You can also teach a horse to work at liberty by shaping the behavior first using leads, ropes, and touch. These can also be applied using pain and intimidation to teach the horse compliance. They can also be used with gentle guidance that has an emotionally neutral of even positive impact on your horse. Add rewards that reinforce the behaviors you're working for, such as scratches, food, or other reinforcers, using positive reinforcement, classical conditioning, and/or clicker training, and you make the experience even more enjoyable for your equine partner. It has the added benefit of making it even more likely that she'll offer the behaviors you want and will perform them well.