During a recent training session with one of my clients and her gelding we were able to see first hand why liberty training works so well in establishing a relationship with your horse. The reason is because liberty work mimics the way horses interact with each other so it allows us to communicate with the horse in a way the he understands and therefore is much more willing to do what we ask.
So here’s what happened:
My client, Stephanie, has been working with her Friesian cross, Punch, for a few months doing liberty work with him. In this time he has transformed from a disrespectful trouble maker into a well mannered member of society. He will come when called, walk and stop with her, and has learned to respect personal space.
I’m always up for a challenge so we decided take both Punch and my mare, Maia, into the arena at the same time with the goal being for us to each work our respective horses at liberty at the same time.
The horses had never met each other so we started off by turning them both loose in the indoor arena and stood back to let them interact. What followed was quite interesting. Maia initially completely ignored Punch and walked away from him without any acknowledgement. And Punch followed her. Maia continued to walk around, exploring the arena, and Punch continued to follow right behind her. When Maia stopped, Punch stopped. When Maia turned, Punch turned. When Maia walked or trotted, Punch followed suit. Maia eventually allowed Punch a brief greeting, but was quick to end it and continue her exploration of the arena with Punch mimicking her every move. Why is this significant? Maia, by ignoring Punch and walking away from him, had established her leadership and Punch, by following her, was acknowledging that he accepted her leadership and was willing to trust her. And this all happened within seconds. How? These two horses had never met before. How did they establish their roles so quickly and why was Punch so willing to blindly follow a horse he had never met before?
Horses naturally seek to be around other horses and when they are together it is important to know who the leader is. The leader is responsible for directing the other horses’ movements and keeping them safe. In turn the other horses are responsible for always keeping and eye on the leader so they know when it is time to move and when it is ok to stop. Now here’s the part that might surprise you- horses don’t want to be the leader. Being leader is a huge responsibility and all horses will gladly turn that role over to someone else as long as they know they would be an adequate leader. In the absence of someone they feel fits this requirement they will assume the role of leader in order to protect themselves.
So how did Punch know Maia would be a good leader? Her confidence and the strength of her energy. What the heck does that mean? Each individual horse has a different level of confidence. This creates different energy levels which other horses are able to sense and respond to and in turn determine who is going to be in charge. Maia and Punch have two very different energy and confidence levels. Maia was born and raised on a ranch in South Dakota. She is confident with other horses, can take care of herself and is relatively independent (no horse is truly independent, they all have some desire to be with others). She is also a highly motivated, energetic horse. Punch also is a pretty confident horse. However unlike Maia, he is a very laid back guy and generally not very easily motivated. This means that he will most likely not attempt to take leadership unless he feels it very necessary.
The two horses were able to sense each other’s energy levels immediately. Maia could tell that Punch was too laid back to challenge her so she immediately took leadership by walking away from him and he immediately chose to accept by following her. This happened exceptionally quickly in this case but usually takes longer with the horses greeting each other and perhaps challenging each other to access each other’s energy levels.
So why does any of this matter? When we are working with a horse at liberty we are establishing to them that we are a leader that they can trust. We are asking them to show us respect by coming when called, stopping with us, and walking alongside us. And we are doing it in a way that the horse can understand. When the horse follows us and mimics our movements he is acknowledging that he has accepted us as leader, just as Punch was doing with Maia. The horse has the choice to leave if he wants, but horses do not want to be by themselves so the more you work with him the more you will find that he really does want to be with you.
Stayed tuned to see what happened when we asked Punch to move away from Maia and to return to his human leader.
To learn more about how to achieve a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!