Ground Work At Liberty
The Trail Rider|JanuaryFebruary 2017

Work your horse at liberty to build his trust, enhance his responsiveness under saddle, and boost your confidence. Top trainer/ clinician Julie Goodnight shows you how.

Julie Goodnight With Heidi Melocco

Working your horse at liberty gives you a superior level of connection with him. At liberty simply means that he has no restraint — no lead line or tether.

Building a trusting relationship with your horse will teach him to respond to your clear, consistent cues and will enhance your bond with him. It’ll also boost your confidence.

When your horse will respond willingly to your leadership and direction without a means of reinforcement, he’s tuned in to your gestures, postures, and movements, willing to follow any direction you give.

In the herd, horses follow the cues of their herd mates to know when to turn, stop, and move. In this way, your horse is programmed to tune in to your cues and work well at liberty. We’re the ones who need to learn the skills, become aware of our own body language, and be consistent with our cues.

When your horse learns that your body-language cues — your gestures and position — have meaning, he’ll love responding to them, because that’s his language. Give him clear cues, then reinforce those cues with a lead line or flag.

If you’re consistent over time, you’ll no longer need to use reinforcement, and you’ll be able to work without the tether. Your horse will learn to trust you to provide consistent cues, and you’ll show him that you trust him.

Your horse would much rather get a cue from your body language instead of first feeling a pull on the lead. He’ll learn that you’ll provide a body signal and a gesture before adding reinforcement.

And when your horse learns to trust you to ask before forcing him, he’ll respond to that same improved relationship in the saddle, tuning in and responding to your cues.

In all the ground work I do, I’m ultimately working toward liberty. I teach my horses clear, consistent cues (hand signals) that apply even when I don’t have a tether on them.

I find that my horses are more tuned in to me and actually try harder when they’re at liberty — they work hard, as if to show me I don’t need to use that halter or bridle anymore!

Liberty work equates to good training and an ideal relationship between horse and human. If your horse is well-trained, he can move up to this challenge of being off the lead.

It’s all about willingness, and it’s about good communication and good leadership You want a horse that’s a willing partner, whether working in the arena or riding out on the trail. There’s nothing more willing than a horse that performs without restraints.

Here, I’ll teach you how to prepare your horse to work at liberty. First, you’ll lead your horse while giving clear cues, performing circle work with obvious hand signals. You’ll then test your horse’s obedience without the lead.

You must have a solid foundation of lead-line work, including stop, start, change speed, and change directions, before you take off the halter and see results. (To work on these skills, go to “Ground Work Exercises,” http://trailridermag.com/ article/ride-julie-goodnight-26732.)

If you need help with ground manners, keep the halter and lead in place, and master your lead-line leadership before progressing. If you practice correctly with the halter in place, liberty work will be easy when the time is right.

Prep and Gear

To start, you’ll need a rope halter and a 12- to 15-foot training lead. You may want to use a training flag, longe whip, or stick

— as an extension of your arm — to help signal and reinforce your cues. When your horse is working well with halter and lead, you’ll be ready to test his obedience.

Then, you’ll outfit your horse in a neck rope with a breakaway leather connection so that you can apply some reinforcement if needed.

Finally, you’ll take off all restraints to test your cues and your horse’s responses while working at liberty in a safe, enclosed environment with good footing.

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