It’s not because I’m afraid of hurting the horse. It’s not because I think I’m going to make him feel trapped.
Why do I start horses at liberty? Let me be frank when I ask: Do lead mares put a halter on their followers to drag them across the plains in search of water? Do lead stallions put a halter on their herd members to gain their respect? Absolutely not. It’s quite ridiculous to think about it that way. Can you imagine horses leading other horses via halter and lead rope? HAH! Our donkey has done it, but that’s only because he enjoys chewing on things. But there’s a very specific reason I DON’T:
It’s just simpler. Horses understand body language just fine without getting ropes involved.
Halter and lead ropes, when depended on for training, distract you and your horse from truly learning what needs to be learnt and, instead of building a relationship based on connection and engagement, we end up building a relationship based on obligation and ‘trick training’ – a one sided relationship that only requires the horse to respond to learnt cues, and lets the human feel totally in control. This type of training relies heavily on the use of halters and lead ropes to ‘teach’ the horse, and only lets you graduate to working at liberty (with no ropes) once the horse has memorized your cues. Sounds like a program you’ve been on?
First, let me say that I started that way, and I am fully appreciative of the knowledge and skills it got me. But now, happily, I’m onto some knowledge that makes life a whole lot easier!
Here are the reasons why I start at liberty:
- Storm can repeat back exactly what I tell him. If I ask for something and I’m in the wrong position, he can tell me by running away, turning the opposite direction, or not moving at all! If my energy is turned in a different direction, so will he. There is nothing holding him in place or keeping him from responding the way his instincts are telling him to respond – except, of course, when my energy tells him to.
- I get really good at doing just enough. Many people get away with dulling their horses to subtle cues because they over-react towards their horse all the time. Instead of starting small and building, they start big and wonder why their horse doesn’t respond. But when there is no rope making Storm do anything, that’s when I get really sensitive to what does make him do something. If I don’t want him to turn towards the outside of the fence, I need to soften myself just enough so that he’ll be able to face me again. If I had a rope on him, I could just pull him around and say that I’d fixed the problem, but I wouldn’t have fixed anything.
- The rope becomes a symbol of our connection rather than an enforcer of connection. It would be pretty lame to think that a wedding ring or a kiss could make you love someone. The ring and the kiss are merely symbols of your love. If you don’t have love yet, maybe the ring shouldn’t be there – or maybe you should hold back on the kiss. Just saying. It’s the same when you use a halter and lead rope to begin teaching your horse. You begin to rely on the rope (the ring) to give you a connection and that’s not a dependable way to develop a relationship. When you start at liberty, the horse is allowed to discover that you’re his safe leader in a way that’s way more meaningful. When the rope is finally brought into the relationship, he’ll know what it means and find comfort in it.
All of this being said, I’d like to remind you that aids are not bad. It is how you use them, and why. I do use a halter when I work with Storm, but if I encounter difficulty and find myself needing to pull and yank, I take it off and go right back to the basics – getting a solid connection at liberty – so that when I do finally put the halter back on, there is no doubt we belong together in a team.
This post was edited March 2018.