Friday, February 8, 2019

Lifestyle – Herd Training at Liberty

by Mary Gallagher, with Jessica Crouch

Among our most popular posts on Facebook are videos of how we exercise and train horses in a herd, which is part of an approach called ‘liberty work’—sans halter, lead rope, or other tack. Most of our horses live in herds and are accustomed to group activity; we find even more benefits from intentionally moving horses together in a focused and organized way.

Natural herd instincts. When new horses arrive for training who have been kept in stalls and other traditional quarters, we introduce them to the activity with a few other horses that know the program. Our experienced horses are emotionally stable and can be very helpful to a newbie. A horse that has never worked in a herd does have natural herd instincts that help them follow the pattern and benefit from more experienced horses.

Synchronization. As herd animals, horses love to synchronize with each other, which gives us a wonderful opportunity to introduce new ideas through this kind of work. For instance, many of our young horses learn to perform flying lead changes long before being asked to do so by a rider, by first learning them in a small herd that knows the exercise. The new horse follows along at the walk and trot, staying with the herd until they learn the pattern and have the confidence to do it at the canter.

Mental and emotional fitness. The new horse’s mental and emotional fitness is exercised as they follow the lead horses through various gaits. Smooth transition in and out of, as well as within gaits is a great skill the experienced horse can pass on to the newbie. What feels like free movement, almost play, is actually preparing a horse to tolerate such changes under saddle and definitely feeds forward to future flat classes at horse shows. It can take years to season young horses to all the noise, commotion and emotions of a herd traveling together, let alone interacting with strange horses in formal settings. In our groups we can begin that training long before going to a show.
See the video (excerpts from the session)!
Herd work as a regular practice. Many of our herd training sessions operate under the guidance of Jessica Crouch, who is something of a mastermind when it comes to getting the most out of liberty work. I invited her to share her thoughts.

Jess writes: Training with a herd....
  • Allows the horse to be exuberant and play in a safe way before riding or more focused groundwork.   
  • Encourages the horse to develop the pattern of releasing to the forward energy and finding relaxation in it. I think this is particularly valuable for ‘sticky’ horses, who don't want to go forward, and instead tend to quit the group, get stuck in the corners, look out over the arena rails, change directions—anything but move forward freely with the herd. After a few carefully planned sessions, I find they are much less sticky and more inclined to let loose into the forward motion. In contrast, other horses are over-energized and too forward, either racing ahead or pushing their fellows. The more experienced horses in the herd often discipline them, telling them to slow down and/or stop tailgating!
  • Develops the horse’s ability to work together as a team with other horses as they take direction from a human.  Over time, we build on the horse’s natural inclination to synchronize with all members of the team. A horse begins paying attention to and feeling for the human as well as his herd mates.  
  • Helps develop draw. When the horses have gotten a little tired of playing and running around, they begin looking forward to coming in, and even feel excited about the opportunity to come to their person. The more experienced horses help the more skeptical horses learn about coming to the person calling their name. And as the liberty work continues to advance, the horses can learn to come when their name is called, even when the other horses are asked to continue moving. This really solidifies their draw and desire to be with a human.
Additional notes:

As the horses progress you can begin playing with changes of direction and transitions and really start looking for the quality in the gait, as well as stretching and relaxation. 

I often pick a couple horses and work with them together after a run. Since they are often warm and breathing a little hard, this is a great time to do some quiet brain work and keep them moving gently as they cool out and enjoy synchronizing with you. It really seems to help develop our relationship.

I very much appreciate Jess’s articulate description of the benefits of liberty herd training.

On safety.  Often new horses bring their traditionally trained humans with them, who also benefit from learning to safely participate in liberty herd training. At this point I should note that while moving in a herd is natural for horses, it is definitely NOT so for humans.

Participating in liberty training takes time and guided practice, and is not for people who with no experience working with large herds. But we always welcome students to observe, and later assist in this activity, as a way to understand herd dynamics and our ongoing effort to improve our connection, communication, and cooperation with our horses.

For more videos of liberty work and other aspects of Freedom Farm, visit our YouTube channel!
To be in touch with Freedom Farm and see videos as they are posted, like our Facebook page.
To learn more about Freedom Farm, classes, training, clinics, and other services, visit our website!

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