Liberty Training

GP vs LH pt 3 hero image
Stress, Inevitable vs. Not Inevitable

With some ground work exercises, stressing the horse is considered a necessary “means to an end,” with the handler seeking to remove the stress as soon as possible and as often as possible. The creation of stress through pressure as well as stimulating a fear response in the horse, often produces a quick change in the horse’s behavior, and is therefore considered efficient. The creation of stress in ground work training is so prevalent that it is seldom questioned. Stress has become “normalized.”

Most Liberty handlers (but not all) do not feel that stress is necessary in the relationship, and ideas and options are to be explored to avoid stress. When stress responses occur, the Liberty handler does everything possible to bring the horse to a place of relaxation quickly. Teaching without stress means that the Liberty handler must be creative and put a lot of thinking into teaching ideas in a relaxed and thoughtful manner. This can mean that answers are not always obvious… but this does not concern the Liberty handler as the horse’s experience is paramount.

In the Equine Liberty Sports teaching method, for example, innovations that produce natural ideas and natural movement are utilized as much as possible. Patterns, obstacles, mimicking behaviors, social cognitive learning behaviors, free-shaping and more, are used to teach without the use of stress.

Hummer holding on

Goal-oriented vs. Experiential

Generally speaking, most ground work, longe work or round pen training is purpose-driven. The lessons are part of an overall training program. The ground work person typically has specific goals in mind when they work the horse. The ground work person experiences satisfaction from their horse’s expression of understanding of the ideas and compliance to these ideas.

The Liberty handler is motivated by the experience of working and playing with their horse at Liberty. The visceral, physical, emotional and for some, spiritual experience, is often the “goal” of the sessions. The more relaxed and joyful the horse’s expression, the more deeply satisfying for the Liberty handler. The Liberty handler often approaches each session with either “no agenda,” or an agenda that will be heavily influenced by the horse as they go along in the Liberty session.

Mindlessness vs. Mindfulness

In contrast to the previous comparison, some groundwork persons, especially those that use the round pen or longe their horses regularly, use these exercises as a way of “blowing off the horse’s steam,” or tiring the horse out, or even as a form of exercise. There is little to no advancement in the relationship between the handler and the horse, nor the training.

The Liberty handler wants every moment and every detail with the horse to contribute to the relationship in a meaningful way, even if the activity is passive. Generally, the Liberty handler views the horse’s exuberance and energy positively and seeks to channel it into their Liberty sessions.

False Impressions vs. The Truth

When the horse is tethered to the ground person through equipment, escape is not possible for the horse. The horse seeks relief from pressure, physical as well as mental and emotional by figuring out what behaviors cause the handler to stop their uncomfortable actions. The horse learns the lessons and repeats them. The horse becomes compliant, even responsive. The horse can and often will express relief and confidence that comes from knowing how to control their own outcomes. Many ground work handlers arrive at the conclusion that the horse’s compliance and confidence is an indication that the horse is enjoying themselves and are accepting of the handler’s behavior. This may be a false impression, because the horse may not offer the same responses if given the freedom to leave.

The Liberty handler gives their horse freedom, ideally in a large open area, or freedom to leave the handler and choose not to participate in a smaller area. When the horse is permitted to leave or not participate without negative consequences to them, the horse begins a very truthful dialogue on how they feel about being with the handler. These truths are revealed by the choices that the horse makes. When the horse chooses, freely, to be with the Liberty handler, it is a truthful display of how they feel about being with the handler and the sessions that they are enjoying together.

(Paradoxically, it is this very freedom that produces the desire within the horse to stay with the handler, and learn new ideas with the handler.)

Approximation vs. Clarity

Interestingly, ground work handlers will talk a great deal about clarity, but the use of equipment and the ability to cause or influence desired movement or responses by pushing or pulling on a the horse, actually “allows” the handler to be less precise, and less careful with their communication.

The Liberty handler cannot directly influence movement through physical manipulation and so the communication must be extremely clear to the horse. Clarity, or the lack of it, becomes surprisingly stark and obvious during Liberty sessions.

Flight vs. Play

The ground work person may intentionally or unintentionally trigger a flight response as they endeavor to move the horse forward. The quickness of this flight response is sometimes regarded as respect or responsiveness. The ground person seeks to minimize the flight response and create responsiveness in a relaxed horse as soon as possible.

Most Liberty handlers, (but not all), work very hard not to trigger a flight response. After a very strong connection is created between horse and Liberty handler, energy and excitement directed at the horse, especially the horse’s hindquarters, will produce a play response as evidenced by the horse’s joyful attitude and desire to stay with the handler. A playful reaction to energy, which then creates movement without fear, is the preferred response of the Liberty handler.

The Liberty handler looks beyond the hindquarters as a natural "go-to" communication for play and movement. The Liberty handler recognizes that most movement in the horse is not the result of being driven by another horse, but the desire to go somewhere or do something that may please the horse. The savvy and creative Liberty handler will tap into this natural desire to create movement and play in the horse.
Who’s is being served? Ground person or Horse?

While the horse’s education or physical development may be the goal of ground work, longe work or in-hand exercises, the achievement of the ground person’s objectives is the reason for the ground work exercises. Who is benefiting from ground work, horse or handler, can be debated, however, the prevalence of the horse’s stress in ground work exercises suggests that the horse’s experience is secondary to the ground handler’s goals. (And the probable truth that the horse wouldn’t volunteer for these exercises, also suggest that they are not the true beneficiary.)

The Liberty handler puts the horse’s experience above their wants, needs and goals. This is a natural result of seeking a horse experience that is aligned with the Liberty handler’s core values about the horse/human relationship, which seeks to create a mutually enjoyable and mutually rewarding experience.

Banjo elevated trot

Mechanical vs. Natural

The ground work person is often seeking a high level of precision in the horse’s performance. The result can be “correct” movement, but it sometimes presents as mechanical, even lifeless or joyless movement.

The Liberty handler does not seek perfection (and understands that this is a human ideal), but seeks to bring out the horse’s natural movement and natural spirit, producing expressive movements, through the freedom of Liberty. The Liberty handler celebrates the mind to body connection within horses where calling up the horse’s innate spirit, naturally produces inspired movement. Conversely, encouraging athleticism, natural collection and impulsion naturally stimulates the horse’s joyful spirit. In the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program, this mind to body connection is the principle behind the “dance class” teaching method which helps the horse offer inspired movement (dance class), so that the Liberty handler can then encourage it during their Liberty play.

Socialization of the Horse vs. Socialization of the Handler

In ground work exercises, the handler attempts to emulate the behavior of the alpha horse, with the expectation that the horse will respond to them the same way that they may respond to the alpha horse in the herd. While interpretations of herd behavior is used to communicate with the horse, the goal of the exercises is to habituate the horse to human endeavors, and to ask the horse to adapt to its life with humans. The horse, in the end, becomes socialized to the ways of humans.

Through freedom and choice, the horse educates the Liberty handler on what they need from them. The horse teaches the handler how they learn best, what really motivates them, and what their needs really are. The Liberty handler becomes socialized to the way of horses and adapts their ideas and approach accordingly. The Liberty handler understands that humans are not horses, and horses are not humans. But together, the Liberty handler and horse can create something unique between them.

Tradition vs. Innovation

Ground work principles are seated in the past. Many of the ideas and traditions are very old and may go back to the early domestication of the horse. Even modern horsemanship philosophies are actually a contemporary interpretation of horsemanship traditions. The use of pressure, dominance theories and even interpretation of herd behaviors (to support the use of pressure and dominance theories) has been used to tame horses for millennia.

When the Liberty handler gives the horse a voice through freedom and choice, and the horse begins to “speak freely” about their preferences and needs, the Liberty handler learns that many horsemanship traditions are not preferred by the horse. Most importantly, the Liberty handler learns that they are not necessary either. Through the horse’s choices, the Liberty handler learns that a relationship can be forged through gentler and more thoughtful methods that emulate the harmonious nature of horses. The horse’s natural responses, as allowed through Liberty, teach the handler that they respond exceedingly well to positivity in the horse/human relationship. Further, teaching methods that are more closely aligned with how horses acquire new information (social cognitive learning), produce clarity and even immediate learning. As the Liberty handler experiences the presence of a unique intelligence and problem-solving capability, the Liberty handler naturally shifts their focus from how they are teaching the horse (techniques) to how readily the horse is understanding the ideas. Through the horse, the Liberty handler is innovating new ideas and is pointing the way towards the future of horsemanship. In fact, the Liberty handler is serving as the translator of the horse’s preferences and needs, and is giving the horse a voice, and as such, power to influence their own future.

Horse Activity Creates Joy vs. The Horse Creates Joy

The ground work person is seeking to improve the horse’s performance and the communication that they have with their horse. As has been presented, these exercises are a means to an end, and that end is often a specific activity or discipline that the ground work person is enjoying with their horse. Whether it be trail riding or the show ring, the activity is often the greatest source of the person’s satisfaction or joy. And the quality of this experience, often determines or at least influences the level of joy that the ground work person is experiencing. This of course, is not always a true statement, but is prevalent enough to add to these comparisons.

The relationship created and deepened between the horse and the handler IS the source of satisfaction and joy for the Liberty handler. The horse itself creates the experience of joy within the handler. The experiences with the horse, all of them, and especially Liberty experiences, are sources of joy for the Liberty handler. It is for this reason that Liberty handlers tend to be free of the usual frustrations and unhappiness that are common in modern horse ownership.

Outdated Science vs. Modern Science

While the ground work person believes that their ideas are supported by the objective observation of natural herd behavior, contemporary animal scientists believe that this interpretation is outdated. Much of the past observation of horse behavior (but not all) has been limited to the behavior of domesticated horses living unnaturally, much like studying wild animals in captivity – the presentation of behavior was bound to be distorted and not totally correct. Ethologists have suggested that the observations of domesticated herds in the past, and then the reporting of this behavior, have emphasized the more uncommon behaviors of competition and aggression. The cooperative and harmonious nature of familial herds, some ethologists feel, have not been the foundation to horsemanship training philosophies.

The ideas about the horse’s nature that is revealed through a Liberty relationship, are, in fact, very similar to and supported by modern ethologists’ research findings of feral herd behavior. The Liberty handler is basing their relationship on the harmonious nature of the horse, not antagonistic behaviors. Ethologists report that feral herds exhibit very few aggressive displays when compared to other herd behaviors. The style of leadership that Liberty handlers naturally emulate is that of the higher-ranking herd member that helps their horse become more relaxed and more confident in his life through experiences and the handler’s deeds. This more passive style of leadership, according to animal scientists, is a more accurate interpretation of herd social behavior. Because the Liberty handler cannot cause behavior or movement to occur through equipment, the horse’s unique intelligence is revealed as the horse demonstrates to the handler, over and over again, that they can learn new ideas readily through thinking. Perhaps most interesting is that the Liberty handler appreciates that horses are truly a different species and the handler must approach them as such, and then put intention towards unlocking the horse’s innate desire to connect with us by removing the struggles from the relationship.

Aspen Liberty joyful 1 resized

Liberty, a Goal vs. Liberty a Philosophy

The ground work person may seek to take off the equipment after the communication and relationship has been strengthened over time through ground work training. This horse may perform for the handler at Liberty, and may perform very well due to the conditioned responses of ground work training and the confidence that the horse has gained in fully understanding what is expected of him. Liberty is often a threshold reached deep into a ground work training program, and is often considered a pinnacle of a training method.

The Liberty handler seeks to offer the horse freedom as soon as possible, and in many cases, from the very beginning. Liberty is much more than taking off equipment, it defines the spirit of the relationship and a teaching philosophy. Liberty is not a goal of a teaching method, it IS the method.

This is one of the most important and most striking distinctions between ground work programs and a Liberty relationship!


GP vs LH pt 1 Blog hero image Stella
It would be tempting to think that if your horse is proficient with his ground work and longe work that Liberty would be just a matter of taking off the lines… but the communication, the style and the spirit of Liberty is vastly different from ground work and longe training.

The ground person is the individual who is using equipment to help communicate ideas to the horse and is relying upon conventional training methods or is using a small enclosed area such as a round pen, but in a very specific manner (to be presented in great detail here). The ground person may be doing traditional work on the longe, classical in-hand training, groundwork training common to natural horsemanship programs, and round pen training.

The Liberty handler is generally loose with their horse in a working classroom, large or small, or a wide open area. However, it is very important to be aware that while the ground work person often uses equipment, and the Liberty handler is often working or playing with their horse without equipment, the ground person can work their horse, loose, using conventional ground work principles (round pen training, for example). Further, the Liberty handler can have their horse on-line, and use Liberty principles and methods. Also, it is absolutely possible for a handler that typically works their horse on-line to also practice many of the Liberty horsemanship principles and practices that are being put forward here, without ever pursuing the activity of Liberty.

The differences between the ground work person and the Liberty handler have less to do with equipment and much more to do with desired outcomes, training principles, style, attitude and more. These differences reflect some of the major philosophical distinctions between Liberty horsemanship and many other popular and common horsemanship practices. Let’s have a look at those differences.

Before we begin, a disclaimer should be offered. The interpretation of groundwork exercises and principles are subjective (and put forth by the author). The principles of Liberty horsemanship and Liberty handler practices, while commonly used and accepted by most Liberty handlers and specialists, are a direct reflection of the ideas of Equine Liberty Sports, an internet-based Liberty teaching experience founded by the author.

Training vs. Relationship

The groundwork person is often seeking to work through trouble spots in the horse/human relationship, with the goal of achieving cooperation from the horse. The groundwork person may be seeking to control or influence the horse’s movement through equipment. The goal may be to introduce new ideas or reinforce learned training. The handler may use groundwork exercises to improve the relationship between themselves and the horse, but it is often with the intent of advancing the training.

The Liberty handler is seeking a relationship with their horse and a new style of communication that relies heavily on body language, energy and mental focus. The handler’s mind and body replace the use of equipment. The Liberty handler is typically more focused on the unique qualities of a Liberty connection and is seeking to deepen this experience between themselves and their horse. Liberty handlers feel that Liberty is a social relationship not a training activity. Some Liberty handlers may use the “medium” of Liberty to advance the horse’s training, such as freestyle longe work. However, the extent to which Liberty horsemanship principles are in play can vary widely, with some freestyle Liberty exercises actually reflecting groundwork principles that are simply being practiced without equipment.

Horses tell the Truth

Freedom to Comply v.s Freedom to Participate

The groundwork person offers the horse the freedom to choose between complying with the handler or not. The lessening or removal of pressure and of stress is presumed to be a desired state for the horse, and therefore pleasing to the horse, because it is better than the alternative. The differences in these outcomes motivates the horse to make choices. The principle of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult” is intended to facilitate the horse’s choosing of a response that is preferred by the groundwork handler.

Freedom is a main principle of Liberty horsemanship, but it carries a broader interpretation and practice. Most Liberty handlers (but not all) offer the horse the freedom to choose to participate in the sessions or not, to be with the handler or not. There is no negative consequence to the horse for choosing not to participate, other than the absence of attention and companionship of the handler. The horse is offered self-determination, which is freedom that is acted upon and initiated by the horse. The Liberty handler seeks to motivate the horse to choose to be with them and engage with them.

The degree to which Liberty handlers promote offering the horse freedom varies widely. For some, freedom can only mean working their horse in a wide open area, for others (Equine Liberty Sports, for example), freedom and self-determination can be offered in a variety of ways, in a variety of locales.

Handler Moves Little vs. Handler Moves a Lot

The ground person works under the premise that the lead horse moves as little as possible, and the horse that is being moved around is moving more. The difference in movement emulates the interpretation of alpha horse behavior, which relies on subtle body language and movement to produce a large response in a lower-ranking herd member.

In most Liberty teaching methods (but not all), the Liberty handler emulates the playful and engaged herd mate and moves with as much energy and enthusiasm as needed to provoke a playful and athletic response from the horse. The Liberty handler recognizes that physical expressions and the use of energy vary widely in the activities between socially bonded herd mates. Big movement is as common in this relationship as subtle movement.

Problem Behavior vs. Natural behavior.

The groundwork person, as mentioned above, is often seeking to solve relationship and communication challenges. The horse’s behavior is often described as: problem-behavior, disrespectful, bad, difficult, resistant, etc. This is not the only objective of groundwork exercises, but it is a common one.

Liberty handlers do not view their horse’s behavior as a problem to be solved, but rather as honest feedback on how the horse feels about the handler, their sessions, if they are understanding of the ideas, and how they feel about their life in other areas as well. The Liberty handler also views much of the horse’s behavior as an expression of the horse’s unique personality. The Liberty handler is hopeful that behavioral challenges will resolve themselves naturally as the relationship is improved.

Round Pen Liberty Play

Round Pen Training vs. Small Classroom

The ground person typically uses the round pen as a small environment that easily allows the handler to use the space between themselves and the horse to create movement, direction and desired intensity. The perimeter of the round pen is used so much that a path is usually worn next to the rail. It is common for the groundwork person to work their horse without equipment in the round pen, however, equipment can also be used.

The Liberty handler uses the round pen as a small classroom, encouraging an intimate connection as the small space, naturally creates close dancing postures. The middle of the round pen is used as much or more than the edges and every effort is put into teaching movement not driving it. The Liberty handler offers the horse the same freedoms in a small space as they do in a large area, which can include saying “no” to the Liberty handler’s suggestions.

Drive vs. Movement

The groundwork person usually drives the horse from the horse’s hindquarters, often stimulating a flight response, to create forward movement. Move, move away and move now are often the “driving” forces of ground work, longe work and round pen training. Moving horses forward from the hip position is so commonly used, that many handlers do not even know that there are other ways to inspire movement.

The Liberty handler seeks to create movement that originates from within the horse by stimulating their natural spirit and play drive, and often asks the horse to go forward from a front or shoulder position. When the Liberty handler is in the hip position, every effort is made to inspire movement but not trigger a flight response. Most Liberty handlers (but not all) seek to stimulate a playful response which inspires movement, rather than use the hip position to establish a position of leadership.

Expectation vs. Inspiration

The groundwork person works with the expectation of the horse producing a response and ideally, the desired response. The horse is expected to comply or obey the ground person’s requests. The horse is asked to take on responsibility for their behavior and responses.

The Liberty handler learns that they must inspire the horse to perform at Liberty because horses at Liberty are free to leave if they are uncomfortable with the handler’s energy or style of communication. The handler takes on all the responsibility for motivating and creating the desired response from their horse.

Note: It has been this author’s experience that as the connection between horse and Liberty handler deepens over time, the handler can “expect” more from their horse, even ask their horse to take on responsibility for their behavior and movement. At this time, the horse is as motivated to deepen and preserve the harmonious aspects of the relationship, as is the handler.


GP vs LH pt 2 Blog hero image
Leave Me vs. Come to Me

The groundwork person often sends their horse away from them as a show of leadership based upon the concept of alpha horse behaviors and dominance theories. The groundwork person may (unintentionally) cause the horse to feel that being away from the handler is a preferred place to be. The groundwork person also seeks to make being with them desired by the horse by being a better alternative to experiencing stress or pressure when they are away from them. These two ideas are often at “cross-purpose” from each other, as an “unintended consequence” can result, and that is the horse not wanting to be near the handler.

The Liberty handler puts a lot of effort into creating an energy attraction that keeps the horse from physically, mentally or emotionally leaving the handler. Come to me, come back to me, follow me, and stay with me, are the goals of the Liberty handler. This energy attraction is created by offering a place of relaxation and positivity. The Liberty handler promotes the idea that it is better to be with me than not with me. When the handler stimulates movement and a play response after a strong connection is created, the response actually strengthens the energy attraction that keeps the horse coming back to the handler and staying with the handler.

Alpha Horse vs. Herd Mate

The ground person seeks to become herd leader by moving the horse’s body at the speed, direction and duration that the ground person chooses. This philosophy is based upon an interpretation of herd behavior of alpha horses driving low-ranking horses to establish their position. (This behavioral model is being refuted openly and often by modern ethologists who study the behavior of feral horses in their natural environment.)

The Liberty handler seeks a different kind of dynamic with their horse. It may be one of the older, wiser, higher-ranking herd member that offers the horse qualities that they seek, such as confidence, relaxation, and security, or a relationship more accurately described as a friendship between equals, what animal scientists call affiliative pairs. Equine Liberty Sports is forging a kind of middle ground with the creation of a connection between bonded herd mates who spend time together, move around together and play together (friends), and the development of the horse’s esteem in the handler over time as the horse learns that the handler can help them with their lives.

Trust Through Herd Position vs. Trust thru Deeds

By proving to the horse that they are the alpha “horse” to be followed, the ground work person seeks to build the horse’s trust based upon this position of leadership. It is founded on the idea that horses that display dominance behaviors are higher ranking herd members and therefore can offer the lower-ranking members safety and security.

The Liberty handler earns the horse’s trust by showing them that they will not frighten them, stress them, ask too much of them, and will be reasonable and fair. The Liberty handler seeks to prove to the horse through experiences that they can help the horse with matters of survival and build their confidence. The horse’s trust is earned over time as the horse learns to seek the handler for relaxed support, and help with their needs, freely and when desired by the horse.

Pressure & Release vs. Cues

The groundwork person uses pressure and release to help the horse learn responses and movement desired by the handler. This pressure can be physical, mental or emotional. Pressure and release is effective because the horse prefers a state where there is little to no pressure being felt. The expectation that pressure can be removed motivates the horse to learn desired behaviors. A cue may be attached to the communication (teaching “whoa” in conjunction with another communication that stops the horse), or a more subtle version of the cue may be used as the communication (pressure on the horse’s side to create movement teaches the communication and also becomes the cue for the communication.)

The Liberty handler teaches a communication and a cue’ing system which suggests movement or responses to the horse. While stimulation may be needed to help the horse move so that learning can occur, the Liberty handler often seeks to optimize natural movement and energy, as well as body language, to teach communication and signals. Regardless, the focus is on teaching a cue or signal that is a suggestion or a request to the horse (which the horse is then free to respond to or not, in whichever way they prefer.) In the Equine Liberty Sports program, for example, every effort is made to teach new communication without the use of pressure. Patterns, obstacles, mimicking and modeling (of the handler or other horses), and free-shaping of natural behaviors through positive reinforcement, as well as optimizing natural events and "happy accidents," often the result of the horse's natural curiosity and desire to explore, are several ways that horses can be taught new ideas without the use of pressure. Liberty handlers (most, not all) try to minimize the use of pressure and release in their teaching because many horses will leave the handler and leave the sessions if they are uncomfortable. Alternative means of teaching horses new ideas is a necessary pursuit in a Liberty relationship.

The relationship that Liberty handlers have with their horses reveals, over time, that there are many ways that the handler's ideas can be conveyed to the horse. The use of pressure and release is common and therefore widely accepted as the only or the most efficient way to teach the horse lessons. However, the process of forging a new kind of relationship with the horse naturally produces many new and more natural ways that horses learn new ideas. It is for this reason, that this author (Leslie Nichols) feels strongly that in a Liberty relationship, a shift is made away from training horses and more towards helping the horse understand our ideas.

The next natural progression is to make an even greater shift, and that is to encourage the horse to initiative ideas and to encourage the horse to "help the handler understand" what they are looking for! Liberty is truly driving horsemanship into new and exciting areas!

What is the cause? What is the effect?

The groundwork person typically teaches a cue and then asks the horse to respond to that cue with a desired behavior. This cue is typically an “amplification” of a more subtle cue that is the ultimate and desired cue by the groundwork person. (In other words, pressure or intensity is added to the cue and then it is reduced as the horse learns to respond to more subtle cues). The cue is the cause (especially if it is amplified) and the response is the effect.

The Liberty handler can also use a similar cause and effect by focusing on teaching a cue’ing system (cause) to create the desired response (effect). However, the Liberty handler also often reverses this process by using the horse’s movement as the cause, and the handler’s response as the effect. Positive reinforcement programs that reward desired movement are an example of this. Free-shaping teaching methods that encourage the horse to act freely, with desired behaviors reinforced positively, are another example. In both examples, when the horse is offering desired responses, a cue can be added, at which point the handler can use the cue (cause) to cause the new behavior (effect). Because the horse is free to offer movement and ideas at Liberty, this cause and effect “reversal” is common in Liberty horsemanship and almost completely absent from conventional training methods.

Simone and Hummer be with me-2

Stay Away vs. Come Near

The ground work person seeks to create a large bubble around themselves and the horse is seldom invited in to pierce this bubble and come close to the ground person. The horse is conditioned to assume that they are not allowed in unless specifically invited in.

The Liberty handler seeks to create a close physical connection with the horse. The horse is often invited in close, and in fact, the horse can be taught to “slow dance” next to the handler. The Liberty horse can be taught a cue to stop and “stay over there,” to be used as desired by the Liberty handler. This close connection, this “breech” of the handler’s space, is one of the more important ways that the Liberty handler emulates the intimacy between two socially-bonded herd mates.

Negative Reinforcements vs. Positive Reinforcement

Pressure and release is a form of negative reinforcement and is a staple of most horse training. The horse learns what behaviors result in the removal of something uncomfortable. (Animal behaviorists state that the horse is not working for the release, as is often thought, but rather avoidance of something aversive.)

The Liberty handler uses positive reinforcement to reinforce new behavior. (Some negative reinforcement is used in Liberty training, but it is usually the transference of traditional methods into a new “medium.” This is becoming less popular as the use of this traditional method is at odds with the spirit of Liberty that many Liberty handlers want to explore, namely the use of freedom and choice.) A reward system reinforces the desired response, causing it to be repeated over and over again until the response becomes a conditioned response (see below). The rewards can be the handler's company, petting, scratching, doing activities that the horse enjoys and food rewards. The Liberty handler must promote positivity in their sessions to motivate the horse to stay and continue to learn when they don’t have to.

Classically Conditioned Cues vs. Classically Conditioned Feelings & Experiences

At the risk of getting too technical, the nature and type of classical conditioning is different between ground work exercises and Liberty sessions (however, there is a lot of similarities as well.) A definition of classical conditioning may be needed, and the following is a layman’s definition: Classical conditioning is an automatic response from the horse to a specific stimulation. Think of what happens when you say “whoa” to a horse whose mind is elsewhere and they automatically stop, this is classical conditioning. All teaching ideas that are repeated long enough, frequently enough and reinforced often, will become automatic or conditioned responses. Many horse people think this is repellent, but that’s because they don’t understand that without classical conditioning, every single experience that we as humans or animals have, would be a unique experience, a one-off, and require total focus and concentration… which means that we would not be able to learn many new ideas and new behaviors. In the world of horse teaching and communication, the creation of classically conditioned responses is how we are able to enjoy complex and sophisticated activities, such as Liberty dancing together. Think of complex movement as the layering of conditioned responses, and you can see why classical conditioning is beneficial. Regardless, horse and human are being classically conditioned every waking moment of our day- it's needed for advanced thinking and behaviors.

The ground work person typically uses negative reinforcement to motivate and teach the horse new ideas and to respond to specific cues. When this communication and the cues are repeated over and over again, the horse begins to produce specific behavior automatically. The horse has been classically conditioned to produce that response. Classical conditioning operates in many different ways (other than what was just described) in the experiences that handlers, both ground work and Liberty, have with their horses. However, many ground work persons are not aware of these different areas of classical conditioning, or don’t concern themselves with them (a pitfall of many teaching relationships between horse and handler where the handler is inadvertently "conditioning in" undesirable behaviors!).

The Liberty handler also benefits from the creation of classically conditioned responses, as just described. However, many Liberty handlers are also aware of and use to their benefit, the classical conditioning that involves the horse’s feelings about their experiences with the Liberty handler, and the conditioning of their physical states. To put it into very practical terms, the Liberty handler knows that positivity becomes a state that the horse begins to associate with Liberty, and most importantly, that the harmonious attitude and behaviors that come from positive experiences, become the natural and automatic attitude and behavior that the horse produces. Liberty feels good to the horse, and over time, the horse will come out to play with Liberty, and automatically be in a good mood. We experience this with our friends all the time. We all have friends that have made us feel good so often, and for so long, that just being with them will automatically elevate our mood – even if we’re not having a great day.

The Liberty handler also recognizes that the horse’s various physical states of relaxation or excitement (the playful kind) can also become automatic states of being when they are with the Liberty handler. We also experience this in our lives. There are some situations or friends that just automatically relax us and give us a sense of well-being because this person or situation has created this feeling in us, consistently, and over a period of time.

Micro Management vs. Macro Management

The ground work person is often very detail-oriented and asks the horse to pay attention to the details in their behavior and responses. The pursuit of perfection from the horse is often used to describe these efforts and goals.The ground person expects compliance from the horse at all times and expects the horse to "improve" on these behaviors (bigger, longer, quicker, faster).

The Liberty handler tends to think in broad terms. The Liberty handler asks the horse to make large shifts in their thinking and behavior such as choosing to stay with the handler, to relax with the handler, and most importantly, to enjoy their time with the handler. The Liberty handler is less likely to “sweat the details” and puts emphasis on the spirit of the lesson and less on the goals of the lesson. The Liberty handler knows that if the connection is strong, the horse will give of themselves more fully over time. Paradoxically, the Liberty handler knows that a joyful and confident horse will automatically produce bigger, faster and more expressive versions of behaviors. The Liberty handler understands that perfection is a human concept and is valued by humans and is not a quality or pursuit that the horse understands.

Hummer Liberty- close

Dominance Leadership vs. Natural Leadership

In most ground work training, the spirit of the exercise is “animal to animal,” and who is going to come out on top and who is going to submit to whom. The ground work person seeks to dominate the horse to create cooperative behaviors and responses. The principles of dominance is based upon interpretations of herd behavior where higher-ranking members dominate lower-ranking members. The dominance theory is intended to instill a sense of security and safety, based upon interpretations of social organization and hierarchy in horse herds.

Many Liberty handlers (including Equine Liberty Sports) are practicing a different style of leadership and that is the leadership principles that are aligned with the findings of modern ethologists that study feral horses living naturally. (Interestingly, many Liberty handlers are practicing similar leadership practices based upon their own observations of horses, without being aware of recent scientific studies!)

As reported by ethologists, higher-ranking herd members (usually older members) exhibit leadership behaviors of guidance and modeling to help educate and shape the behavior of lower-ranking (usually younger) herd members. The higher-ranking herd member’s value is proven through demonstrations of experience and helping the lower-ranking herd members gain knowledge and confidence in their world. While some Liberty handlers consider emulating the behaviors of “older, wiser” herd mates as a “passive style” of leadership, Equine Liberty Sports views it as a very active style, always seeking opportunities to demonstrate the Liberty handler's value to the horse’s well-being.

Liberty handlers also seek to emulate and exude the attitude, presence and body language of the higher-ranking herd member. These include characteristics such as a calm demeanor, slow and deliberate body language, not rewarding undesired behaviors (especially with young horses), shaping behavior, passively, through engagement with the handler (or not).

Domestic horse behavior can challenge the "prescription" set forth by the ethologists as domestic horses live in unnatural settings and as a result many distortions of natural behavior are expressed. Many domestic horses have learned dominant behaviors and use them to their advantage. Many horses, especially young horses, have not been socialized to humans or other horses in a productive way and may exhibit an array of challenging behaviors as a result. The Liberty handler often finds themselves walking a very careful line of teaching the horse new (safe) behaviors, while fostering a trusting, even pleasurable relationship with the horse. Style and attitude are key, as well as always keeping an eye towards a vibrant Liberty relationship.

Note: Ethologists report that driving behaviors are usually limited to the breeding stallion driving the herd away from potential danger, or the breeding stallion herding the breeding mares. These scientists also report that dominance behaviors, exhibited more often with domesticated horses, are in fact the behaviors of horses that are competing for limited resources (think of a horse chasing another horse off its feed at dinner time), and are not evidence that horses are inherently aggressive. Scientists that study feral horses report that most movement in the herd is created by the departure of horses within small groups, usually pairs- one horse of the pair walks off and the other horse follows. Who follows whom is often due to rank, but not always. The movement of these pairs influences the movement of the whole group. Based upon these findings, it may be more accurate to say that if a horse agrees to follow you, that they put great value on you, perhaps even more so than if you were to drive them away or drive them away off their food! (A practice that Equine Liberty Sports does not promote.) Ethologists also make the distinction between dominant behaviors (which they say do occur) and dominant personality types (“My horse is a dominant fellow.”) which they deem an inaccurate use of the word.

Quality of the Performance vs. Quality of the Relationship

The ground person is seeking for the horse’s performance to improve over time. As this performance improves, the relationship between the ground person and the horse improves, as understanding and unity replaces resistance and difficulties.

The Liberty handler is seeking the quality of the relationship and connection to improve. Unity and harmony are desired starting points, not the result of improved performance. When this connection deepens, the horse’s “performance” naturally grows and expands.


New blog masthead, with E artwork
When we are wanting to progress in riding or horsemanship, we often seek the guidance from an expert who specializes in our area of interest. Liberty training is very unique because when you take the lines off, all of the principles and ultimately techniques, come straight from your horse. There simply is no other way.

When you are spending time with your horse in an area that is large enough that he can easily get away from you, and then let him know that there will be no negative consequences to his responses to your ideas (in other words, you won’t chase him or put pressure on him), a very interesting phenomenon begins to happen – your horse initiates a very pure conversation with you. He begins to tell you how he feels about what you are doing in that moment. He tells you by either staying with you, or leaving you. It’s wonderful feedback. Your horse can be the most influential teacher you’ve ever had – if you are prepared to hear the lessons that he wants to teach you!

Liberty gives your horse a voice and reveals many insights about what he needs and craves from you. Following are some of the more important lessons that your horse has to offer, at Liberty.

Liberty Lesson #1: Your horse seeks a connection with you above all else. You are an animal in her life that comes to her and spends time with her. She may be engaged by the activities that you enjoy together, but these activities are not what she is seeking from you. Your horse wants a relationship with you.

If you want to progress at Liberty, you must forge a connection with your horse. How do you do this? By first accepting that Liberty is not a training activity, it is a social relationship. This is how your horse feels about it, and actually about all the time you spend with her!

Observe two horses in a field that spend all of their time together and ask yourself: What do they do all day? They doze in the sun. They eat together. They groom each other. They follow each other around. They explore together. They play with each other. They choose each other. Be this herd mate, and the connection that you need to experience Liberty will be started.

Liberty Lesson #2: Horses at Liberty tell us that they are attracted by experiences that feel good and are repelled by anything that feels badly. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Horses are sentient beings with emotions and opinions, and horses have physical systems very similar to ours. They experience pleasure and they experience pain. If you want your horse to choose to stay with you, when he doesn’t have to, you must first feel good to him.

But here’s where it gets challenging – many of the horsemanship principles and techniques that we’ve been taught, actually don’t feel good to horses. How do we know? Because they leave when we apply them!

This is where your horse truly becomes your teacher. You will need to find out what your horse enjoys and what concerns him. His choices and responses at Liberty will tell you very clearly.

In the beginning, think calm and relaxing activities. Over time, inspiring your horse to stay with you will require more from you. You will need to be interesting and stimulating. This means advancing your play together, adding movement and new experiences to your Liberty sessions.

Liberty Lesson #3 You must set your horse free to earn his trust and his heart. Liberty is freedom, but freedom is a tricky concept. Domestic horses are not free. However, you can offer your horse a sense of freedom when you play with her at Liberty.

The best and easiest way to offer your horse freedom is to let her decide if she wants to be with you or not. Let her show you if she wants to participate in your activities, or not. And most importantly, allow her to choose her responses – without any negative consequences to her!

In Liberty Lesson #2, I mentioned that you must feel good to your horse and you must offer her something of value. By thinking along these lines, your horse will begin to choose you. That’s how giving your horse freedom, and then inspiring her by being interesting and feeling good to her, work together to create Liberty.

When your horse begins to choose you, freely, knowing that anytime she can leave you, a very interesting phenomenon begins to happen. Your horse will begin to choose you, just as she chooses her socially bonded herd mate.

Liberty Lesson #4 Horses are intelligent and are capable of figuring things out. When your horse is attached to you through equipment, you can pull and tug on your horse’s body and cause it to do what you are looking for. You can’t do this at Liberty! The handler must shift from training their horse to seeking their horse’s understanding. Through Liberty, your horse shows you that she is quite capable of learning new ideas… by using her mind!

One of the more interesting ways to help horses understand our ideas is to tap into social cognitive learning behaviors. These are the natural ways that horses learn in the herd. Observation of other horses is the main way that horses learn. Mimicking is another way.

Curiosity, exploration and experimentation are also natural learning behaviors that you can encourage right away. When you remove all negative consequence from your horse’s choices, and then positively reinforce what you are looking for, your horse will begin to explore and experiment, and offer up ideas freely, because she will feel safe doing so!

Lesson # 5 Your horse wants to initiate. Your horse wants to express himself. In our work and play with our horses, and this includes Liberty, we typically suggest ideas and our horse responds. We are active, our horse is passive. However, if you watch socially bonded herd mates be with each other, you will notice that they take turns initiating activities.

Why is encouraging you horse’s self-expression and initiative important to your Liberty experience? It fosters a true partnership that will insure an enduring Liberty relationship over time. It may be difficult to believe when you are just learning Liberty, but even Liberty can become repetitive and boring.

There are many ways that you can encourage your horse to be an active participant in your Liberty play. One of the easiest ways is to flow with his responses and ideas in your Liberty sessions, even when you have something else in mind. When he realizes that he can initiate play, he will do so. This creates a two-way communication and rhythm to your Liberty play that will keep your horse engaged for years to come.

Inside your horse is your greatest teacher of all. Turn your horse loose, open your mind and listen to all the insights that he or she is ready to give you.


Liberate Winter Blues hero image
The further north you live, the more likely you are to say to your horse: “Snookums… we’ll play again when the snow melts.” But in fact, winter is the perfect time to start Liberty. Why? Because quiet, passive moments with your horse and relationship activities develop the most important principles of Liberty: Connection, freedom and choice.

Let’s begin with a few premises: Horses already know how to do Liberty, it is us that needs to learn. Liberty is based upon the relationship that socially bonded herd mates enjoy. Liberty is actually not the removal equipment, it is a state of mind; it is an attitude. When you consider these 3 ideas, you can see why seasons do not present limitations to your Liberty relationship.

So, put on your thick gloves, your winter boots, your wool cap… and let’s head out to the barn and begin your Liberty partnership.

Be with your horse. This is the most simple, and yet the most important activity to add to your Liberty relationship: Spend time with your horse in ways that horses enjoy with each other. Hang out with your horse or follow your horse around. Simply, be near. In the beginning, you will do what your horse does, over time, your horse will be inspired to be with you, and then follow your suggestions.

Become your horse’s socially bonded herd mate. This is the herd mate that your horse chooses to be with. Find herd mate activities that your horse particularly enjoys, such as petting, scratching, grooming, eating together, or exploring the environment. Find ways to include your horse in regular activities, such as walking around with you, but do not insist that your horse participate. The big idea A socially bonded herd mate would never make their herd mate do something. They would suggest, they would model, they would inspire.

Add both of these activities to your winter playtime. The goal of these sessions is to cause your horse to look forward to seeing you. Every time you go out to your horse, ask yourself the following: “What are we doing here today that would cause my horse to want to do it again tomorrow?” When your horse begins to seek your company, even walk away from his other herd mates to be with you, you know that you are finding the answers.

Shift your focus to your horse’s understanding. We are often focused on what we are asking of our horse and how we are asking, in a word: training. In Liberty, it is important to shift your focus to your horse’s responses and understanding (in all horsemanship, actually!). This winter, take a simple activity such as asking your horse to pick up their hooves and work towards helping your horse understand what you are looking for, and then offering the movement with very little suggestion from you.

You will begin by asking for each of your horse’s hooves in your usual way. Pet and reward the slightest hints of understanding such as shifting his weight off of his leg to finally lifting it. Over time you will progress to just standing near the leg, and waiting for him to lift it on his own. As you are playing with this over the winter, put your mind on how well your horse “gets it” and begins to offer it on his own.

Why is this important to Liberty? As you begin to play without equipment and especially when there’s some distance between you and your horse, you will be removing the “crutch” of halters and lines, which can cause movement to happen. You must learn to communicate with your horse’s mind – beginning now.

Attention, please! This exercise has 2 different ways of playing with it, and both are excellent Liberty and relationship exercises. You can do this first exercise in a stall or small corral or even a barn isle. Turn your horse loose, and hold something interesting in your hand (that is not edible) such as a colorful scarf or bells or a feather duster, anything… and ask your horse to look at it and follow it around. As you are doing this, either whistle or say your horse’s name. Encourage them to put their nose on the item, and most specifically to come to it, or follow it around (it must be interesting to them!) Over time, fade out the scarf, and whistle or say their name to get their attention. You can also use this scarf or bells to teach your horse to put his head up and down and side to side, by following your hand which has something interesting in it.

The 2nd way to play with this game will require an area that is large enough for your horse to follow you around freely. You will tie something interesting to the end of a longe whip, ideally onto the end of the string, and then drag it around and encourage your horse to follow it (most horses will). As they are coming towards you, whistle or say their name as you did in the previous exercise.

These rather silly, but very important exercises teach you that it’s your responsibility to get your horse’s attention without pulling on equipment. They also inspire your horse to pay closer attention to you and come to you… because you are, oh so interesting!

Offer your horse choice. This exercise is also for you. Let your horse know that he doesn’t have to do anything and he can leave. (In time, you will be so interesting and enjoyable that your horse will want to stick around). Choice and freedom can represent a paradox: If you want your horse to stay, he must know that he can leave. This idea is simple and sensible, but can be very challenging for the horse owner who feels that they must control their horse. However, in the effort to control your horse, that’s when you lose them, emotionally and mentally. All throughout the winter, anytime your horse is loose in an area large enough that he can leave you, give him freedom to stay or leave, even if you are engaged in an activity such as grooming him. When you begin to play with your horse in the spring, you will have changed the dynamic between you and your horse, and he will want to stick around.

(But Leslie… where’s the training?) Here’s an exercise you can get started on. Come to Me teaches one of the most important principles in Liberty horsemanship: Horse, come to me when I call you. You can get this exercise started in the winter, and it will blossom like the flora around you in the spring. Following is a step-by-step description of the exercise.

Come to Me is the draw response combined with the name cue or whistle. To stimulate the draw, a natural response, you will face the point of your horse’s shoulder at a 45° angle or face your horse’s shoulder. You will step backwards away from your horse’s shoulder and spiral back towards his hip. You are encouraging your horse to step to the side and around to face you or come into you. You can try this at Liberty, but you may have more success if you teach this movement on-line, in the beginning. If your horse is not spiraling around, you will gently pulse the halter and encourage him to take a few steps towards you. You will then stop and pet him. When he is drawing well, you will say his name or whistle AS he is drawing into you. When the Come to Me response is very good, you will then draw your horse from greater distances or you will turn and invite your horse to follow you. And of course, as soon as the Come to Me is very good, take off the lines and play with it.

Here’s another tip – Combine the Come to Me with the Attention, Please! exercises to accelerate your horse’s understanding and responses.

When the snow begins to melt and the spring grass is coming up, you will have a solid foundation that you can now take into a working area or open pasture and begin to expand your Liberty communication and Liberty play.


Petting good horsemanship blog hero image
“I use them to get a job done.” How many times have you heard this? Comparing horses to a rake, a wrench or even a backhoe… seems more than just a bit callous, it seems out of touch. While horses have been used throughout history as an important means of transport for people, and have been essential for farming and ranching, the modern horse is primarily used for recreation. Horses are no longer tools, dare I say, the horses in our lives have more in common with other household pets than any tool in the tool shed.

If you're a dog or cat owner, chances are, when you come home at the end of the day, you spend a few minutes petting, scratching and nuzzling your beloved pet. And they love it! But as owners of another household pet, your horse, you have no doubt felt that these pet owner behaviors are frowned upon. There still seems to be an unspoken rule that you are not to dote on our horses.

If you watch the way many horse owners behave around their horses, it sometimes seems as though there's an invisible force field separating them from their horse. Many riders tack up their horses as though they were putting away the dishes, or give their horse a bath like they were watering the plants. Even grooming is sometimes done at arm's length.

Some horse owners wait until everyone’s left the barn before they enjoy a private scratching session with their horse. In a training environment, stroking and petting may be allowed in small doses at the end of a long work out, to let your horse know that the last 45 minutes of hard work was noticed by you. But if you shower your horse with lots of attention, you run the risk of being sneered at and told that you are spoiling your horse. (These opinions tend to be offered by horse folk who have not experienced for themselves how hard horses will work for something that feels good to them.)

The Equine Liberty Sports teaching program is based upon the behaviors of socially bonded herd mates. Physical behaviors, grooming behaviors, nudging, nuzzling, and yes, even rubbing, are bonding behaviors. If you want to really get the most out of your Liberty play, it's important that you encourage bonding activities.(However, you do need to teach your horse how to do engage in these behaviors with you in a way that your more fragile and hairless bodies can handle.) However, for many horse handlers, overcoming the prejudices against petting their horses and getting physical is still challenging, even when it is "re-framed" as a bonding behavior.
So why is it okay to express affection with our other household pets and get physical with them, but it’s not widely accepted in the horse community? There are many possible explanations.

Safety is a concern and it should be, horses are very big, fast, powerful, and at times, unpredictable. But most objections to expressions of affection and a physical relationship with your horse are "principled." There's concern that the horse will try to push you around if you let your guard down and get too close. Others feel that it’s a waste of energy because horses don’t respond to affection and touch.

My horses live as a herd and I watch herd behavior all day long. Liberty is based upon play and pleasure, not dominance. And so I study the social behaviors of horses like a scientist and then implement them into my program. Let me share a few observations: 1. Horses that are bonded with each other are very physical with each other, they scratch each other, rub each other, switch flies off each other, nibble on each other, and they stand very close to each other. 2. The herd leaders tend to be on the "on the job" a lot, but even they crave close physical contact and invite other horses into their "inner sanctum." 3. Horses that are bonded with each other, tend not to be aggressive with each other. By contrast, the bully who drives away the other horses, often finds themselves standing all alone. Interestingly, these bullies often lighten up over time so that they can get their social needs met.

Close physical contact, petting ,scratching, praise and other expressions of affection between you and your horse actually imitate bonding behaviors. Horses don’t just enjoy these behaviors, these actions actually define your relationship with your horse as being one of a bonded herd mate. Petting your horse is good horsemanship.

How do you overcome “public opinion” about expressing affection and enjoying close physical contact with your horse? And how do you add bonding behaviors to your daily routine? The first item is the hardest… simply decide that what matters is what your horse thinks, not what people think. Decide that you will let your horse tell you what is working well for them, and what isn't. Decide once and for all, that your horse is best "expert" on their wants and needs. Beyond these significant hurdles, there are many ways that you can start imitating the behaviors of a bonded herd mate.

When you are grooming your horse, actually put your hands on your horse. Massage your horse, rub your horse, pet your horse. Slow down and enjoy this time. You want your horse to feel as though you are engaged in a mutually enjoyable physical activity – not that you have an agenda and grooming is simply the job at hand on that agenda.

Learn basic massage techniques for horses (this is an incredible bonding experience). When you are working your horse’s muscles, get close to his body, wrap your arms around his barrel and his neck and hips (standing next to the side).

When you hang out with your horse, keep an arm on him at all times. Lean on him, press into him. Let him feel that you are close… as close as a bonded herd mate gets. Flick the flies off of him (his bonded herd mate does this all the time). Your horse will notice.

Learn to mutual groom your horse, safely… without teeth. I’ve posted a video on Vimeo with a step-by-step process of teaching your horse to groom you safely. Search Equine Liberty Sports mutual grooming.

Praise and other vocalizations are also bonding behaviors. Talk to your horse in a low voice, use melodic tones. Be pleasant and cheerful. Horses that are bonded vocalize to each other in soft tones.

If you have the opportunity to watch horses, preferably your horse, with horses that they are bonded with, really notice how they cement these bonds. It’s very physical and interestingly, often more gentle than you would think. Petting, scratching and talking with your other household pets deepens the connection. These behaviors also deepen the bond you have with your horse.


Association Learning blog hero image
I talk about bridging a lot in the Equine Liberty Sports teaching program. Bridging is an educational term (not to be confused with a bridging signal used in Clicker Training) that I have adapted to describe a principle that I use over and over again in Liberty lessons. As a teacher of people and horses, helping learning occur easily, naturally and without any stress, is a major goal. The bridging principle is the result of this ambition. What is bridging? Bridging is when you take something that is known or familiar and use it to teach something new. The most obvious (and controversial!) use of this principle in the Equine Liberty Sports lessons is encouraging Liberty handlers to teach early Liberty communication with equipment, and then play with the ideas, without equipment, only after horse and handler are confident with the new communication, and a strong connection is developing between horse and handler. Why do I advocate this? Simple, years of teaching people and horses has shown me that this bridge from the familiarity of equipment to the "brave new world" of Liberty is the difference between Liberty coming along smoothly and effortlessly, or the handler and horse experiencing confusion, awkwardness, frustration, and the handler fumbling around with their body and new signals. The teacher in me just will not back off of this idea! I've seen the confusion and frustration too many times with early Liberty handlers (and their horses) trying to dive into the "Liberty pool" without a line – pun most definitely intended!

Bridging also helps your horse. When we are first learning Liberty and Liberty communication, it’s important to recognize that we are asking our horses to enjoy us in a way that is already natural to them. Your horse may need some help understanding your version of Liberty… in the beginning. Bridging just helps things come along smoothly.

Beyond the early bridging equipment to Liberty (which doesn't go on forever, by the way), Equine Liberty Sports uses the bridging teaching principle in a variety of ways in the lessons, especially when the handler is expanding early Liberty communication into newer, more advanced play. You cannot physically guide, tug, pull or manipulate your horse in any way when the equipment is taken off, so you must use other ways to teach your ideas. There are several bridging techniques that Equine Liberty Sports uses to teach in the program. The first and most often used is visual associations. Horses are observational learners and visual associations are among the strongest associations.

The Equine Liberty Sports' teaching program uses poles, cones, barrels and obstacles – but not just for fun, but to help horses learn ideas and communication more easily and more quickly. The horse in the photo above is learning how to send at Liberty, at the trot, by using pole corridors. Every time he sees these corridors, he knows he is going through them. I can start sending him from greater distances, greater speeds, different positions and with more subtlety. These obstacles not only teach communication, but the communication that is taught can then be transferred to Liberty in a wide open area. In fact, playing with Liberty with obstacles and then playing with Liberty without them, is one of the most powerful bridges I've encountered!

Bridging Bonito
Location is another powerful and creative use of bridging. WHERE something happens seems to go into your horse’s long-term memory instantly – it is no doubt directly tied into survival. Whenever you are teaching something new to your horse, teach it and practice it in the same exact location until your horse thoroughly understands it. You may find that when you just go to the "learning spot," your horse will start producing the behavior before you have even suggested it! From here, you create a bridge to new areas, often by playing with the known idea in the "learning spot" first, and then immediately going to a new area. You will be surprised how easily your horse will bridge the ideas.

Sequence is also a very powerful bridging technique. When I am teaching something new to my horses, I often play with it at the very beginning or the very end of our sessions. When you add a specific location to lesson sequence, this can accelerate learning by 200%! (This doubling up on bridges is powerful stuff – your horse will learn new ideas really, really quickly! Soon enough, you will be able to play with the new idea, anytime, anywhere – and it will be EASY!

There is almost an endless list of experiences that you can use to create bridges to help your horse understand your ideas. Time of the day can be used, music, clothing or attire can be used (a specific hat, for example, when you are teaching your horse tricks), essential oils can be paired with activities and desired emotional states, and the list goes on and on and on.

There is a pattern in all of these examples, and that is the transference of known ideas into new areas. I am continually seeking new bridges and new ways to teach ideas to horses and handlers. My passion is not only discovering new teaching methods, but teaching them to YOU and helping you enjoy your horse even more fully and most importantly, with greater ease!


2014 year of the horse blog hero image
The horse was domesticated by man between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. In the many millennia that followed, man has endeavored to harness the horse’s power, control the horse’s spirit, and live vicariously through the horse’s nature. Unfortunately, mastering the horse has often revealed, and even celebrated, the more primitive and aggressive nature of man.

When a horse is frightened or stressed, the horse's preferred escape method is to flee the situation. In order to gain mastery over the horse, man has had to capture the animal, retain the animal, and sometimes overwhelm the animal. Which meant that the horse had to be contained within walls and fences to prevent escape, or tethered to the handler or rider through leather, ropes, chains and other metal. Sometimes the horse was even immobilized through ropes and hobbles.

Many horses fought this treatment, but many more horses submitted, cooperated, and learned to get along with this foreign species. Interestingly, in many instances, the horse forged a close relationship with the handler or the rider.

Throughout history, man has also attempted to understand the horse, sensing that knowledge of the horse’s nature would facilitate taming and exploiting the animal. Throughout many millennia, horse handlers, breakers, masters, whisperers, sorcerers, and individuals with special talents, invented techniques and methods about taming the horse based upon their interpretations of the nature of the horse.

But throughout all of this time, the horse has never truly been permitted to express how they felt about the methods. The horse has never been truly free to say: “I will be loyal to you if you show me these ideas,” “I will run far away from you when I see those ideas.” Man assumed that the horse was giving him everything the horse had… because the horse was giving man something. But was it truly everything? How could man possibly even know if the horse wasn’t free to express how they really felt?

It would be tempting to think that this broad stroke of the history of horsemanship lay firmly in the past, but in fact, in our modern times, the horse is still not given a voice. Man is still putting forth new interpretations of the horse's nature to support man's perspective on the horse. The ideas are still being filtered through the mind of man. The only difference, perhaps, is that recent mass communication has imbued modern interpretations on the nature of the horse with a might never before seen in the history of man's association with the horse.
But all of this may be changing. We may actually be coming to the end of 6,000 years of subjugating the horse, of not giving the horse a voice and a say in the relationship. For reasons that are not yet known, horse owners everywhere are becoming fascinated by Liberty. For some, Liberty may be the newest frontier in horsemanship. More Likely, horse owners are sensing that there’s still more to know and experience with horses, and Liberty seems to point to it, tickle it, and sometimes even begin to reveal it.

Running with Bonito horizontal
Liberty has the power to change horsemanship forever, if we let it. Liberty has the power to cause a dramatic departure from 6,000 years of man trying to understand and harness the power of the horse. Because Liberty gives the horse freedom to choose. And in choosing, teach man what inspires them, and what doesn’t. What binds the horse to man, and what doesn’t. The horse can finally show man how they prefer to learn from us, and live with us. Liberty offers the horse a safe platform to express themselves without concern for repercussions. Liberty invites the horse to communicate with man in the best and the clearest way they know how… by staying or by leaving.

Moving forward, through Liberty, the horse can begin to influence and shape man’s relationship with them, as well as shape the future of horsemanship principles and practices. Moving forward, what we do with horses and how we approach them, may reflect what the horse shows us and teaches us. Moving forward, the horse may actually be able to influence the outcome for their species!

It is a bold statement, but Liberty may be ushering in an irrevocable and unshakable shift towards a new age for the horse. An age that is shaped more by the horse and less by man’s notions of the horse. An age where man and horse are co-creators in a partnership of equals. And while Liberty may serve as a catalyst for change, the impact may potentially be far-reaching. The insights may transform every endeavor, every discipline, and every activity that man is experiencing with the horse, now and well into the future.

Celebrate! You are living in and contributing to an incredible time in the evolution of man’s relationship with the horse.


Should article blog hero image
What is the most detrimental, devastating, and destructive word that has no place in horsemanship? Dominance, aggression, submission, ego, winning, control? Relationship- killing words, all. But what’s behind these words and the behavior that flows from them? Fear. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of not being in control. Fear of feeling “less than” in your own mind. Fear of looking weak in the eyes of others… or the eyes of your horse!

Aggressive and dominant behaviors are actually not the problem; they are the outgrowth of another problem: Fear, and most specifically, ego-based fear, which is fear that is tied into how you feel about yourself. What causes this kind of fear? The sense that what you have now, what is happening now, who you are now… is not good enough. It’s not what you want. It’s not what you are expecting. It’s not what you deserve. You want something else. You want something more.

Which is why the one word that should be removed from the horse owner’s vocabulary is: Should.


Let me explain. “Should” is an interesting word because it suggests that something isn’t happening and it “should” be happening. There’s a built-in expectation, but worse than that, an expectation that is not being met. (And remember that fear is the creator of that expectation.)

“My horse should stand for the farrier.” “I should be cantering by now.” “My horse should go anywhere I ask him to.” “I shouldn't be afraid of my horse.” “My horse should respond to his training in all situations.” “My horse should respect me.”

“Should” is at the core all problems that horse owners are having with their horses. It focuses on what is not happening. It causes frustration, anger, disappointment, and disillusionment.

And what does “should” lead to? Blame. After all, there has to be explanations for why expectations are not being met. “Should” often suggests that it’s the horse’s fault. But sometimes “should” causes the horse owner to feel that it is their fault. Further, “should” is not an effective motivator for horse owners to solve their own problems because it produces shame, embarrassment and frustration.

There’s more. Horses don’t think in terms of “should.” That’s why they don’t understand our emotional intensity about our expectations. They think in terms of “what is” and “what is not.” And there are no judgments attached to “what is “or “what is not.” If “should” is a part of your horse experience (stop and think honestly about it the next time you’re with your horse.) then there is a disconnect between how your horse thinks and responds, and how you think and behave.

So how do you banish “should” forever? Follow your horse’s lead and think: "What is" and "what is not.": “We are trotting now. We are not cantering now. I am working on a plan to help me get comfortable with cantering. But I am trotting now.”

Or: “My horse sometimes balks when we are out on the trail. My horse is not confident enough to always move forward without hesitation. I am working through a lesson plan to build my horse’s confidence and trust in me. I am looking forward to progress in this area.”

Can you feel the sigh of relief that flows from that new attitude? Can you feel how empowering and how liberating that is? Can you just imagine what that must feel like to the horse?

You really should try it!


3 Times the Charm blog hero image
When you are teaching your horse a new idea or improving on something that she has already learned, there is an incredible phenomenon that you can use to accelerate her learning: The 3-Day Phenomenon.

Practice the lesson in the same place, in the same way, for 3 DAYS IN A ROW. Keep the lesson short and focus on how well your horse understands your ideas, striving for supreme clarity. Be sure to be very obvious with your praise and good feelings when they are learning well. Then (and this is KEY) leave these lesson alone for a few days, even give your horse a day or two off. When you return, review the lesson and you will discover that your horse not only knows the lesson, she will probably offer the responses to you BETTER than when she left off. It will feel to you- that the days off or days away from the lessons…. actually improved understanding!

Now, here’s the flip side to this phenomenon, if you practice the lesson for a 4th or 5th day, it will begin to fall apart and your horse may actually act like she’s “never heard of it before!”

What’s behind the 3-day phenomenon? There are a few possible explanations. One, is that if you repeat a lesson for too long, your horse may feel that they are not clear on what you are looking for. After all, why would you keep asking for something- unless what you were getting wasn’t’ what you were looking for? (A human interpretation, admittedly- but you can imagine how your horse may feel that way).

Your horse may offer different responses in their attempt to understand your requests. This may appear to you as uncooperative or contrary behavior… but it’s not it’s your horse experimenting with new responses. Taking a break from the lesson may head off this confusion before it sets in.

Repeating a lesson over and over again, drilling them, can cause an insecure horse to doubt themselves. They lose their confidence and begin to fall apart, emotionally. This horse will appear nervous and may express this anxiety physically, what others may call: “Acting out.”

Other horses may get bored after 3 days and start to shake things up by offering new responses. This horse is calm, but this horse’s responses and energy may feel depleted to you. They know they lesson, and they need to be stimulated- if you don’t stimulate them, they may stimulate themselves!

When teaching your horses- think in terms of “threes.”


More blogging fun!


Aha! Moments

Guests of ELS

No Lines. No Limits.
Contact Equine Liberty Sports