Connecting with Cam, Part 2: Playing with Horses at Liberty

By Jonathan Field

Liberty means to play with a horse with no ropes. I clearly remember the first time I saw a horse run up to someone and follow them at liberty. It blew my mind! At that time I was a working cowboy and had a Border Collie dog named Snicker. My “Snick” loved to run to me, but my horses certainly did not. I thought you must need an amazing understanding of horses to get them to want to be with you so much that they run to you.

This started me on a journey with horses that I never could have imagined at that time.
In this article I will share the benefits I’ve experienced with liberty and how it helped me connect with my Andalusian stallion, Cam.

As I mentioned in my previous article (Connecting with Cam, Part 1: Ground Skills & New Environments), when I got Cam my goal was to use a variety of training programs so he couldn’t relate what we did together to his previous training.

When I did things that were similar to his past experiences — even riding — it would bring up all kinds of issues that only took us backwards. Liberty was a complete departure from Cam’s history and a new way for Cam and I to interact, giving us a fresh start.

Playing with horses at liberty has been one of the most valuable things I have learned over the years. At liberty, horses have taught me things that have changed the way I do everything with them, including riding.

You may wonder how liberty can make you a better rider – it’s because liberty will teach you to be more sensitive to horses as a whole. 

The great thing about playing with no ropes is that the horse has a choice. He can tell you whether you’re right or wrong in your communication by staying or leaving. It’s very obvious. If you listen and constantly adjust your approach, you’ll get better, and he’ll stay. Liberty gives you instant feedback.

My ultimate goal with liberty is to have my horse stay with me in a 50 acre pasture through all kinds of exercises, and I always keep this goal in mind. As I move through the stages of teaching, I don’t depend on the fences or the lead rope too much. If I do, the horse will never be ready for the wide, open spaces and will always be looking for a way out. If, in the end, the horse is able to leave at any moment but chooses to stay, this is the ultimate connection, but it takes time to create this connection with your horse, and you have to earn it. When I first achieved this connection with a horse, it was the highlight of all the time I have spent with horses.   

Following are seven keys I have learned about playing with horses at liberty.

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #1 Attitude

I call it “playing with horses at liberty.” Why? Because liberty requires the right attitude: a playful one. There are many keys to success in liberty, but none are as important as the right attitude. If you have any negative or forceful feelings, the horse will quickly sense them and want to leave. If you have the right attitude, liberty can be a powerful source of observation and learning about your horse.

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #2 Start On-line

I start on-line (on a lead rope, not the Internet!) with my horses. This way I can teach them all the moves I will ask of them when I first go to liberty. The key is that you can keep the lead rope very slack. Look at it this way: if the rope is tight all the time your horse would be gone if there was no rope. The lead rope is like a safety net during the teaching phases. Sometimes people skip this step and unintentionally teach the horse to get good at running away. Remember, the more horses are wrong, the more they think they are right. They’ll begin to think they are supposed to run away from the handler. My goal before going to liberty is to be able to do a whole warm-up on-line and not tighten the lead rope.

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #3 Clearly Communicate

Imagine this photo had no horse in it. You could still see I was directing something to the left because my body language is easy to read. When you are on the ground or riding your horse, you need to be very clear in your body language or intent. You need to change your intent with every request. Sometimes horses get confused and have no idea what we want because our body language doesn’t express the right message.

Horses’ main language is body language and they are very expressive. The more we can express using different energy and our body language, the better horses are able to read our intent and do what we ask. An example of intent being expressed totally wrong is shouting vocally at a horse and acting agitated with body language while trying to get the horse to stand still. When a horse sees and hears such a conflicting message he cannot relax, and cannot help but react poorly to it. I always feel bad when a horse is faced with a conflicting message and then gets blamed for it.

The better you get at communicating your intent to your horse, the better your horse will understand everything you do. 

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #4 Start in Small Areas

When I begin liberty with a horse, I use a round pen — although you may be surprised at how little I actually use it. The round pen is a place I go to for a few sessions before I move to a bigger arena.

In my opinion, round pens have often become improperly used over the years. Many horses are driven further away from people because the pressure is too high, resulting in the horse getting plastered up against the fence and away from the handler.

In the round pen, my goal for my horse is not to be up against the rail the whole time. Remember, the bigger goal is to play in a 50 acre pasture; if the horse is pressed against the wall of the round pen he will surely run away in a huge pasture.

When starting in the round pen, I like to get my horses moving around freely and wait for them to start looking in at me, as if asking, “What’s next?” Then I transition to having the horse follow me and stand in the centre for a rest. 

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #5 Feel

Feel is one of the hardest things to teach, so much so that I’m often asked if it can even be taught. I believe that to some degree people can learn feel and that’s why I teach. We could write a huge book about feel with horses and still not cover it all, so I’ll simply give you a couple of helpful ideas.

There is no better example of feel than that shared between a mare and foal during both the tender moments and the moments during which they stay together at a gallop. They feel for each other, and there is a connection there. 
When I play with a horse at liberty, I need to be able to “feel for the horse” and have him “feel back to me.” Like horseman Tom Dorrance said, “We feel of the horse then, for the horse, so we can feel together.”

In this photo you can see I’m leaning into Cam, pressing on him, and he is bending around me and connecting back. You can even see in the tiny corner of his eye how relaxed he is. The great thing about this photo is that I am leaning towards him and he’s not leaving. He’s pressing back to my connection softly. That’s feel.

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #6 Keep Sessions Short and Fun

I keep my liberty sessions short, about 20 minutes maximum. I start out slow and increase the intensity. When I can sense the horse is getting into it, I end the session. This leaves a good taste in the horse’s mouth about liberty and keeps him wanting more.
Here you can see I am asking Cam to do quite an intense stop and he is right in sync with me. This is what I want: full power but with relaxation. Now that’s fun!

Connecting with Cam

Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Key #7 Be Friendly

Don’t be afraid to be friendly. It builds mutual respect and allows the horse to take a break. We all need a break sometimes, horses included.
Being friendly doesn’t spoil a horse. What spoils a horse is letting them run all over you with no boundaries. Set boundaries, be clear in your intention, be friendly with horses, and you’ll be on your way to having fun playing with your horse at liberty!

Want to learn more about playing with your horse at liberty? Check out my nine-hour home study Liberty DVD series, available at www.jonathanfield.net.

Check out the third and final article in Jonathan's  "Connecting with Cam" series:

Connecting with Cam, Part 3: Working with Purpose - Cam and a Steer

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