Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Playing At Liberty With The Excitable Horse

I think my vet summed it up best when she and Harley's dentist were briefly discussing how to proceed with a dental appointment.  The vet has seen him run off when spring shots were on schedule and calmed him when he tried to avoid being tube wormed.  She has known Harley longer than I have, so I can only guess if she has more stories locked away from when he was with his previous owner.  But she has also watched me trim his bridle path and jaw with a low, relaxed head and seen us under saddle from time to time.  She let me hold him in just his halter while she removed stitches from the underside of his neck and, although he was scared, he did not move a muscle.  So she knows that Harley is a good boy, but keeps a few wild cards in the deck.  Her advice to the dentist?

"It depends on how worked up you get him."

A wise and experienced vet who regularly treats thoroughbred race horses, and even owns and schools (!) some of her own, she was certainly correct.  I keep this statement in my mind when I ride Harley or work with him on the ground.  Sometimes I do want to let the fire out of the gate a little bit, but floodgates, if they are opened too wide or left open too long, can become very difficult to close again.  Harley used to own the keys to the gates and opened them whenever he pleased, but more and more he trusts me to hold those keys and waits for me to be the one to say "Now!".

The most challenging time to keep a finger on those keys is when we play at liberty.  I want my horse to have some freedom to express himself and push against the ground in such a way that he cannot (or should not) with me on board or on the other end of a line, but I do not want him to completely lose himself in the excitement.  If he does lose himself, his excitement can turn to fear or anger.  He showed me on the first day that I owned him that if he feels too much pressure, he will try to save himself, even if jumping out of a round pen is not a feasible plan.  On occasion, I have seen his excitement turn to anger out of frustration.  An example would be when he starts to run like a maniac, without my intention, and then looks to me like

"Why are you making me run?  Aren't I running fast enough!?"

This becomes very precarious, because he can interpret very tiny things as pressure and take off.  Once he takes off he stops thinking, or at least it seems that way to me, and the excitement escalates.  Some philosophies of round pen or liberty work suggest chasing the horse when he does wrong.  The idea is that he will not want to run and will choose, at some point, to respect your wishes rather than complete a marathon.  This is probably effective for lots of horses, especially less forward-thinking horses, but would be a train wreck for Harley.  Under that type of pressure, Harley would run and run and if that did not improve his situation he would risk injury by jumping out of his confinement.  I have to wonder if he was subjected to such training in the past, and that contributed to his attempt, four and a half years ago, to jump out of the round pen at basically a suggestion and a loud noise.  Thankfully, he is not on the edge like that anymore, but he is definitely the kind of horse who "winds up" rather than "winds down".  I encourage him to embrace the latter, but not at the expense of his spirit.


So playing at liberty with Harley is delicate business.  There is no doubt that lungeing and other groundwork have made an immeasurable difference, as well as the many hours that we have spent together.  However, there are two other physical items that keep our liberty work productive and safe (and fun!).

One is a single jump.

If there is a jump set up, Harley is far less likely to lose himself in the excitement.  The jump is like a tangible anchor with an objective that he understands and enjoys.

The other item is food.

Cookies work, but carrots are really his favorite and baby carrots make a nice-sized treat.  I used to poo-poo the use of food to train a horse, but over the years I have changed my mind.  I do think that you have to be careful how you feed the treats.  I do not want to blur the boundaries of respect by letting my horse walk all over me for food, but I have found that if you keep this in mind and make it clear that you decide when the treat makes it to the horse's mouth, the animal tends to remain respectful.  Like the jump, the carrots are a tangible anchor for his mind.

This week, I did a little bit of liberty work with Harley.  He has been responding beautifully on the line by trotting or cantering when I do the same, so I wanted to try this without a line in the small ring.  I showed him that I had carrots by giving him a couple, then I picked up the whip and pointed in the direction that I wanted him to go.  I hold the whip as a reinforcement, like when I ride or lunge, and use it as an extension of my body.  We started off in his preferred direction (to the right) and I asked him to stop frequently in the beginning, giving him a carrot each time.  If I stop him frequently, he tunes in to what we are doing and then I can let him go longer without a carrot.  This also keeps him calm, preventing the "winding up".

To trot, I trotted myself and he quickly obliged, keen on the mirroring pattern.  When we travel to the right, he will keep a circle around me pretty consistently.  I keep my own feet moving and try to stay behind the point of his shoulder (the drive line).  Sometimes I hold my inside arm up, pointing where I want him to go and I raise my outside hand with the whip so that my body looks like a capital "T".  As I rotate the "T" and stay behind his shoulder, I can turn him in a circle around me.  Frequent stops with carrots are important to keep him motivated and reinforces that he is correctly interpreting my requests.  Once in a while he breaks the circle or turns left as if to say

"You cannot make me!",

but since he does not receive a carrot for this and I do not chase him, he usually returns to play.  I will toss the whip and and yell "Hey!" if he tries to eat grass through the fence, but he seems to accept this correction as "Fair" and does not get upset.

After a couple good trots, it was time to try the canter.  From the walk, I started cantering about twenty feet from him, but still behind his shoulder.  I kissed to show that I really did want him to canter with me.  He started by rocking his head and neck up and down.  He started to kind of hop from his front to his back legs and then sprung into a few strides of canter.  I immediately stopped and praised him.  He stopped and waited for his well-deserved carrots.  With each repetition, he became more and more expressive.  He started arching his neck and bouncing his front end up with each stride.  I would stop and reward him for these beautiful moments.  One time he felt the need to go fast, so he continued down the long side away from me, but still traveling to the right.  In the back of my mind, I wondered if I had let him go too long and if I was going to lose him, but I kept cantering my little circle even though he was at the far end of the ring.  To my delight, he continued his canter and met me back at my side of the ring, arching his neck and tossing his mane.  Stop.  Praise.  Multiple carrots and rest.  To have him come back to me and keep his mind in the game was a huge success.  I let him know how proud I was by stroking his neck and just standing still with him.

We gave it a go in the other direction, with similar results, although it took longer to get him traveling to the left.  I reversed my inside hand and whip.  I stopped rewarding him for going right, but started rewarding him very often for traveling to the left.  This took some persistence and I did not let him go very long without a reward, until he did not seem to be thinking about his favorite direction anymore.  One time he ran off to the right and I just stood there.  I was thinking about what I was doing that might be confusing the signals and not really intentionally ignoring him.  Actually, I was tired and feeling a little annoyed that he had changed direction after traveling left with some consistency.  When he realized that I was not responding to his antics, he stopped.  I heard him stop behind me and I knew that he was staring at me.  Then I realized that I had done the right thing by accident.  By not turning my body or even following him with my eyes, I had completely removed the pressure and perhaps any enjoyment he might have derived from getting me to bend my rules and play under his.  I slowly turned my body and looked at him.  I took a deep breath and asked him to go left.  And he did!  We trotted together.  We cantered.  He wanted to stay farther away from me in this direction, but he kept coming left so I accepted the compromise.  This is part of the excitement of playing at liberty.  You cannot control everything.  All you can do is make suggestions and hope that your horse feels like dancing.  A motivator like carrots is not to be overlooked.  If my horse is having fun through food, then I am having fun, too.

I did not expect it, but he cantered all the way around the ring going to the left.  I kept cantering slowing and watching his tempo for an increase in speed.  He was energetic and expressive, but over-excited he was not.  When he finished the loop he returned to me for his carrot and praise.  I stood still with him for a while and gave him the rest of the carrots with the floodgates safely latched.


  1. Speedy G LOVES this game! He is the first horse I've had that would REALLY follow the "at liberty" rules. He LOVES the whip and completely understands that it is an extension of me. My lovely mare, as intelligent as she was, thought those games were stupid and senseless. She couldn't figure out the point. She was too intelligent, I think!

    When I am back to a full-time work schedule (I am a teacher, too), at liberty play is often all I have time for in the late afternoon. Speedy really thrives on the mental part of the games and loves the engagement with his person. One exercise we play with is with my ground poles. I lay them in lines or rows and we practice running the obstacle course at liberty. I hold the whip in my hand with the tip touching the ground behind me. He knows to go forward when I lean forward, and the whip end works like my leg - it pushes him out or pulls him in. In this way I can turn in and he follows and push out without touching him. By tapping the whip smartly on the ground and moving backwards, he'll back quickly and whoa just as I do.

    And if there is a food treat involved? Speedy G is an A+ student! :0)

  2. Hey, that sounds really interesting. I would love to know more about the game you play with Speedy!

  3. Sounds like you had a great session. I have a mare who isn't as motivated by food as I wish she was--I have better luck with her if she thinks we have some sort of job to do. But I agree with treats--I think sometimes for a horse that's nervous that they're doing the right thing, they can work miracles.

  4. I adore freedom work or liberty. I hope to do a few videos with Oberon and the girls. We started with baby steps and he has come a long way. BUT there are times he adores running away and then I have to get him to come back to me and that is always fun (a good work out for me too :)


Leave a comment or add to my memoirs with some of your own.