I just finished up the perfect liberty session with Max. Perfect? You say… really?
Okay, it was pretty short—only about 15 minutes. And it wasn’t very fancy either—in fact, it was kind of ugly. We’re not exactly ready for Cavalia. So how could I even consider calling it perfect? What does it take for me to qualify a liberty session as perfect anyway?
Simple really… a decision.
You see, our liberty has never really been all that good. Somewhere along the line, somebody told Max that his ancestors were wild. Combine that with his innately pushy nature and he got to thinking:
“I don’t want to do this! Wait! I can just run away and be free!”
Oh, he would stick to me just fine and even do some nice liberty moves if I had him in a round pen. That would be a solid round pen. My round pen isn’t very solid. Yep, he figured out he could just run through the cheap tape if he wanted to.
It started out innocently enough. One day as I had him trotting around me in a circle. I asked him to come in and he didn’t. Instead, he sped up to a canter and just kept going. All my feeble attempts to put pressure on his hindquarters just caused him to speed up more, so I thought, “fine, speed up, go faster,” and drove him on until he wanted to slow down. He eventually slowed down, but he didn’t come in. He had made a decision to not be with me and he wasn’t planning to change his mind anytime soon.
So how do you go about changing a horse’s mind? Yeah, yeah, yeah… make the wrong thing hard, blah, blah, blah,… got it. But liberty is different. At liberty, the horse always has the option of saying no and enforcing that by leaving. And horses aren’t dumb. If they can figure out the difference between a solid fence and cheap tape, they can certainly figure out that leaving town is a viable option. They might even decide it’s a fun hobby! There is no way to make a horse want to be with you. You need to change his mind. You need to help him decide that he actually does want to be with you.
This is one of the things I love about liberty. It isn’t just about giving cue A and getting action B from the horse. Liberty is about trust and obedience and respect and the quality of your relationship with the horse, and the hard, honest-to-god, maybe-you-don’t-want-to-know-it truth about the quality of your relationship with the horse. When your horse makes the decision to get out of town, the relationship is broken.
It’s been a long slow process, but the breaking out of the round pen has turned out to be the best thing that could happen to us. It’s easy to fool yourself that you are “doing liberty” when you have a horse circling you in the round pen, but the truth is that you’re not. You are using the fence as a crutch to maintain the circle—the horse isn’t doing it on his own. In essence, you are sending the horse out on the circle where he has the choice of staying hooked on or basically ignoring you, staring out the window like a kid in algebra class. If you’re lucky, when you ask him back in, he will hook back on and come in to you.
So I had the choice of building a solid round pen and never leaving it or figuring out how to fix things. When Max had his epiphany and realized that he could run through the tape that defines my round pen, it made me back up and really think about all of the various pieces we needed to work on to fix things. There were the obvious fixes I needed to work on, such as obedience, and the nebulous relationshipy factors, such as actuallly wanting to spend time with a human instead of other horses.
We’ve been working on our liberty for awhile and slowly but surely, I’m seeing progress. It has gotten to where I can do liberty with him in the “pasture.” That’s the 10 acre area I use as a turn out. I’ve gotten him to circle me at the walk and the trot and while our circles are more amorphous blobish than circlish, he does them and doesn’t leave everytime like he used to, and I’m not relying on a fence.
Which leads us to this particular liberty session. I didn’t have much time before dark, so I stuffed my pockets with treats and thought we’ll just go for a liberty walk outside all of the fences, and stuff him with treats for about 15 minutes. It started well. We did some squeeze against the fence and some yielding of hindquarters and forequarters. Then we walked over to my balance beam and I asked him to put a hoof up on it. Which he sort of did. And then it occurred to him… “I could leave.”
So off he dashed.
His MO on these occasions is to run flat out up the hill around the outside of the turnout fence up to the ridge where he can be as close to the girls as possible and, not coincidentally, as far from me. Only he didn’t this time. Maybe it was just too much work to run up that stinking hill or maybe it occurred to him that he just wasn’t feeling the get-out-of-town thing like he used to. He stopped at the corner of the fence and stood thinking about heading up the hill, but undecided.
I had followed, but now it became a strange sort of dance between us—part catching game, part courtship. I’d call to him “Come on Max!” then wait. Then a leeetle bit of pressure—not enough to send him off, just enough to make him keep thinking about me. Then I’d walk away and wait again. He could face me, but he couldn’t take a step towards me. A couple of times, he walked off in some other direction, and I just tried to maintain my presence without putting too much pressure on him. He wasn’t coming to me, but he wasn’t heading up the hill either!
And then he headed towards me! As soon as he did, I turned and walked away. At which point he stopped again. We repeated this process several times. He would take two steps, then stop as soon as I turned away and took the pressure off. He was mentally stuck. He was trying to make up his mind, but it was hard. Everything he stood for when he met me, every fiber of his being was about escaping pressure, being in charge, running away. Finally, he succeeded. He made the decision to head in with me and keep his legs moving.
And that is why I call it the perfect liberty session. He finally made a decision to be with me. Oh, I’m not fooling myself into thinking that he will be perfect from now on, but we passed through some sort of door during that session and now we both know what is possible.