Liberty training is an area that is often overlooked in the equestrian world, but there’s no doubt about it that it can help to build a brilliant relationship with your horse and boost trust on both sides. We had the opportunity to go and watch a live demo from Ben Atkinson, Atkinsons Action Horses to learn the fundamentals of training a horse at liberty.
Liberty training is essentially groundwork that you do with a horse in an enclosed space while they are loose. The point of this is so that you learn to speak their language and the horse will choose to be with you to train rather than at the other side of the arena, because it is clear, fun, and rewarding. In the process of doing this, you are teaching the horse to respect your space and ultimately liberty is the basis for learning tricks and more complicated dressage moves such as piaffe and passage.
For those of you who don’t know who he is, Ben Atkinson is a horse trainer who specialised in liberty training with his horses. He displays his liberty training at many big events such as The Great Yorkshire show and Horse of the Year Show, as well as producing horses to be used for film and TV. He believes that through the correct groundwork at liberty, anything is possible with your horse. He is well known for working with his team of up to 10 horses ay liberty to perform at shows and exhibitions. We have to say, it is truly stunning to watch!
He held a live demo at Kelsall Hill Equestrian Centre to delve deeper into the basics of liberty training and explain the process of translating any dream into reality with your horse. Throughout the demo Ben talked us through it each step of the way so that anybody could practice some of the basics at home with their horses.
At the beginning of the session, Ben explained that the fundamentals of working with horses (whether that be schooling, jumping and groundwork) should always be built upon ‘The Three C’s’ – Clarity, Consistency and Confidence.
To always go into a session with a clear goal in your head of what you want to achieve at the end of it. This will usually only be something small. For example, if you have a horse who cannot pick the correct lead up on its left rein then you’d go into your schooling session with the aim of getting that correct lead just one time. This way you are clear in what you want from your horse and won’t be left feeling underwhelmed by any progress made. Also, when it comes to asking for things from your horse, always be clear and use the same aids each time so that your horse doesn’t get confused.
Little and often are the words Ben used to describe sessions with horses. Being consistent with your training by doing something each day or every few days helps to keep your horses mind focused on the job at hand. Horses are also creatures of habit and enjoy routine, so it’s important that this routine is kept during training. For example, when working with his liberty team, Ben explained to us that each horse has a set place in the line-up so that every horse knows exactly where they need to go back to when working. He also mentioned that it’s super important to stop when you’ve achieved a small win, for example perfecting a couple of strides of leg yield. Don’t get greedy by asking the horse for more when you’ve already achieved what you set out to do that day.
It’s a well-known fact that horses take confidence from their rider or handler. By using plenty of positivity when asking for things you’ll end up with a horse who is self-assured and happy to please you. If you were feeling nervous or unsure, then this naturally is going to feed down to your horse and put them on edge – they are masters at reading body language and feeling tension. If you’re unsure in what you’re doing or how to ask your horse properly then always seek help to find your own confidence, and in turn, your horses.
Ben then went on to explain how Liberty is really made up of an extremely basic ‘toolbox’ which can be built upon as yours and your horses ability improves. We’ll give an overview of each one which you can go away and try in your own time.
This is the most basic liberty movement that can be practiced, and it’s all about teaching a horse to respect your personal space, and you respecting theirs. The aim of this movement is to eventually have the horse move away from you when you ask in a certain way.
Start by having your horse in a headcollar and lead rope of lunge line and stand level with your horse’s shoulder. Using a schooling whip, gently tap your horse’s fetlock (closest to you) until they move away using their forehand. Essentially this is a turn on the forehand! Once they have moved away, stop, and praise your horse. This gives them chance to think about what they’ve done and shows that when they move away, the tapping stops, and they get rewarded.
This is using the same principle but asking your horse to move towards you rather than away. This is the basis for lateral movements such as leg yield so is quite a good one to crack. Standing in the same position as before, hold your schooling whip up and over the other side of the horse and again tap gently until they move towards you. Once this has been established, you can start to move yourself once the horse begins to move across to you to get the leg yield movement.
The last move in the toolbox is all about being able to send your horse away clearly and being able to recall them back easily. In an arena or lunge pen release your horse from it’s headcollar, and firmly send it away using your hands to push its head away. It may need a bit more encouragement than this and if so, you can use your body to drive it away. Drive your horse around the arena for a few minutes, and when you’re ready to invite your horse to come back to you stop what you’re doing and turn yourself so you’re parallel from the shoulder. It may take a few attempts for the horse to work out what you’re asking so keep at it!
Ben told us that once you have these movements mastered, you can go onto teaching more advanced dressage moves and tricks such as lie down and bow. However, even if you’re not interested in taking it further, these movements can still be useful when training horses – both older and younger!
Would you give this a go with your horse? Or maybe you're already practicing 'The Three C's'? We're eager to know so let us know in the comment!
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