Written by: Pat Parelli

Liberty skills teach you to become better at your body language with horses, because you begin communicating with them in language that they understand.

A woman once told me that she didn’t have a problem trailer loading her horse.  I asked her if she could send her dog into her pickup truck from where she was standing. “Sure,” she replied. I then asked her if she could send her horse into the trailer from where she was standing, too.  “Oh, no,” came her shocked reply. I told her that she did have a trailer loading problem, and why. Though she may not have wanted to admit it, she did have a problem.

On the whole, people have little control over their horses when they are not on the end of a lead rope – and even then there are no guarantees. The concept that a horse can load into a trailer without ropes is inconceivable to most.  Most people don’t even know why you would ever want to anyway.

I believe that if you have a horse, you have a responsibility to become a better horseman for that horse’s sake. We need to be effective with horses on the ground, to have equine relationship skills, as well as natural riding principles, to prevent the communication problems that cause frustration and injury.  For this reason, I encourage you to develop yourself as a natural horseman.

In becoming good with horses on the ground, you need to develop equine relationship skills in two areas: on a line (or rope) and at liberty. With liberty skills, you can eventually experience the thrill of having a horse relate to you with no strings attached.  You can create a special rapport with your horse; have more fun and variety in what you do, all while building a mental connection that is stronger than any lead rope.

Stronger Than A Lead Rope

Liberty means freedom from bondage or involuntary servitude. When a horse is free of all restraints, he has a choice about how he responds to you. In this context, liberty applies to the art of communicating with and directing your horse without lines, preferably in an enclosed area such as a round corral at first.

For the most part, a horse wants to be with other horses more than he wants to be with people. Horses in domesticity have come to depend on man for food and water, but this does not necessarily mean that they want to be friends, or are willing to do what people want. Horse friendship can also be very conditional. A horse might be friendly if you offer bits of food or just want to pet him a little. But show him a halter or bridle and it’s a different story.

This happens because horses don’t have enough respect for us humans – either because they are afraid or because they do not relate to us as their natural leaders. We need to have our horses perceive us as the dominant horses in their herds. Horses don’t question a dominant horse’s suggestions. They trust his decisions and quickly obey his demands. If only more people knew how to relate as the dominant horse does, there would be a lot happier relationships from both the human’s and the horse’s point of view.

The secret lies in understanding horse psychology and to have an attitude of justice. Never be more firm with a horse than another horse would be, and never be gentler than a three-year-old child. There is a lot of room between these two and this is where the attitude of justice makes the difference between being aggressive and assertive.

If you become angry, it’s usually because of a lack of understanding between you and your horse. Don’t blame the horse when you become frustrated and angry. Learn more about how to get his respect, understanding and response. Your horse will enjoy you more because of it, too, as you will become more provocative, interesting and stimulating. How many horses do you think have fun going around and around in an arena?  If your horse is recreation for you, think about how you can become recreation for him – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Have You Ever Had a Horse Look You In The Eye?

Most people never think about this because it’s something they’ve learned to not expect.  I want you to start to notice how often horses avoid looking at people – predators – in the eye with both of their eyes. To influence your horse at liberty, you are going to need to know how to get his full attention and eye contact.

It’s like having a conversation with another person – if you want to make sure that you are understood, you look each other in the eye as you communicate. When you achieve this with your horse, he will be thinking and communicating with you at a more intense level.

Horses are motivated by comfort. You teach your horse to do what you want – including paying attention to you – by causing him to be uncomfortable when he’s not doing it and giving him comfort when he is. Discomfort does not mean punishment – it means discomfort. We all know that a fly can cause a great deal of discomfort. When your horse does what you want, communicate this to him by instantly giving him back his comfort. This usually means stopping whatever you were doing that made him uncomfortable. The better your timing, the quicker your results.

There is an exercise you can do that will facilitate this situation. You will need a small corral, your Carrot Stick and a plastic bag. Make a flag by looping the plastic bag through the end of your Carrot Stick.  Be sure that you open the bottom of the bag so it does not collect air.

Bring your horse into the corral, turn him loose and watch what he does. He’ll probably walk away from you and start looking for his friends. Go to the middle of the corral and begin to shake the flag. Of course, the plastic will rustle. From your horse’s point of view, this will sound like a predator sneaking up on him. He won’t even think, he’ll just run. Nature has programmed this reaction in the horse to help the species survive, but it’s also the kind of reaction that causes problems in the human environment.

The hardest part for you will be to continue shaking the flag until the horse calms down. Although your horse will be scared, this is not your purpose. By continuing to shake the flag you will desensitize him and teach him to think his way through his fears, and then to look to you for direction.

Your horse will begin to realize that the flag is not life-threatening. He will begin to slow down, turn his ear toward you and then look at you and the flag. The instant he looks at you, quit shaking the flag, relax and smile at your horse, but do not go to him.

At first, the horse will not realize what he’s done. Give him a moment to gather his thoughts and watch his body language. A horse who is starting to think will blink, raise and lower his head, and lick his lips.

As soon as your horse decides to leave, start shaking the flag again.  Keep shaking and shaking and shaking until he looks at you again. As soon as he does, quit shaking the flag. You are teaching your horse that he is the one responsible for stopping the flag. All he has to do is stop running around and look at you. A few repetitions and your horse will think, “Oh, I get it. I can train my human to stop shaking that thing just by looking at him.”

Remember to give your horse time to realize what he has accomplished, and that he has found comfort through his own actions. Also, be prepared to shake the flag until he realizes that he’s still alive, and that there is nothing to be afraid of.

What Kind Of Round Corral Is Best?

I would recommend a round corral – rather than a yard or arena that has corners that catch the horse – with a diameter of 40 to 60 feet maximum for you to turn the horse loose. The rail should be high enough to discourage jumping out, but I am not in favour of blocking the horse’s view.

Sloped sides are not a good idea either because they can cause a horse to climb the walls by playing tricks on his visual calibration. If you build a round corral, make sure the bottom two feet is built up to keep the sand in, and that the rails are spaced wide enough so that the horse can’t trap its leg.

I once asked Tom Dorrance what the best material was to build a round corral. To my surprise and delight he answered, “Chicken wire. That way a cowboy would have to be polite enough in his communication to not drive his horse through it.” This is a wise answer with a philosophical truth.  It’s the principle rather than the fact that counts.

While touring, I use a battery-operated fence – the temporary kind you erect for horses for grazing and the like. I make a circular pen out of it for my horses to stay in overnight, and then the next day it can be used as a playpen. This pen is also great for demonstrations because it’s as if there is no barrier between the audience and the activity. This kind of playpen solves a lot of problems for people who do not have their own round corral. However, make sure of two things before using it: that the horse understands and respects this fence; and that you try it inside of another fenced area, first, in case your horse goes through it. Also, I would not recommend this for starting wild horses.

You could even start playing with your horse on a 22 foot line first to help him get used to it. I usually don’t charge the fence when playing in it, and my horses don’t challenge it because they understand not to touch it.

Build In The Communication

Once your horse is not afraid, you can begin to communicate. Build in a communication signal to ask your horse to face you. For example, you could kiss, whistle or call his name.

Start by using your signal and follow it by shaking your flag. As soon as he faces you, quit the flag. Keep repeating until he looks when you signal and the flag is no longer needed. Part of being effective is trusting that your horse will respond, but being ready to correct him if he doesn’t. Consistency is the best teacher.

Horses are brilliant at knowing what happens before what happens happens. Your horse will begin to realize that shortly after the signal things get uncomfortable, so he will look to you to avoid the consequences.

If you study the way horses communicate with each other, you will see that the dominant horse will lay his ears back, and then he’ll bite, kick or strike. He says, “Move when I tell you to, or you’ll run into my hoof.”  As horsemen, we need to understand this key to communication. Most of the time people have a really neutral look around horses. They look neither mean nor friendly. This neutral look makes it very hard for horses to read the situation. Liberty skills teach you to become better at your body language with horses, because you begin communicating with them in language that they understand.

Apart from the exercise I just outlined, there are numerous things you can do with your horse at liberty. You can help him to become more athletic, teach him to have snappy departures, graceful transitions, to back up, side pass, jump, go through narrow spaces, stop, slide stop, spin, do flying lead changes and even to work happily and comfortably around other horses by doing liberty skills with more than one horse. You’ll create that strong, special rapport with no strings attached.