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How to Work With a Horse at Liberty: Beginner Tips from Lindsey Partridge

What do our horse friends think of our company? Would a horse ever choose a human friend to hang out with? How might human and horse behave if we knew more about how to work with a horse at liberty — a horse unattached and free to move closer or away?

These are some of the questions I brought to the liberty demonstration Lindsey Partridge presented at the 2019 Horse World Expo in Harrisburg, PA.

Her demo was excellent. I had no prior experience or information. Her live examples with two horses, thorough detail, and well-organized presentation left me feeling excited, prepared, and informed enough to try liberty work safely at home. I agree with her goal for working with a horse at liberty: to better understand self, horse, and behavior that connect us.

Here are some of her comments I’d like to share with you. I also recommend the video her team made of her program. I scrawled as many notes as I could onto the back of the event schedule I’d printed for myself. She worked with two horses, but I think her comments apply to working with one horse alone as well. Here is my take on:

Tips to Introduce Your Horse to Liberty Work, From Lindsey Partridge

  1. Bring the horse into a large arena where they will be safe and can move around freely.
  2. Take off the lead rope. Go and relax somewhere away from your horse (Lindsey sat on a jump).
  3. Watch your horse. Give your horse time to move around. Notice where your horse explores.
  4. Notice what areas they avoid.
  5. Let theme come up to you if they want.
  6. Give your horse a treat for checking in with you.
  7. Notice if your horse fixates in a direction.
  8. Notice what they are attracted to in the space. (The demo arena included a tarp on the ground, a large exercise ball, a few jumps, open entries to hallways at the far corners guarded by people, and lots of open area.)
  9. A horse in free time may be looking for joy, as in “Entertain me.” It’s okay to engage them with this idea in mind.
  10. Offer your hand (Lindsey offers the back of a closed hand) to connect with when the horse comes to you and gives you attention.
  11. To begin interacting with your horse, ask yourself, “What are easy things I can do with my horse that they tend to do well?” Would your horse enjoy exploring a ball, trotting over a jump, sniffing a tarp, or walking somewhere with you alongside?
  12. Remember to the horse, a leader’s job is to keep them safe.
  13. As your horse completes a task (for example, touching a new object), check back in with your horse. Offer your hand palm side down as a target for their nose to touch. This is a pattern to establish. Explore, return to human.
  14. Try asking your horse to back up using pressure from your hand. There is value to teaching your horse something in many ways (you don’t always have to wiggle a rope or wave a stick to ask them to back, for example).
  15. When you reward with a treat, don’t always assume the “cookie eating position” in front of your horse. Rub your horse on the shoulder. If he keeps moving (to put you in front of his face), go with him at his side until he stops, then treat. Don’t always give a treat with you standing in front of him.
  16. Yield shoulders — a game to ask your horse to think through a puzzle. Move the shoulders away from you. A horse doing this is being submissive — it might be hard for a horse who wants to be dominant.
  17. Go for a walk after doing something hard for your horse — for example, if yielding the shoulder is a struggle, take a walk after your horse succeeds in doing this.
  18. Liberty with no tools — an opportunity to understand yourself, your horse, and the language that connects you. Understand your horse’s personality to set yourselves up for success.

Lindsey identified three basic things horses need, to understand horses better.

3 Things Horses Want

  1. Safety — During liberty work, don’t start by facing them with the thing they’re avoiding. Show them safety first.
  2. Food
  3. Joy — cookies, scratches, play

Some final words of advice —

Your horse can move in one of 8 directions

  1. backward
  2. forward
  3. yield shoulder
  4. yield hip
  5. go up (over something, onto a platform, from laying down)
  6. go down
  7. sideways
  8. neutral (not reacting to something)

To help build your horse’s confidence, reward before they get scared. Reward them for not reacting to a ball bouncing for example.

When you work without tools, you can’t be a jerk to your horse and get away with it. Your horse will just leave you.

Success tip: End with a horse wanting to do more. Quit while it’s still fun.

Here is the highlight reel from the 2019 Horse World Expo. Liberty work starts at 18:22 minute mark.

Working with Lucy at Liberty: See how she runs!

How could my quarter horse Lucy and I interact if there were no ropes between us, and nothing compelling her stay close by?

Here’s my own first liberty experiment with Lucy. Observing and rewarding reconnection were my goals. I learned I might find out more about her if I don’t try this so close to her dinner time!

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