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,” http://trailridermag.com/ 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.
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://juliegoodnight.com) 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 (www.cha-ahse.org).
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.