Just because we are doing liberty work it doesn’t mean that the horse is at liberty to boss us around. We are working with boundaries, territory, food, all things that are very important to horses.
What I try to stress always is that you must at all times remain safe. Horses can get very excited during some aspects of liberty work, so keep a safe distance. Keep a comfortable boundary, which is important to establish in the early stages. As you progress through the Foundations, there are countless opportunities to establish boundaries and what feels safe. The horse also benefits from added awareness of where his human is at all times.
There are of course, horses that are dangerous. These are specific and extreme cases where the handler or trainer should not go in the corral with the horse to do liberty work. It will have to be done outside the container until the horse’s nature softens. This can take a very long time, as in months or even years in some cases. A horse has become this way because of human intervention, usually cases where the horse has had cruel handling, or has not had clear boundaries established in his formative years. This is why we rely on herds to put this in place, but not all horses have had this beginning.
When doing any exercise involving food, if your horse gets too close or crosses in front of you when not asked to, or gets aggressive about food, it’s an opportunity to correct. It’s the beginning of getting the horse to respect your boundaries.
It was recently brought to my attention that my horse crossed in front of me while standing talking to someone. She was haltered. She was so quiet and sweet about it I never even noticed. I quietly and sweetly put her back where I wanted her to stand and we were fine. It may happen again, I will be more aware, and she will go to her spot more quickly than the first time.
Horses are masters at taking over. This is how they survive in the wild. But they need to respect humans. We don’t flatten our ears and we don’t bite and lunge at them but we can take space in our own way, which can be kind and firm. (I often wish I could flatten my ears!)
It is our job to become as sensitive to the horse as possible. That way we will be aware when our horses are trying to take space, and when we need to push back. We can do this without any physical involvement. It’s all energetic. We have a stick, a reed, that is like an extension of our arm.
At our recent Spring Clinic someone asked me, “what if I make a mistake with my horse?” And I replied, If you make a mistake, you can make it up to your horse with some activity or food he likes either the same day or the next day. If he makes a mistake, don’t make a big deal about it. Try again or do something different, or put him away. The idea of “always ending on a good note,” makes us feel good but sometimes that isn’t possible. So we do the next best thing: we put the horse away and look forward to another day.
In the Liberty Foundations, there is a lot of room to make mistakes. We’re working without any restraint. So it can look really sloppy at times, but then you begin to see and feel the symmetry of it. We just want to make sure we don’t make dangerous mistakes. We are fragile beings.
(copyright Susan Smith)
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