Ground Work at Lib­erty

Work your horse at lib­erty to build his trust, en­hance his re­spon­sive­ness un­der sad­dle, and boost your con­fi­dence. Top trainer/ clin­i­cian Julie Good­night shows you how.


Work your horse at lib­erty to build his trust, en­hance his re­spon­sive­ness un­der sad­dle, and boost your con­fi­dence. Top trainer/clin­i­cian Julie Good­night shows you how.

WWork­ing your horse at lib­erty gives you a su­pe­rior level of con­nec­tion with him. At lib­erty sim­ply means that he has no re­straint — no lead line or tether. Build­ing a trust­ing re­la­tion­ship with your horse will teach him to re­spond to your clear, con­sis­tent cues and will en­hance your bond with him. It’ll also boost your con­fi­dence.

When your horse will re­spond will­ingly to your lead­er­ship and di­rec­tion with­out a means of re­in­force­ment, he’s tuned in to your ges­tures, pos­tures, and move­ments, will­ing to fol­low any di­rec­tion you give.

In the herd, horses fol­low the cues of their herd­mates to know when to turn, stop, and move. In this way, your horse is pro­grammed to tune in to your cues and work well at lib­erty. We’re the ones who need to learn the skills, be­come aware of our own body lan­guage, and be con­sis­tent with our cues.

When your horse learns that your body-lan­guage cues — your ges­tures and po­si­tion — have mean­ing, he’ll love re­spond­ing to them, be­cause that’s his lan­guage. Give him clear cues, then re­in­force those cues with a lead line or flag.

If you’re con­sis­tent over time, you’ll no longer need to use re­in­force­ment, and you’ll be able to work with­out the tether. Your horse will learn to trust you to pro­vide con­sis­tent cues, and you’ll show him that you trust him.

Your horse would much rather get a cue from your body lan­guage in­stead of first feel­ing a pull on the lead. He’ll learn that you’ll pro­vide a body sig­nal and a ges­ture be­fore adding re­in­force­ment. And when your horse learns to trust you to ask be­fore forc­ing him, he’ll re­spond to that same im­proved re­la­tion­ship in the sad­dle, tun­ing in and re­spond­ing to your cues. In all the ground work I do, I’m ul­ti­mately work­ing to­ward lib­erty. I teach my horses clear, con­sis­tent cues (hand sig­nals) that ap­ply even when I don’t have a tether on them. I find that my horses are more tuned in to me and ac­tu­ally try harder when they’re at lib­erty — they work hard, as if to show me I don’t need to use that hal­ter or bri­dle any­more!

Lib­erty work equates to good train­ing and an ideal re­la­tion­ship be­tween horse and hu­man. If your horse is well-trained, he can move up to this chal­lenge of be­ing off the lead.

It’s all about will­ing­ness, and it’s about good com­mu­ni­ca­tion and good lead­er­ship. You want a horse that’s a will­ing part­ner, whether work­ing in the arena or rid­ing out on the trail. There’s noth­ing more will­ing than a horse that per­forms with­out re­straints.

Here, I’ll teach you how to pre­pare your horse to work at lib­erty. First, you’ll lead your horse while giv­ing clear cues, per­form­ing cir­cle work with ob­vi­ous hand sig­nals. You’ll then test your horse’s obe­di­ence with­out the lead.

You must have a solid foun­da­tion

of lead-line work, in­clud­ing stop, start, change speed, and change directions, be­fore you take off the hal­ter and see re­sults. (To work on these skills, go to “Ground Work Ex­er­cises,” ar­ti­cle/ride-julie-good­night-26732.)

If you need help with ground man­ners, keep the hal­ter and lead in place, and mas­ter your lead-line lead­er­ship be­fore pro­gress­ing. If you prac­tice cor­rectly with the hal­ter in place, lib­erty work will be easy when the time is right.

Prep and Gear

To start, you’ll need a rope hal­ter and a 12- to 15-foot train­ing lead. You may want to use a train­ing flag, longe whip, or stick — as an ex­ten­sion of your arm — to help sig­nal and re­in­force your cues. When your horse is work­ing well with hal­ter and lead, you’ll be ready to test his obe­di­ence. Then, you’ll out­fit your horse in a neck rope with a break­away leather con­nec­tion so that you can ap­ply some re­in­force­ment if needed. Fi­nally, you’ll take off all re­straints to test your cues and your horse’s re­sponses while work­ing at lib­erty in a safe, en­closed en­vi­ron­ment with good foot­ing.

Step-by-Step Tech­nique

For each at-lib­erty task you’ll teach, you’ll need to plan out a pre­cise set of body-lan­guage cues to help your horse learn to do ex­actly what you want.

For in­stance, if you’re lead­ing your horse and want to turn to the right, you’ll first raise your arms to the level of your chest, point your fin­gers in the di­rec­tion of your turn, then be­gin turn­ing your body and mov­ing your feet in the di­rec­tion you want to go.

Your horse will pick up on your cues when they’re pre­cise and con­sis­tent and will soon know to turn as soon as your raise your arms and point.

When you have each skill’s cues planned out and prac­ticed, your horse will know just what to do whether he’s teth­ered with a hal­ter or at lib­erty, but tuned in to your cues.

As you teach your horse to go from lead line to lib­erty, avoid start­ing each cue with a pull on the lead. You’ll never be able to do lib­erty work if your cues to start and stop in­volve the lead. If you start your cue with a pull, you don’t have a cue that can trans­late to lib­erty work.

Use the lead line (or reins, when you’re rid­ing) only for re­in­force­ment — not as the ini­tial cue. Step 1. Teach the stand­still. When your horse can stand qui­etly, stay next to you, and fol­low your hand sig­nals and body-cues from the lead line, he’s fol­low­ing the same cues that he’ll use at lib­erty. First, teach your horse to stand still when asked. Ask him to stop, then stand fac­ing him, just to one side. Cor­rect him if he moves to­ward you or takes a step away from you. Step 2: Start and stop. Teach your horse to stay be­side you as you walk, no mat­ter what speed you go — fast or slow. To do this, make fre­quent changes of speed, re­quest­ing obe­di­ence. Teach your horse that when he sees you speed up or slow down, that’s the body cue to move ac­cord­ingly.

To start, lean your up­per body for­ward, then move your feet at the pace you choose. Your body lan­guage pro­vides your horse with a vis­ual cue he can use ei­ther on or off the lead. You may add a ver­bal cue to walk on.

If your horse doesn’t re­spond to your body and ver­bal cues, cor­rect him with a tug on the lead. Use the tug as re­in­force­ment af­ter the cue and only if he doesn’t re­spond.

To stop, tilt your up­per body back, then slow your feet. Add the ver­bal cue, “Whoa.” Again, only re­in­force your body and ver­bal cues with a tug on the lead if your horse doesn’t re­spond. Re­in­force­ment should come within a se­cond of the cue. Step 3: Turn left and right. To turn, point your feet and shoul­ders to­ward your horse, and raise your hands to­ward his head, point­ing in the di­rec­tion you want to go with both hands. If he doesn’t im­me­di­ately

turn away from you, gen­tly poke him with your pointed fin­gers (first point, then touch) in the nose or on the neck. Move your feet to quicken his pace. Start with wide, arc­ing turns. As he gets more re­spon­sive, make your turns smaller and quicker un­til he be­gins to pivot. He must learn to stay with you, turn with you, and be honed in to your body cues. Step 4: Switch to the neck rope. When your horse stays with you dur­ing up­ward and down­ward tran­si­tions and turns on the lead line, upgrade to the neck rope (a short, light­weight tether that goes around the throat­latch), an in­ter­me­di­ate step to to­tal lib­erty. With the neck rope, you’re very close to lib­erty, but still have a tether. Your horse knows he doesn’t have on a full hal­ter, so he feels freer, but you still have a means for re­in­force­ment if needed. Also use the neck rope when­ever you’re work­ing at lib­erty in a new en­vi­ron­ment or if there are more dis­trac­tions than usual.

Re­peat Steps 1 through 3 with the neck rope.

Tip: To leave your hands free for sig­nal­ing, tuck the loose end of the neck rope in your pocket, only reach­ing for it if your horse needs re­in­force­ment. Step 5. Move to the round pen. When you work a horse in the round pen, you’re ac­tu­ally start­ing at lib­erty. It al­lows you to con­tinue your horse’s lib­erty train­ing in a safe, en­closed en­vi­ron­ment. If your horse is young or you haven’t done ground work in the past, the round pen is a great place to be­gin on your quest to progress to lib­erty cir­cling. He’ll learn your cues to slow down and speed up, and change di­rec­tion. You’ll use this same skill to change his di­rec­tion and free-longe in a larger pen while at lib­erty. (When you work your horse at lib­erty, al­ways stay in a con­fined area so he won’t run off and head for the high­way.) Step 6. Re­in­force lead-line lessons. First, work your horse on a cir­cle with a hal­ter and train­ing lead to make sure that he has a good work ethic and knows to tune in to your di­rec­tional and speed cues. Be­fore mov­ing onto lib­erty (free-longe) cir­cling, he should re­spond to very sub­tle cues on the lead. If you move your legs to step in front of his mo­tion, he should stop with that sub­tle cue. If he sees you point in a new di­rec­tion, he should tune in and see what to do. When he’s pay­ing at­ten­tion and is tuned in to your more pre­cise cues, it’s time to try it at lib­erty.

To send your horse in a cir­cle, point in the di­rec­tion you want him to go, then use your free hand to wave him out and onto a cir­cle or out to free-longe. To change his di­rec­tion, step to­ward his bal­ance point as though to cut him off. As soon as he stops, ges­ture to him by point­ing in the new di­rec­tion, then shoo him away from you.

The bal­ance point or driv­e­line is just be­hind your horse’s el­bow. If you get in front of it, he’ll stop and/or turn around; if you stay be­hind it, he’ll move for­ward. You have to be aware of the bal­ance point in or­der to cir­cle him. Step 7. Move to a large arena. When you move to a larger pen (with no other horses in it), your horse may run around wildly at first, but he’ll even­tu­ally move to a smaller cir­cle. If you keep him mov­ing and don’t let him stop and rest, he’ll come to a smaller and smaller or­bit around you. He’ll tend to find the size cir­cle that he likes and stay there.

What’s the worst thing that can hap­pen with lib­erty work in a large pen? Your horse may grav­i­tate to­ward the gate and you may have to run around a bit. Keep him mov­ing; if he loses his con­nec­tion with you, cut him off and turn him around. Only al­low him to stop (away from the gate) when he's pay­ing at­ten­tion and cir­cling around you. Step 8. Con­tinue lib­erty work. Us­ing the cues you taught your horse on and off

the lead line, ask him to move at dif­fer­ent gaits. Ask him to turn. Ask him to cir­cle you, then move far­ther away. Make sure you have the au­thor­ity to keep him can­ter­ing/lop­ing if you ask for the gait. It takes au­thor­ity to keep a horse mov­ing when he’s far­ther away from you — us­ing a flag for re­in­force­ment helps ap­ply men­tal pres­sure when you don’t have the prox­im­ity to tap with a whip.

The sounds and move­ment of the flag give more stim­uli than just a whip, and your ges­tures are more nat­u­ral. I find a flag is more use­ful and works from a far­ther dis­tance, rather than teach­ing a horse that when he’s out of range of your longe whip, he doesn’t have to go.

Go at the speed that’s best for your horse. Free-longe­ing doesn’t mean mov­ing at warp speed with­out pay­ing at­ten­tion. It means hon­ing in on your cues and mak­ing sure that your horse read­ily fol­lows your sig­nals.

When your horse is pay­ing at­ten­tion and do­ing what you ask, let him stop and rest, of­fer­ing co­pi­ous praise. Keep in mind that you’re do­ing this so he’ll learn that he ben­e­fits — you’ll trust him and let him rest if he does well.

Make it Fun

If your horse will walk with you or move around as you di­rect him with­out re­straint, add some ob­sta­cles.

If you need to ex­er­cise your horse or keep him in shape when the weather’s bad, work­ing at lib­erty over ob­sta­cles can add fun and men­tal chal­lenge to your horse’s work­out. Longe­ing in a cir­cle can be bor­ing for your horse, but free-longe­ing over ob­sta­cles can be fun.

Last win­ter, I worked Dually at lib­erty daily to help build up his back mus­cles. I had him trot poles and work over cav­al­let­tis. Find ob­sta­cles that match up well with your horse’s ath­leti­cism, as well as his men­tal and emo­tional needs. For in­stance, if you have a high-en­ergy horse who loves to move for­ward and jump, set up interesting ob­sta­cles to chal­lenge him. If your horse doesn’t like to step over things, but is fol­low­ing your di­rec­tion well, send him over tarps, a trail-course bridge, and any­thing else that’s safe to walk over. TTR

Julie Good­night (http://julie­good­ lives in cen­tral Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse own­ers to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the per­for­mance arena. She shares her easy-to-un­der­stand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Mas­ter, and through ap­pear­ances at clin­ics and horse ex­pos held through­out the United States. She’s also the in­ter­na­tional spokesper­son for the Cer­ti­fied Horse­man­ship As­so­ci­a­tion (

Julie Good­night

HEIDI MELOCCO PHOTO Lib­erty work equates to good train­ing and an ideal re­la­tion­ship be­tween horse and hu­man. If your horse is well-trained, he can move up to this chal­lenge of be­ing off the lead.

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