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Let Your Horse SHINE with Groundwork and Liberty

I did a recent post on Facebook and I thought I would share it on here too. I feel the concepts are significant, especially if you are new to groundwork and liberty.

If this is you... then read on!

I have supported people with their horses intermittently over the past 12 years. The one rock solid and entirely dependable thing I have noticed is that horses that are developed consistently with groundwork and liberty are often worlds apart in terms of confidence, curiosity and communication when compared to horses that are exclusively ridden.

Trigger Warning...!

Now if this is you, I don't want this to be received as being critical. I am merely imparting what I have noticed over the years. In order to expand I want to offer what is a common consideration of what it is to be a horse living in 'humansville'.

I would invite you to consider this. Horses are often taken out for a ride by their human with little consideration of whether they want to go or not. So for example, do you know what is the optimum time to take your horse out? Do you know when they are likely to be resting or when they are more active? Knowing these daily patterns can help you to pick a time that would be more agreeable to your horse. I don't exaggerate when I say I have witnessed a woman whacking her old horse with the bristles of a broom so that he got up out of his sleeping state off the stable floor. Okay... so I might have got a little judgey then, but let's try and take into account our horses natural daily patterns.

So, let's continue to stand in the hooves of our imaginary horse. They may be taken out to be ridden and feel either high or low levels of anxiety all the way around the ride. The horse is likely to be ridden in lots of straight lines with minimal opportunities to experience more nuanced conversations about moving different body parts. Their human may ride in a 'kick to go, pull to stop' fashion meaning again that opportunities for expanding communication will be limited. In fact, the horse may well do his or her best to block out the human's communication attempts and may experience them as profoundly aversive.

I'm sure many of us fit, or have done at some time in in our past, into something like this description. Well, hopefully not the broom whacking bit, but you get my gist.

The major challenge of this situation is that there will be minimal opportunities to develop anything of real value if this is the nature of the interaction with our horses. And while we are taking the time it takes to develop more nuanced and sensitive riding skills, we can be leaving holes in the relationship that would be effectively filled by groundwork and liberty.

And here is why:

Actively Involved Horses

If you are interacting at liberty (authentic liberty that is!), your horse has to be actively involved in the conversation, otherwise they well just say 'ciao' and leave. It's that simple. We cannot simply rely on capturing them physically and then just doing whatever we want with their bodies. Now while this shift may be a challenge in the beginning, the changes it makes in the longer run are relationship game changers. Our horses sense when we are interested in how they feel about what we are doing and this matters to them. They know when we are interested in their perspective and they know when we are not.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

If you have the feeling that you and your horse fit the earlier description, there is the real possibility that the most rewarding thing you are offering to your horse currently, is when you leave. Ooof....! I know that sounds harsh. I have felt this too. I know if feels far from comfortable. Even before I knew what I know now, I still had the strong awareness that my horse would breathe a mahoosive sigh of relief once I'd hopped in my car and drove out the gate. Oh dear. So if you can relate, let's change that. The more your horse feels like they are part of the conversation, the more they will enjoy having you around. If you can delve into the world of positive reinforcement, even better. Some extrinsic rewards will really help to change your horses opinion about what you are engaging in together while you build up the intrinsic rewards. When your horse feels intrinsically included and valued for what they bring to the relationship then things really begin to change for you both.

Easily Added Interest

I get what a challenge riding can be. The broader equestrian world still seems to hang on to a weird hierarchy of value with riding at the top and interacting on the ground at the bottom. Well, to be more precise, higher ridden gaits (canter yes, walk no!) sitting at the top of the hierarchy and walking on the ground definitely at the bottom. This creates the false impression that the only way to improve at anything to do with horses, is to ride. This completely misses the fact that a large part of riding is contingent on the strength of the bond and the depth of communication shared between horse and human. What an opportunity is missed, especially for those humans who may be lacking in timing, feel and confidence.

I know this post may be challenging to some. I also know that if it does feel triggering, there is something of real value to explore in any feelings of discomfort that arise. So I will close in asking the question... what are you afraid of losing in introducing groundwork and liberty to your horse? The answer will surely be illuminating.

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