The Possibilities Are Endless

I stumbled across a cool video that horse owners and trainers should see, if only to remind them of what’s possible without all the restraints.  We always have such awe and high praise for the few individuals who do bridleless or free work.  And if they can do it in front of a crowd, even more praise worthy.  Most have seen Staci Westfall’s freestyle reining tribute to her father.  A lot have seen the One-Armed Bandit and his Paints, Mules or Mustangs.  Some have seen shows like Cavalia.  And I know every single one of you knows who Pat Parelli is and have to at least seen some bareback, bridleless jumping, or his famous lady-in-a-wheelchair Friesian demo.  But how many of us have actually taken those shows to heart and gone back home and committed to training, working or just being around our horses without restraint?

One of the many flaws that we humans have is that we’re control freaks.  Some are control freaks in every aspect of their lives, others hone their control freak streak and direct it at a single purpose or target, as the rest of their lives roll uncontrollably down a hill at full speed.  Take a moment to think about what you are always trying to control in your life.  Is it your weight?  Your spouse?  Your kids?  Or your horse?

I’ve always had fences to keep my horses ‘in’, because that’s the responsible thing to do to keep them safe and off other’s property or away from dangerous situations like a road.  But despite that I’ve had several escape over the years.  Sometimes boards were kicked down, gates left unlocked, or hotwire shorted out, but none of the escapees ever left.  They did laps around the house, ripping up the lawn, or went to visit other horses in another pasture on the property, or just wandered about investigating things, leaving behind a trail of poop piles for me to clean up.  I have had, though, the occasion to leave a few horses entirely loose without fencing for days on end.  It was the only gift I could think to give them before they passed on.

I have been reminded recently of the control freak in people as I rehab a horse.  A horse who explodes without warning when tied, crosstied or single tied.  So, I don’t tie her.  I know that the approach for most people is to fix the tying issue by using breakaway ties, or bungie/rubber, or to tie her tight to an immovable object, like a tree, and let her fight until she gives up (or kills herself).  When was the last time you brushed your horse, picked its feet, and tacked it up without having it tied, AND the horse just stood quietly the whole time content to have you around it, and content in the knowledge that when you were done it was going to have to work for you?

Here’s one more question for you to ponder at various times during your next horse interaction.  Given the choice in the moment, would your horse choose to stay with you or leave?

The video is long, but try and stick it out.  There are some really cute moments when a horse or two decides to ‘improvise’.  The second video is much shorter and represents snippets of a similar show, but there’s foals involved.

32 thoughts on “The Possibilities Are Endless

  1. I regularly pick hooves with a headcollar and leadrope, the rope either through a ring but not tied or over my arm. There other horses loose in the enclosure so if they come too close the horse i’m doing will want to move. I stay aware, but it works.

  2. Yep, me too- the original mare he had he took form slaughter as it was vicious- as in dangerous. He worked with her- I met her- she was totally trusting of people again, deep soft eyes. Not sure I agree about PP though- not my idea of how to train a horse…..

  3. I’ve taught all my horses to ground tie (really I just swing the rope over their back). I regularly groom and tack while untied. They are all trained to tie as well but sometimes it’s just easier to ground tie. Keep in mind I’m nearby the entire time, just in case, however, I am secure in the knowledge that I can go and grab something from the tack room and the horse isn’t going to move.

  4. Cool; I especially like how the foal in the short vid jumps an imaginary at the end, alongside where the adults go over the real jump.

    I find that (successful) liberty work actually gives you better control, because it’s all about focus, willingness, bond, etc., rather than ropes and such. REALLY good way to build your focus, since you’re relying on mental control rather than physical. Doing so with a dozen horses at once, that’s really something.

    For me at least, grooming, picking hooves, etc. while they’re loose in pasture is partly about them staying put because they want to, and they’re curious about what comes next, but also because they’re expected to. If one should happen to depart before I’m done (it happens on occasion), I go to them, we do just a bit of groundwork (e.g., walk/trot/back/step over) to get their focus back and remind them that hey, we’re doing something here, then I pick up the foot again or finish grooming or whatever. Similar concept to teaching to ground tie/stand in place in a barn aisle (tho for that my “groundwork” component would just be putting them back where they had been).

    The other horses in the herd follow the same expectations. Makes it easier if someone looks a bit off and you want to check a foot or similar.

    Plenty of the folks here surely do this sort of thing all the time, but since there are likely some readers who haven’t, a caveat – build up slowly; don’t ask for more than it’s reasonable to expect you’ll get. It’s best if the horse never has reason to doubt that this is just standard operating procedure. My barnmates who were new to the concept have had good success by starting with things like standing in the aisle when untacking, leading in pasture without tack (I think every horse should learn to cooperate with that), etc. Don’t be messing with feet when they’re loose in pasture until you have good non-physical control, both of your own horse and any others nearby. It’s neither fair nor safe to expect your horse to stand if another comes threatening, and it’s especially unsafe to be down messing with feet if you’re not pretty darn sure your horse isn’t going to try to leave, or have a reason to. And there’s always a chance of a surprise, so one does have to acknowledge that there’s some added degree of risk.

    Skyy’s dam could do an ok training level dressage test without tack (at home in the arena). I’ve done almost none of that with my current two; partly some balance issues have me less confident bareback right now and partly because they aren’t as solid yet as she was, for those issues to become moot. That whole Roman riding thing won’t be happening ever, in any case… We do do plenty of free longing, including the occasional jump, in the arena, and basic groundwork stuff loose in pasture. If there’s enough light left when I get out to the barn tomorrow I’ll try putting a jump out in the pasture and see if they’re up for that on “follow”. There’s at least an even chance they’ll be far more interested in playing “poke the cool new pasture toy with your nose until it’s knocked down”, but we’ll see.

      • I couldn’t quite tell if the baby was jumping a shadow, or if they’ve drilled the same pattern enough for it to remember ah yes, here’s where we jump, even tho it was alongside the actual jump. Cute, in any case.

        Overall I’m most impressed by the horses forming up into the line of pairs. Keeping the everyone full across line together, that seems pretty reasonable (as in easy for the horses to understand what you want, not necessarily easy to execute). Driving horses that have worked in giant hitches, seems like they’d grasp the concept pretty readily. Can’t think how to train the paired off line at liberty tho unless helpers are involved. No reason why it couldn’t be a multi-person training effort, though. (Or something that someone who makes a living at such things would figure out a bit more readily than an amateur…)

        Jumping while on “follow” report – it was dark and near horse dinnertime when I got out to the barn; no pasture jumps tonight. Brought one horse in to the arena, free longed him a bit for warmup, then set up a little jump of foam blocks.

        1st and 2nd attempts – Normally I’m at their head for the liberty groundwork stuff but for this I stayed ahead so there’d be less chance of interference. I jumped the blocks, he startled at my awkward movement and went around (he did stick right with me after that, at least). This human having to do the jump thing is a definite flaw in emulating the vid!
        3rd – I jumped rather more smoothly and he trotted over the blocks. Hay cube for Skyy.
        Next I got an actual pole and made things a bit higher to inspire an actual jump.
        4th – I jumped the higher jump awkwardly and Skyy again wanted no part of such gracelessness and went around.
        5th – I put a foam block next to the higher portion so I could just go over that part. That worked! I went over the lower part without looking like I might suddenly turn into lousy footing, Skyy went over the higher part with an actual jump, hay cube for Skyy.
        We did it once more and then I sent him back out to play while I finished chores.

        Who’s next? Given the above, I’d suggest taking a few practice jumps yourself before asking your horse to follow you over…

        • Friend of mine was hurt doing jumping like that with her horse… she jumped the jump, ahead and to the side of the horse, but she stumbled on landing and fell under the horse. Took a glancing hoof to the face that resulted in stitches and a nasty black eye but could easily have been a lot worse. People on foot in close proximity to jumping horses is a danger zone, please be careful.

          • An excellent point. I’m glad your friend’s ok. Precautions in addition to going a fair bit ahead and to the side included using a horse that’s willing but calm when free longing over jumps so was unlikely to rush and also setting the jump super low so despite personal awkwardness, risk of falling would be reduced. But mostly accepted the risk that it’s not a sure thing. The final setup with a side area with a very low human jump seemed most reasonable, but indeed caution – and acceptance of risk – is called for.

          • Yep, that’s why I posted “be careful”, not “don’t do it”. My friend was only doing a small jump, with an older, steadie-eddie type of horse… she just fell weirdly and it was too late in the horse’s trajectory for him to avoid her. I am super-careful of where I’m positioned when I’m on the ground around jumping horses (especially show warm-up rings!) because it is so easy to have an awkward jump, out-of-control runout, kick out in the air, etc. and I feel very vulnerable near flying hooves. I like your idea of a separate jump on the side for the human.

  5. I had to laugh at the whitest of the horses, looks like an older mare, usually on the far end of the line yet ducking out of the jump and vigorously sneaking back to the line. Smart old girl looked a bit stiff and opted out of the jump when she could.

    Seeing this one man controlling 12 horses without any physical attachment to them really sinks home how little we truly connect to our horses. And how intelligent and attentive they are when we’re not interrupting that communication line. Many riders/owners focus solely on the ride without really knowing their horses. A horse can learn maneuvers, transitions, how to jump, etc but it’s so important to the horse that it connects with its human. Horses are born to have a leader, it’s instinct and provides security. When we lead our horses to grass, establish boundaries, scratch those special itchy spots, respond to their inquisitions, we build trust and respect. We need to set appropriate boundaries and reinforce them as necessary to keep our ‘herd’ in control but adding humanity to the horse’s life builds confidence, connection. When I dismount in the ring for any reason, my horses either follow me around or stay put and take a little snooze. They never go to the gate or run away happy to be free of me. I don’t bribe with cookies as I want the behavior to come from respect, not bribery, so the cookies come at the end of the ride though pets and kind words are the norm to reward good behavior.

  6. I guess I’m not all that impressed with the no saddle or bridle thing, because when I was a kid, so many of my friends rode with a wire. With a little practice, it’s not that hard.

    • Seems rather moot – 1) not all the performers (or people playing around with their horses) use a wire/neckrope/artificial aid, and 2) many of those that do still turn out some pretty impressive performances.

      The performer in the videos doesn’t have a wire, and his use of whips for commands and keeping his footrest horses together seems entirely fair given that it’d be pretty much impossible to give weight cues via foot when you’re balancing. (what’s the term for Roman riding mounts? still mounts, just plural?)

      Growing up pre-internet, we had never heard of neckropes for bridleless riding, and like surely a good percentage of other kids, just hopped on tackless. Even if we had known about them, sort of would have defeated our purpose at the time…

      Given how much a lot of people rely on hauling around on horses’ faces, might not be a bad thing for more people to practice with a neckrope now and then, even if they’re not up for (or aren’t interested in assuming risk of) fully tackless. With controlled environment, people nearby, etc. precautions as appropriate. I’d be Really curious to see some of the typically Rollkurred horses ridden with a neckrope. Not necessarily riding a test, just riding.

    • What do you mean by “rode with a wire”? I’m picturing a loop of wire going through the horse’s mouth and I’m a little horrified. You must mean something else. I’ve never heard this term; what is it?

    • I have to disagree with your comment. Many people can barely keep control of their horses on a lead or lunge, let alone TWELVE horses with zero attachment. Having a horse that devotes 100% of its attention on a handler is an art – under saddle, at lunge or even more, at liberty. Using a neck rope is still physical control – psychological control, total obedience, is achieved only by the most gifted horsemen.

      • Sorry, I should have mentioned that I did not view the videos. Back when, everybody made a neck wire out off baling wire to use. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever tried this with my current horse, hay now comes with that horrible twine instead of that useful wire of my youth.

  7. The liberty work of the European circuses is quite an art. There is a gentleman doing similar work in Texas but not on the same scale. Just as with the second video, they begin training basically from birth, the foals go with their moms, learn to mount blocks, pay attention to the aid, they use a whip hand with a small ball on a length of cord and touch with ball rather than a whip. It does require enormous amounts of patient work for that kind of level of performance.

    What I can do kind of varies by horse, some more accepting than others. Most will stand to pick up feet, but certainly might walk off if I kept them too long. It also depends, the pasture horses tend to be more patient as they eat all day long. My guy that had to go on restricted access to pasture for health reasons is not patient if you are interrupting his grazing time.

  8. I do enjoy Liberty work and Lorenzo does a fantastic job. Here’s another one – an Aussie – who’s very laid back – and so are his horses.

    It’s a worthwhile exercise I think to work your horse legs only. I have never tried bridle-less but have with dropped reins and crossed arms. Turning, pace control and stopping with no rein contact really makes you aware of your position and balance. It’s also an exercise for the lunge line – which I happen to have been doing yesterday – although a previous post seemed to indicate work on the lunge is not common.

  9. I am in awe of good circus work like this video and Cavallia. I have no idea of how you would get to this level.

    But I think everyone can do a bit of liberty work and clicker training on the ground, and perhaps surprise themselves with what they accomplish. In some ways, it might be even more valuable for the average owner if it is not an organized, set program with specific goals, but rather allowed to be a process of mutual exploration, where you and the horse discover your tricks and your cues together. I’d say the biggest difference between regular training and trying to do things at liberty (including clicker training) is that the horse has to come to you and want to interact. It’s a very different relationship than regular training. It also makes the horse more alert to you, because a larger range of your actions are now meaningful.

    I think that much of what we do around our horses, both body language and verbal expression, is “white noise” to them: a hum of nothing punctuated by sudden outbursts of physical violence or loud shouts. It has occurred to me that the reason horses are unexpectedly tolerant of autistic children (I’ve seen this personally) is because all humans seem autistic to them, unable to read horse emotion or language. Once they realize that we might actually be able to communicate a bit, and we aren’t just constantly self-stimming, they get very interested in what they can train us to do 😀

    Our barn has an arena and a couple of roundpens for “supervised turnout,” which is not that common at big local barns, and seems like an essential amenity to me, though not everyone takes advantage of them.

    Also, the barn has no crossties, so everyone grooms and saddles in the stall, tied or untied. There are, however, good escape hatches. At the back, the stalls open to 25 by 12 foot individual run-out paddocks, and when the front door of the stall is slid open to the barn aisle, we just have “stall guards” (rubber covered chain things) that you can duck out under. At first working in the stall made me nervous, but now it seems normal; horse just stands, untied, then sticks her head in the bridle. I mostly stopped tying up the Paint Mare when I noticed she was coming into the stall and voluntarily parking herself beside the tethering ring in the wall, as a way of begging for a carrot.

    I don’t however know how much transfers over from liberty work to regular riding. The liberty folks say you can’t get it in the saddle if you can’t get it on the ground, which is probably true. But the reverse is not: just because you have it on the ground, doesn’t mean you get it in the saddle, and going back and training it more on the ground doesn’t make it happen in the saddle, either. There seems to be a big conceptual jump for the horse between you on the ground and you on the saddle, particularly if your riding is less than perfect.

    • There are people who feel this level of restraint free interaction should be part of more training programs, that horses should be handled more by body language/visual cues and less by ropes, whips, ie, to not have to touch the horse to get it to move. And many suggest your horse ought to be more like your dog, so used to you and your body language, visual cues, and so glad to be with you that you don’t need ropes, etc.

      It is very true that some things don’t translate automatically to saddle, but usually because we are unaware of how much we could use body language, direction of where we look, lifting a hand, pointing a toe out, shifting weight. We can do those same things in the saddle. And you can make a practice to work on the ground with similar balance, movements, hand positions, so that they will translate better.

      For years I worked on pressure and release and got my horses lighter and more responsive, on the ground, and somewhat under saddle. Lately I’ve been seeking out the people who don’t use a whole lot of physical touching, and much more body language and relationship building. I still don’t have it down, just beginning to make some progress. But there is more out there, and it is worth finding.

    • Totally agree it’s something everyone could play with. Perhaps it might become more common if the opposite end of the spectrum was more visible? If people only ever see the circus level performances, that’s not the kind of thing one would (sensibly) think to emulate. On the other hand, that no-lead showmanship thing awhile back was a great concept, even though the horse in the particular video shared here didn’t cooperate. How common is that class? That’s the kind of achievable thing it would be nice to see become popular, in addition to the brilliant work by people like Lorenzo.

      So perhaps if people were exposed to more in the way of basic groundwork and other things achievable by regular people with regular amounts of time, they might give it a try? I don’t have any proper video but remembered I had some video my mom took on her recent visit (absolutely informal, low quality video, horses are rough) so posted that – . The thing with the cones might require a mouthy horse (and is in trick territory, tho that one’s actually for personal convenience) but free longing is easy and following is readily achievable.

      I like teaching barnmates how to lead in pasture without a halter because it’s useful and also suitable for playing with in tiny increments. But in general free longing seems like an accessible starting place for people to learn about giving visual cues, given that it, at least in “round penning” format, is widely taught and practiced and the cues don’t require much in the way of refinement to be effective, so people can get the general concept and then refine.

      Liberty work afoot and astride seem rather different to me. The focus and mental control is the same, but horses are so very visual. Afoot, you’re often entirely in the horse’s field of view and have a wide range of visual cues you can easily give (consciously or not, subtly or not) – or that the horse can read, whether you intend it to or not. Astride, with the communication transmitted primarily tactilely, seems a bit of a less intuitive thing for the horse, and rather harder for at least some of us humans to control. I wonder if Clever Hans would have answered as well if his handler or question-asker had been astride (with other humans out of sight). I’m guessing not.

      • astride you can give visual cues as well, start with your hands moving out just enough to point, toes can go out, plus you add all the signals of your weight, what you are looking at, etc. You also learn how to move the feet in the turn, not pull the head towards a direction. You have to focus on your body, which will make your cues clearer even when you ride with reins. If you want a stop from the horse, you have to stop all movement in your body and think stop, be centereded and not leaning forward or back. If you practice that your horse will learn from the greater signals, stop your body when I stop mine, and you won’t be rein dependent, whether holding reins or not. If you turn, remember to twist at the waist so you swivel and look in the new direction, always look out ahead at where you are going, and remember that asking the inside hind to step under increases bend, and chances are, without ever touching the rein, you can get a turn. Ride at first as if you have the reins in your hands, a little out to the side of the neck as if doing plough reining, if your horse has been taught to work in release, ie, not always having its mouth pulled on for a rein signal, as your hand moves, rein or not, the horse know what you want. As you perfect your body weight/position/leg aids, you won’t need the hands.

        If you watch Buck Brannaman or Leslie Dorrance or the people that spent lots of time around the Dorrances and Ray Hunt, then the float in the rope from the beginning of the groundwork, and definite hand signals, and the notion of ‘blocking’, taking space or giving space to show the horse the direction to move, are all the basics of liberty work. I think Buck Brannaman gives an excellent example of a horse that has learned to follow and blend its steps off the lead line in the documentary about him.

  10. Jonathan Field does something similar, with 4 horses. He’s got lots of little youtube videos about getting started at liberty. He uses rescue horses in most of them, he seems to like to rehab the worst cases which I think is great. This is a small clip with him with 4 at liberty:

  11. I found it hilarious how much the horses interacted with each other the whole time. They are masters of multitasking; picking on each other or watching Lorenzo for cues – I wish I could do that. Another thing that stood out to me, especially from following this blog, is the movement or head set of the natural horses. I understand that things are going to change when you throw a saddle and human on their back, but it’s interesting to really watch how they move in freedom.

    I had a scary horrible trailer accident when a teen (many years ago, I was not driving), coming home from a Competitive Distance Race (25 miles). Ball came off hitch, trailer ended up on side, horse came through roof. He immediately sought me out and would have crawled into my lap if he could have. (He was alright in the end, but no more racing.) He was normally difficult to trailer, but he quickly jumped into a FULL trailer of show horses going the opposite direction to a vet, totally squished him in with strange horse butts in his face. It was only 2 miles to the vet – another miracle that day. The first three years I owned him, he would have high-tailed it without a backward glance. After we ended up putting hundreds of miles behind us, we grew into a relationship that I never had before, and never expect to have again. I count myself blessed to have had that one lifetime horse. Just the sheer time spent on a horse cannot be overstated, in my opinion. As a young person, I had that time.

    I had opportunities to ride/train other horses after that, but my heart wasn’t there. I didn’t “know” the horses. I still liked horses, but it’s not the same. I didn’t own them or spend the time, and drifted off when life happened.

    Just reiterating that it’s a really really good idea to be able to interact with your horse without restraining aides, as things do and will happen.

  12. Yes, it’s sad when I do the math and realize that I probably clocked as many hours in the saddle in one summer vacation as a kid, as I do in a year now! When I returned to riding as an adult and started Googling various ground work and NH programs (all new to me) I did think that a lot of the exercises were about fast-tracking things that came naturally if you spent all day on and off your horse and did your own barn chores and grooming (sliding off his bum, ground-tying, going past scary things, coming when you call, touching him all over without getting kicked, back up, etc.). It’s good to have an adult sense of direction and realize that you can teach these as discrete skills, but I think the absolute amount of time with the horse is still an important factor in developing your shared language. And I don’t think there’s any linear progression through a ground work program, other than common sense. If you got caught up in the specific tasks of the more directive programs, you could get quite frustrated (and goal oriented, too).

    • Time is important, but quality always trumps quantity, with the exception of building stamina. If you can be clear in your requests and time the aids well, you can save yourself a whole lot of time. Being astute and using opportunities that present themselves as they happen can also fast track a teaching moment. Having a detailed plan before you even start, with a Plan B or Plan C, will also speed things up.

      The first one takes the most time because there’s mistakes to be made and experimenting to be done.

  13. About 15 years ago when I was a teen we had broodmares and young horses in pastures (all Arabians) who rarely came into stalls and were generally herd bound. As a consequence of this I’d work with them in the pasture. The loved being groomed so they’d always run up to me when they saw me (no treats needed)*. Over time they learned that they had to stand perfectly still to get the currying they so loved (Just a firm tug on the lead and a whoa if they took a step, eventually they got the picture: dont take a step). Picking hooves, brushing tails, tacking up, they stood there with the lead on the ground, as their friends gathered around waiting to be next. I had inadvertently trained them to ground-tie. The first horse I ever broke (a 3 year old purebred arabian gelding, who, the first time I got on his back, promptly put his head down and ate grass), who at this time was still 3 years old, would stand there with a halter on and some reins, then I would back up about 10 yards perpendicular to his back, and take a running start to try to hop on him bareback. I’m pretty short and it would take me 3 or 4 times of running at him, taking my best shot, struggling and sliding off, but he would just stand there until I got up! I think he and I must both have been laughing when he would turn his head and look at me with his ears up like, “Girl! What in the WORLD are you doing!?” He was so sweet. Looking back, I can’t believe I did that, but it just goes to show how much can be accomplished with gentle communication. For some reason, horses WANT to do what you want them to do, they just need 1) to trust you 2) to understand what you are saying and 3) the time sufficient to achieve both. Even if you’re not a professional trainer, taking things slowly can help make up for a lack of experience.

    * A broodmare that I broke to ride could be way off in the pasture, grazing with her herd, and I’d call her name and she’d whip her head up, see it was me, leave her herd and GALLOP up to me full speed, even though she knew she was about to get a workout!

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