If you haven't seen or heard about liberty with horses, you might be wondering what the big deal is. Why spend countless hours of working on the ground before climbing in the saddle?
Horses are prey animals with strong fight or flight instincts. These instincts are often muted when they are haltered and restrained since many of their options have been eliminated. Sure, they might still spook and pull at the lead rope, but they don't have the chance to leave completely.
When you look at a herd of horses, there is an established dominant mare or gelding. This lead horse earns her position by proving she has the strength, wisdom, and even compassion to keep the herd safe and healthy. The horses that follow her do not require a halter and lead. However, you see when there's trouble, they stay together as a tight group. They either stand and watch, or run away as a unit. Horses require this comfort and leadership.
Now when a horse is restrained and fearful, are they tuly conquering their fear? Are they learning to trust you? Or in the back of their mind, they think there's no escape so they are just "hanging on" till the session is over?
All of these questions are answered when the restraint of halter and lead is gone. The horse is given every opportunity to leave. We want this. It's an arena of complete honesty between human and horse. By running off, the horse is expressing that they don't fully trust and respect you as a leader at this point in time (or there's a really cute mare vying for their attention). Nevertheless, we can now establish genuine leadership by speaking the horse's language and inviting them to learn ours, rather making it a one way street.
We're establishing mutual connection. If you walk up to a person and greet them with an outstretched hand, you expect them to lift their own hand and shake back. That's what we're asking a horse to do in liberty - hold up their end of the relationship. It's easy to simply reach down and "shake their hand for them" when restraint is being used.
There is nothing more exhilarating than when you legitimately gain a horse's trust. After establishing a connection on the ground through 'joining up,' our next steps are guiding each individual foot (hoof) in the direction and speed that we want. This includes yielding the hip by having one hind foot crossing the other while the front feet stay still, or yielding the shoulder and having one front foot crossing over the other while the hind stays still. By guiding each individual foot, we have influence over the horse's actions. This is exactly what a lead mare does in a herd. She starts off subtly, with a look and pinned ears, then she either bares her teeth or kicks out if the other horse hasn't responded. We are creating a solid foundation of building blocks before starting on more advanced moves.
I'll take a moment and explain how this applies to riding. When you're on the ground, you can see how a horse is moving and where they are "leaning" into pressure. This can be as simple as the horse cutting their circle short when you're lunging them, or leading them around and they are pushing into you with their shoulder causing you to move away or alter direction. Now, I'll wager that you also experience this in the saddle. Whether the horse doesn't respond to your leg when you're asking them to move to the rail, or they're behind the leg, moving forward too quickly, spooking at a corner, etc. All of these challenges come out on the ground at liberty. The exciting part is that you can now repair the cracks at the foundation before adding new and existing levels of training. Without a solid foundation, a "house of training" can wobble and start to crumble. Also, have you experienced a "barn sour" horse? The moment you ride off on your own, and your wonderful steed suddeny starts melting in anxiety and calling out to their friends - it seems to be the end of the world for them! However, if you have a trusting partnership established, there is no need for your horse to get anxious because their lead mare is on top of them!
Once we're done with the building blocks of liberty, we can now ask the horse to approach "scary" situations. These include obstacles and tarps, or simply guiding the horse far from their herd and showing them that it's ok to be one-on-one with the human. All of this takes time and effort, but gradually, the horse will learn that being with this human provides all the leadership and comfort he needs to survive. Obstacles build up a horse's confidence in you and in themselves.
Liberty can be done with any horse, whether it's a tried and true lesson horse or a "know it all" reiner, down to feral mustangs with a powerful flight instinct and foals learning what's up and down.
I find liberty having a significant emotional impact on horses that experienced abuse and neglect. For once, they are given a voice in a human interaction. It's not only empowering for them, but also melts away the mistrust and resentment that they have buried deep.
I hope you found this to be informative. Before going out and trying it with your own horse, I encourage you to work with a trainer that can help you understand the timing and sensitivity required for it to be successful. Liberty relies on a system of pressure and release, so timing is everything! It holds people to the highest standards, so if something isn't going right, it's usually a "problem human" and NOT a problem horse.