Stepping in open grassland near Warner Springs CA woke up all my senses. I have never felt as aware, and free as I felt at that moment.
I was trying to find some horses that I had seen, few days before, grazing in the same place. They weren’t there, but their presence was evident, and recent. I found traces of unshod hooves, manure of different age, hair stuck on bushes and trees, but no horses.
Rather than trying to find them, I decided to investigate their habits and understand their minds from a different vantage point, looking at their lives without their being present. It felt like a scientific experiment. Watching where I was putting my feet became a positive action aimed at survival. I walked among plants that do not grow because somebody planted them. They survive where they sprout, only relying on water coming from the sky. These plants get eaten by animals, or complete the full cycle of life, from seed to seed. I saw animals, living inside the earth, from bugs to bunnies, from squirrels to reptiles. All of them were aware of my presence, hidden beneath the truly “breathing” earth. While I walked, I paid attention to every noise and movement. My steps seemed to raise a cloud, not made out of dust. It was made of small crickets that would jump away when my “gigantic” feet would hit the ground.
For the first time in my life, I was in the natural state of mind of horses. I felt truly free.
A few other trainers around the world share the mindset that I experienced in Warner Springs. Some of us recently decided to form the Independent Liberty Trainers Network. We are situated all over the world, working to bring awareness of a new approach to horses. The way we work derives from, and mimics, what we believe happens when horses communicate with each other in their natural state. We interact with the horse while the horse is unrestrained and without constraints on the horse’s freedom to choose to interact with us or not. This approach represents a new dimension for horsemanship. Up until now, no training or conditioning approach to horses has utilized the social nature and natural patterns of communication that horses use among themselves as the means for establishing leadership in a human to horse relationship or for engendering cooperation between horse and human, let alone obtaining obedience from a horse without coercion. We call this liberty training. We distinguish this from the “conditioned liberty” training that is carried out by negative reinforcement. You can recognize it because the horse finds his freedom and release from pressure only in exhibiting the required behavior, while in true liberty training the horse is free from the beginning.
Very little is actually known about how horses learn. By this, I mean equine cognitive learning, where an individual horse makes an assessment of a situation, sizes up his options, and freely chooses his response. This is what a horse does when it problem solves: he uses his whole brain to carry out behavior, as opposed to responding to a conditioned response to stimuli, like flinching from a swinging rope, or speeding up when the rider digs in with spurs. Liberty training presumes to address learning by offering the horse situations where the horse must conceptualize, not just react.
Even classic dressage training, the least coercive of training formulae, depends on limiting a horse’s freedom to choose to do what he wishes or when to do it. In traditional training, via “dressage” or by more coercive methods, iteration creates the habit of obedience, so that the action being demanded of the horse becomes conditioned and requires neither comprehension, nor consent, on the horse’s part.
Freedom is the horse’s soul, and never fades, even after centuries of domestic life. I can sense it every time I am working with a horse. No matter how much we alter horses with our programs for selective breeding, horses have repeatedly shown us that, when you release a group of horses in the wild, those horses will adapt to survive. The social nature of horses will surface; they will form a herd, with leaders, dominant horses and submissive ones. The herd will have a pecking order, with rules that every member respects and lives by. Within the herd, there will be a sense of community that will keep the horses safe from predators, allowing them to survive. Their social nature is very strong. Horses may not have a spoken language, but they display towards each other recognizable attitudes, postures, stereotyped behaviors, and signals based on position in space relative to each other that communicate relative status, indicate intent, suggest or command a particular movement (such as relinquishing territory), and otherwise communicate what one horse wants or needs to another horse.
Liberty training is based on the premise that humans can learn to communicate on a horse’s terms, using attitude, gesture, posture, and relative position in space (as well as voice!) that mimic what horses “say” to each other. Horseman, need to relate to horses as leaders in an equal partnership in order for horsemen to accomplish getting from horses the behavior that they desire. Liberty training aims at making leadership mean the eliciting of desired behavior by persuading the horse, not coercing the horse. The habit of obedience and conditioned responses to cues are still goals, but are accomplished via the horse’s fundamental acknowledgement of the horseman’s leadership and the horse’s voluntary acquiescence to the horseman’s will.
Liberty in horsemanship is when both individuals have a choice in the interaction at all times. To act as a leader we have to make sure that the possibilities we create are beneficial for both human and horse, so the horse chooses willingly to take part in the action. Safety is also paramount, but the way we achieve it is not by keeping the horse tied. Instead, we keep him away from us, when his energy is at dangerous levels, and we let him approach when the energy is balanced. This is the kind of leadership a horse naturally recognizes. When free to express himself, the horse shows us its temperament, mood and emotions without the fear factor.
Liberty does not mean lack of structure; otherwise the communication that takes place would have no meaning, and the horse would not be interested in the horsemanship. The horseman structures the setting and constructs a simple activity to be shared with horses, which will unfold as a scripted interaction that establishes relative status between horseman and horse, and gives the horse options in how to respond, but clearly indicates to the horse what the horseman wants.
What does it look like when I train at liberty? Look for me in an arena at least 8-10 horse length on its longer side or in diameter, so the horse can “escape” if he wishes. The nervous horse may start by circling me. The confident horse may approach me or wait for me to approach. The aggressive horse may come up and attempt to move me from my position. Watch me begin by claiming a space in the arena as my own. I’m likely to have a tool such as a carriage whip in my hand that I can use as an extension of my arm or as an extension of my height. I may drop food close to me, “claiming it” so that the horse and I have something to negotiate over. I may leave food far from me, especially for the nervous horse, so that I give him something to claim, which I can negotiate to share. Look for me to capture the horse’s attention by attitude, posture, and gesture. You’ll know the horse is focusing on me by seeing him slowing down to look, aiming his body toward or away from me depending on whether or not he accepts my invitation to approach. His face, ears, and lips will move in ways that denote how he feels about my presence and my confident stance. He’ll “talk back” to my changes in stance or to my moving toward him or away by how he holds himself, where and how he moves, how far away he keeps me, how he holds his head or aims his hind end. If he is afraid or aggressive, he may come straight toward me and I’ll use my posture and my arms and my whip to make myself bigger, not to threaten but to reinforce my leadership. Some of the ways I’ll know the horse has accepted my lead is if he moves away when I wave him off, then comes back when I wave him in or follows me when I turn my back and walk away. This scenario is very over-simplified. This doesn’t begin to suggest the nuances in conduct on the part of human and horse, which permit complex patterns of cooperation and dialogue. Through liberty training, I and the horse will develop a comprehensive vocabulary through which I can indicate to my horse that he should follow me through open doorways without a lead, grab his own tack and hand them to me to put on, saddle up to a fence to let me get on his back, or let me guide him, seated on his back, with no tack at all. All of this I do with the horse unrestrained and free to choose.
What I do is Liberty Training, such as you will find embodied in the work of all of we trainers who have formed the Independent Liberty Trainers’ Network. Watch us at work in the ILTN videos and pictures. You will see that the horses are alert and interested, always seem open to communication. How very different than the way horses look in other methods of training, where they exhibit correct behavior, but act without interest, passively waiting for the next cue.