STORY & PHOTOS BY JENN WEBSTER
Did you happen to catch Equus, Story of the Horse on CBC (The Nature of Things) this past Sunday on TV? In this beautiful documentary that will feature over three hours with anthropologist-turned-filmmaker Niobe Thompson, viewers are taken on an epic journey across 11 countries and back in time to the mysterious beginnings of thehorse-human relationship. Thompson also spends a day in the Canadian Rockies with our friend and “extreme cowboy” Jimmy Anderson, a professional trainer who has many accolades to his name. Anderson has left the old idea of “breaking horses” behind and he showcases his concepts in the TV feature.
We\’ve featured Jimmy in many issues of WHR before, but back in 2016 we had the opportunity to spend a whole day with him, his wife Andrea and their horses. On this very special day, we got an inside look at some of the very first steps in liberty training. As the equine world is constantly shifting, those lessons learned back in 2016 are still applicable today. A well balanced seat and effective discipline-specific skills are no longer the only pursuits of the western rider these days. With the desire to create an even deeper connection with their horses, many western aficionados have turned to liberty to enrich their horse-to-human communication.
In unrestrained, free environments accentuated by the absence of tack, a handler can take one’s horsemanship to a new level with liberty. It’s a discipline limited only by a handler’s imagination and it’s reached through a willing partnership.
With a collection of exercises from the 2014 Road to the Horse Champion, Jim Anderson that we’ll detail in a dual-part blog series, you too, can achieve a higher level of learning and ultimately, an increased state of “brokeness” with your horse. Upon closer inspection, you’ll realize that the underlying foundation of liberty is no different than that of any other discipline – it simply allows for a little more creativity upon execution.
TOOLS YOU’LL NEED:
• Rope halter
• Soft lead shank (0.5” thick, 16-feet long)
• Giddy-Up stick (On average,a four-foot dressage whip – depending on the horse.)
It’s important to note a horse must first have an understanding of your cues while still haltered and on your line, before you can turn him loose. If not, your horse will not easily find the answer you’re hoping he’ll reach because he doesn’t understand. Once you’ve laid the foundation for him how to learn, your horse can be successful with liberty. In fact, you are setting him up for success by keeping him on line until he understands your cues 100 per cent.
PREPARING THE HORSE TO LEARN
“When we put any kind of contact or pressure to a horse, he will automatically look for a release or a reward,” says Anderson. “If the horse doesn’t know any better, when you first put pressure on him, his self-preservation kicks in. He will react with fight, flight, a kick or a bite. It’s only after we’ve first taught the horse how to learn and built a foundation for learning, that we can go towards liberty.”
Anderson explains that in order to prepare a horse for learning, a handler must first show the horse how to look for his reward.
“What’s important is that you set the foundation so when your horse is faced with a task, his self-preservation doesn’t kick in and we don’t create worry and fear within him,” the trainer says. “We don’t train for liberty through pressure and punishment – we train through reward.”
He clarifies that the horse will operate from its “self-preservation brain” or from its “thinking brain.” A handler aims to get the horse thinking from the latter so he’s always looking for a reward and not worried about pressure or punishment. After that, you can begin to incorporate body control into the training.
“It doesn’t matter which discipline you go to eventually, it’s all put together by several pieces of basic body control into one maneuver. An example of a higher degree of difficulty maneuver would be the lead change at liberty. In it, you’re asking the horse several things at once. But instead of the horse worrying, he has learned how to think his way through your instruction. You do this by starting with very little, simple things.”
Yielding the Hind Quarters
Working with the horse in a halter on the line and a Giddy-Up stick, the very first goal of liberty in Anderson’s program is to teach the horse how to yield his hindquarters. This exercise is twofold in that it teaches the horse how to physically move his hind end on your cue, but it also brings both of his eyes back to you as the handler – an essential component of liberty. When the horse has both of his eyes on you, he doesn’t have one eye looking out to the pasture.
“In liberty it’s not enough for the horse to be attentive and focused on us – we also need to be attentive and focused on him. With a horse, the focus leaves first and the feet follow. If we don’t have halter and shank attached to it, at liberty the horse can just leave. We have to focused and attentive on our horse, so we keep his focus. We need the ability to divert his attention back to us at any time. That way, we can also join his feet up to us even more,” Anderson explains.
“When the horse’s focus is on you 100 per cent, the join up and the bond between you and the horse becomes really strong. That’s the whole foundation of liberty,” he says.
*NOTE: It’s important to note that there is a balance between yielding exercises and joining up. There’s a big difference in teaching a horse how to respond to the Giddy-Up stick, rather than running away from it. It’s normal in horsemanship to train horses to go forward or faster when we longe them – increased pressure from the stick means “go faster” or “move out.” In liberty, a handler must refine the concept with the horse somewhat and teach him that we will put pressure on him with the stick, but when the horse yields away from the pressure with confidence, he is rewarded. He’s still joined up with the handler and not reacting in flight mode. When the horse isn’t worried about pressure, we can finally take the halter off and he won’t leave. Utilizing a Giddy-Up stick should never indicate “leave the handler” to the horse. It’s only after we’ve established exercises like yielding the hindquarters plus other basic body control concepts, that we can then advance into more intermediate liberty concepts. Stay tuned for our next blog and until then – keep your halters on!