Leslie Nichols Biography, In Depth: My Words, My Story.

Liberty training is the most meaningful and exhilarating work that I have ever done with horses. But like most career paths, where it all began feels far, far away from where I am today. (That I am working with horses at all, is surprising!) There were many necessary twists and turns that led me, over a period of time, to what would become my most important life’s work: Equine Liberty Sports™.

Like many adult horse owners, my love story with horses began as a teenager when my parents bought me a dun grade mare named Lady for $185. Racing through the woods, jumping over barrels bareback, showing in local open horse shows, lazy afternoons reading a book while Lady grazed on grass in the backyard, I was smitten so hard that I barely even noticed the boys (I am sure that this was one of the objectives of introducing me to horses at the age of 14!). Years later, horse-mates from that the time have reminded me that I was a free spirit even then. I often turned my mare loose around the barn and she would follow me everywhere, and jumping Lady over 3 foot jumps, bridleless and bareback was not out of the ordinary.

An Unexpected Career
When I left home for college (and sold Lady), I vowed to return to horses as soon as I was able. When I opened a small ad agency many years later, I covered an entire office wall with horse artwork as a reminder that this is what I am working for. I set my sights on my 40th birthday but met that deadline 2 years earlier when I purchased the magnificent No Wimp Here, a 6-year old super reining horse. What a horse! I had spent very little time with horses in the 20 year span between childhood and purchasing Wimp and “dove into the deep end without a life jacket” when I bought him. I went from re-learning how to sit on a horse to performing sliding stops at reining competitions in 6 months. As I was finally learning how to compete (and winning a few rookie classes), my wonderful horse began to physically fall apart. I retired Wimp from the sport in 2001…. and that’s when things began to get really interesting. I may not have had much time in the show ring with Wimp, but he’s the horse that launched a career!

When I removed the safety net of working with a trainer, my glorious reining horse became quite challenging. I discovered that I did not have the skills to handle his strong personality. My pursuit of knowledge led me to natural horsemanship. I was amazed at how quickly Wimp responded to the ideas, and I was equally surprised at how proficient I became working with him, especially on the ground.
This was the early 2000’s, before RFDTV had popularized natural horsemanship, and before the ideas were even accepted by the horse community. Over the next few years, I played with my now two horses on the ground and dabbled with Liberty even then… learning, growing and slowly being set on fire by a new passion. As I worked and played with my horses in this still new and radical way, people would stop to watch me remarking that they’d never seen anything like it. Horse owners in the neighborhood began to ask if I would help them with their horses. It was never my intention to start a new career, but it became obvious that the horse business was coming to me, not the other way around. While I felt that I was still at the beginning of my own education with horses, I was certain that I could teach others what I was learning… and so a second career was born.

Innovator from the very Beginning

I was originally attracted to natural horsemanship programs and developed my own brand of natural horsemanship. During these years, 2003 – 2008, I experimented with many different programs and techniques, and basically ignored the common wisdom to stick to one program. I began to incorporate the ideas that made sense to me, moving past the ones that did not feel right. This process of examining all ideas and then implementing the ones that align with my core values, continues to this day.

Most of my early clients were owners of recreational horses whose behavior and temperament was beyond their capabilities. From the very beginning, I was working with challenging horses. Horse owners came to me because my methods were thoughtful and gentle, and always put the horse first– which was still unique at the time.

I noticed early on that horses often went into a fight or flight mode the moment they came into contact with humans, and so I developed the Leslie Nichols Relaxation Program™ to help these horses calm down. This program featured the Relaxation Response and Yoga for Horses™. Later on, I expanded the program to help owners relax. I published extensively on the relaxation program and conducted clinics on relaxation. I still practice the relaxation techniques with horses and I have integrated the Yoga for Horses exercises into the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program.

A Mind of My Own

I came to the horse industry later in life, and this late entrance has proven to be a great asset, because I was never deeply indoctrinated into horsemanship traditions or a mentor’s philosophy. This freedom allowed me to examine ideas and methods without biases or prejudices. I came to the industry with an open mind and evaluated everything that crossed my path against a personal set of criteria: What ideas jibed with my core values and what ideas did not. What ideas inspired the horses to offer themselves, willingly and joyfully, and what ideas created resistance and eroded the trust between horses and their handlers.

I embraced many ideas from both classical to very progressive horsemanship programs and ideology. However, I also discovered that the industry was entrenched in traditions and conventions that seemed outdated, and often not supported by modern animal science. The industry was evolving, but I felt that there was still much more evolution to come!

Equine Liberty Sports is Born.

I have always been fascinated with Liberty and added Liberty sessions to work with my client’s horses and my personal horses. I found that relating to horses, calmly, in a non-confrontational manner, when the horse was loose, often yielded better results than the traditional round pen training, which focuses on driving the horse. I also learned that Liberty brought out the play drive in some horses, and this laid the foundation for a different kind of connection. The relationship and the communication in Liberty was not one of leadership or dominance, but rather of two herd mates learning to understand and enjoy each other.

I explored Liberty, working through the challenges of motivating horses to work and play with the handler… when they don’t have to. I learned that when horses are offered free will, many conventional training methods do not work very well. I innovated new ideas to inspire horses to work without lines, and these ideas have proven to be very powerful, but potentially controversial. This excited me. I sensed that Liberty training was still so new and so fascinating to horse owners, that it would provide a great platform for new thinking.

An exercise sequence gradually came to life in an organized teaching plan. My Liberty program naturally went down new paths– it was not a problem-solving program, nor a leadership-based program. This new discipline, which I named Equine Liberty Sports, offered horse owners a new way to experience and enjoy their horses. Equine Liberty Sports became my greatest passion yet.

My husband, Ritchie, who worked as a film editor in New York City in the 1980’s, and I began video taping tutorials in 2011. In the winter 2012, I launched the venture thru facebook, initially, while preparing for a significant launch through the Internet. The Equine Liberty Sports website, which hosts the tutorials and supports Liberty handlers everywhere, was launched to the world in the fall, 2012.

“I Understand You, Because I am You.”

I am a horse owner and horse lover first, professional second. I have always felt a rapport with horse owners because I enjoy a close connection with my herd, and in many respects, this kinship with horse owners has differentiated me from other professionals. In my experiences with my personal horses, many, many truths emerged about the nature of horses and the horse to human connection.

Horse owners all over the world, myself included, are having experiences with horses that are at odds with conventional training and even some natural horsemanship philosophies. These experiences, and the examination of ideas that don’t always jibe with the horse owner’s observations, are being proliferated through the Internet. Further, social media has connected progressive, like-minded horse owners with each other. There is a sense of: “I’m not the only one who thinks the way I do about horses. “ Horse owners all over the world feel empowered and in many ways Equine Liberty Sports is offering a voice for new ideas and a new path. It is an incredible time for the industry and I’m very excited to be able to contribute to the evolution that is happening right now.

A Program for the Real World of Horses
There is no Equine Liberty Sports ideal, no “wonder horse” that has advanced to dizzying levels to showcase the program‘s ideas. I have been teaching the program to many different kinds of horses, and using a variety of horses in the tutorials. The horses are young, adult, sensitive temperaments, very laid back, strong-minded individuals, distrustful horses, large horses, small horses, some of the horses are purebreds, others are rescues. Most importantly, Equine Liberty Sports celebrates the “real world” of horses. Some of the horses featured in the tutorials have taken to the program like they’ve known it all their lives; other horses have offered up a variety of typical teaching challenges and scenarios… a true and very real cross-section of horses everywhere.

The Equine Liberty Sports teaching program offers a brand new discipline for equine breeds that cannot be ridden or horses that can’t be ridden at this time, as well as a new experience for horse owners who are not riding, or simply want to grow in new areas. In many respects, Equine Liberty Sports is truly adding to the industry, and I could not be more thrilled!

Further, the program can be learned in conjunction with other activities that the horse owner is enjoying with their horse. It was my intention to create a new experience and a new way to enjoy the horse, and as such, the teaching program should not conflict with other activities.

One of the incredible truths about working or playing with horses without lines, is that equipment truly is not the key to training. Which is why Liberty handlers do not have to purchase special equipment from Equine Liberty Sports to enjoy the program. The teaching program is not equipment-based; it is idea-based.

A New Business Model for the Next Wave

Most horse professionals and horse lovers would rather be out with their horses than sitting in front of a computer, and that includes me. (I’d even prefer mucking to typing). But I recognize that the connectivity, convenience and immediacy that technology and the Internet offers is a wonderful marriage for Equine Liberty Sports. Social media has also revealed that horse owners from all age groups and from all over the world are interested in Liberty training. The Internet allows me, from day one, to reach any horse owner, anywhere in the world, that wants to learn something new. So, I chose to create an internet-based business model where tutorials can be streamed through the Equine Liberty Sports website, and customers, Liberty handlers, can be supported through the website as well.

One of the first business decisions that I made (with much deliberation) was to make early tutorials available, while we were still developing and producing tutorials that have not been released. It was important to me to get the ideas out and not wait until all the tutorials were completed. While I recognized that there were risks attached to this decision, I reminded myself that the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program is an experience and a journey, not a destination. Lessons in the early tutorials offer meaningful experiences for horse owners from the first lesson on.

It was also very important to me that the program was within the financial reach of any horse owner who wanted a new horse experience. Selling through the Internet allows me to do this. I also decided against “taking the show on the road ” to market the program. This decision will keep prices down, dramatically. Horse owners can purchase 6 month subscriptions for very affordable prices. During this 6-month period, Liberty handlers can enjoy, learn and practice the tutorials that are available, and the tutorials that are released during that period. And of course, subscriptions can be renewed again and again, and Equine Liberty Sports will be offering discounts to reward Liberty handlers who want to progress through the program for an extended period of time. Tutorials can be streamed and enjoyed immediately, and as often as desired, and can be viewed through the website on any computer, anywhere. Further, Liberty handlers can view the tutorials on their iphones, ipads or Android devices, which means they can take the lessons out to their horses and view the tutorials in the “classroom.” This is a truly exciting example of how technology can enhance your horse experience!

As mentioned previously, I feel a strong kinship with horse owners everywhere who are seeking to evolve their horsemanship and are seeking an even more fulfilling partnership with their horses. Relationships with customers is a top priority. It is my intention that Equine Liberty Sports will stay connected with their customers, which is why I created the Liberty Handlers Arena, a private section of the website just for Liberty handlers learning the program. Once a horse owner has purchased a 6-month subscription, they become a Liberty handler and are given an account with Equine Liberty Sports for that time period. The Liberty Handlers Arena offers support by Equine Liberty Sports as well as additional exercises, activities and information that is not available to the public. Liberty handlers enjoy a relationship with the company and are rewarded with promotions, discounts, and unique educational opportunities. In the near future, Equine Liberty Sports will be launching a forum for Liberty handlers everywhere to get to know each other and support each other.
Many aspects of Equine Liberty Sports, the program, the spirit, the philosophies, and the business model, are so new, that change and growth is inevitable (and desirable). The website and social media creates a two-way flow of information. I will be listening to Liberty handlers and responding to feedback and creative ideas. The Internet allows Equine Liberty Sports to be flexible and adaptable, with a website that is fluid, always transforming, always evolving- this is very, very exciting!

But perhaps the most important advantage of creating an Internet business model is that it allows me to “stay home,” which means that I can put my energy on the teaching program, evolving it and creating tutorials, and also focus on supporting Liberty handlers who are enjoying the program.

Beyond Equine Liberty Sports

I will always continue to explore new ideas and take on conventional thinking, striving to evolve horsemanship into new areas. I am currently adding a multi-sensory aspect to the Liberty training, with the use of essential oils, tastes, sounds (including music) and more. I am developing a product line to enhance the Equine Liberty Sports experience. These products and tools will stimulate the horse’s senses, support the teaching principles, and invite the handler to express their creativity through their Liberty work and play.
I am very passionate about the horse rescue industry; several of my horses are rescue or re-homed horses. I am eager to bring a specialized program to the horse rescue industry that merges the Leslie Nichols Relaxation Program with the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program. The relaxation program naturally quiets the horse’s fight or flight responses, and releases stress and tension from the horse’s body and mind. The Equine Liberty Sports teaching program, which is grounded in positive reinforcement and creating a mutually enjoyable activity between horse and handler, offers an incredible process for rehabilitating rescue horses. Additionally, the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program offers a new way for adoptive families of rescued, re-homed and rehabilitated horses to enjoy their horses, regardless of the horse or handler’s age, level of experience, and physical limitations.

In the future, I hope to pioneer a facet of the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program for foals. The principles build trust through positive experiences, and the communication offers an excellent start for youngsters, and lays a great foundation for riding work. I feel strongly that socializing and teaching foals and young horses should be the standard in the industry, not the exception, and it is my hope that a Liberty program for foals will stimulate more progress in this area of training and horsemanship.

The Leslie Nichols Relaxation Program is an incredible program that I spent years developing and documenting. It features the Relaxation Response and Yoga for Horses, with over 200 exercises for the horse and handler/rider, on the ground and under saddle. The program transforms the horse’s nervous system responses, helping the horse to naturally quiet their flight or flight response and accelerate the return to a relaxed state. Complementary exercises for the horse owner are developed in a parallel lesson plan to help them relax as well.

I still use the techniques and I am continually amazed at how important relaxation is to the connection between horses and humans. Early Equine Liberty Sports lessons promote a relaxed state in both the horse and handler. This is done by design; it has been my experience that horses learn best when they are calm. Further, it is very important in the early stages of the program that the lessons are very pleasurable for the horse to create positive associations between Liberty lessons and the handler- for many horses and handlers, relaxation deepens the connection between them.

When the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program is near completion, the Leslie Nichols Relaxation Program will be the next program that I will be bringing to the horse community.

Something Personal

I live in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. My herd currently boasts 7 ½ horses (1 mini), which are all featured in the Equine Liberty Sports tutorials.

I am married to Ritchie and have a son, Jack. Equine Liberty Sports is a true family effort. Jack, a musician, wrote the theme song for Equine Liberty Sports and Ritchie is director, videographer, editor, engineer and producer of all of the tutorials. I truly could not be telling you my story right now, if it weren’t for the love and support of my family!

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