Saturday, July 30, 2011

Liberty Work

For years I have noticed that my mustangs much prefer working at liberty versus with a halter/rope/lunge line. Neither Rascal or Black Elk would really do their best work while attached, but let free in the arena, with no contact they offered me the best they had to give.

In order to keep their attention I 'resorted' to treats. I struggled with - is it OK to give them treats - is this incentive, bribery or just babying them? They were so  willing to work for a small slice of apple, a tiny bite of carrot, a few pellets.  But was this really 'correct training'?
(ah, the Catholic girl is still in there!)

Then I went to a Robin Gates Clinic. Robin was a student of Carolyn Resnick's for 20 years. She is certified to teach her method. Both teach Liberty Work with the goal of 'connecting to the heart of the horse'. Carolyn wandered with a herd of mustangs as a child during her summers and eventually was made a member of the herd, even riding the horses at Liberty. Although both Carolyn and Robin are skilled dressage riders, their work is so far from the military style it makes me giggle. And treats - Well, let me tell you at the clinic - there was a complete snack bar! Buckets of pellets, sliced carrots, LOTS of treats!

What I witnessed at the Clinic at 'FromTheMotherFarm' - was just what I had experienced at home, except MORE .... so much MORE!
The horses had bright, shinny faces. Enthusiasm, joy and attention - even with 25 spectators, a new place, horses in adjacent fields, they were attentive! Moments of pure connection stretched to minutes of connection, stretched to many minutes of connection. This might have been the horse 'companion walking' with the person, or playing one of many 'games.'  One of the games was 'pay attention to me'- what an easy and very powerful game. When the horse focuses on you - you give him/her a treat. No pulling, no tapping with a whip, just waiting and a reward. Pretty soon instead of looking at everything else, your horse is looking at you!
A word about treats. Each horse is taught to be respectful around food, I will stand with a bucket of grain in front of me and my horses will stand 2-3 feet away and wait until I say 'head down' or point to take a bite of the food. Then I say 'head up' and ask them to back. When the horse is done chewing, I will give him a task. It may be a 'simple' as focusing on me, or it may be circling at a trot or a canter, or leaving the bucket to companion walk with me, in sync with my body, stopping when I stop, turning when I turn, slowing down, going faster and then eventually back to the treats. (Robin kept the treats out of the arena) I usually work with treats in a pan, or in a fanny pack, depending on what I am doing.

So, why the treats? What I see is that it's like 'Clicker Training', which is how I gentled Black Elk. The horse goes into seeking mode - thinking, looking for  the answer- motivated by the treat. Soon the horse learns that I am the key to the treats, and like the lead mare, the treats are available only when I say so. That makes me pretty important. And they learn there are things they can do to get what  they want - pay attention, back up, stay in one spot, circle, walk with you... well  the list is endless.
If you have read my earlier blogs you will know that I have walked the trails with my horses at liberty and what a wonderful feeling that was for me.   But, I felt so alone in my journey and I longed for others who could see the benefit and fun of working at liberty. I found that at Robin's Clinic. It was so deeply satisfying to be with a group of like minded souls doing this heart cenerted work that I could hardly speak!

The first week after the clinic I had a student for a week doing an intensive for 2-4 hours a day... so, that is what we did. We had a blast. Shaman and Polly were learning things at lightening speed. It was so much fun!  (Polly also had her first riding lessons on Rascal!)

I feel like this is what I was looking for with horses - the joy and freedom that horses represent - the connection with a kind, generous animal. Interspecies communication, Respect for one another, Love. It's all happening. No pushing, no pulling, no hurting. If the horse is disinterested, he walks away - what could be simplier than that!

So, you may wonder, does the horse just wander off? Sometimes, but less and less as time goes on. Mostly,  they LOVE to play, they WANT to be with me, and they want the treats and it seems that figuring out how to get them is part of the fun.  They get so excited that they offer one thing after another: ' what about a side pass? how about rolling the barrel? how about a nice big trot? what about standing on this stump...or the mounting block?" They are thinking and they are having FUN!!  I am having fun and  laughing - their ears are up, their eyes bright, they look interested, excited -  we are happy with one another.

There have been many gems along the way:  calling to Rascal who is out on grass, having him put his head up, look at me and come happily to go play in the arena. Calling all the horses and having them come as a herd. Watching Rascal figure out something new and seeing how excited he is. Having the horses always be aware of where I am and calling to me. Walking with the horses at liberty in companion walking on the property and on the trail. And we are just beginning.....