Often when we have horses, we spend so much time working on the things we have the horse for (trail riding, jumping, barrel racing, etc.), that we forget to work on building the relationship that needs to exist for both the horse and the human to truly trust one another.
One of the way we can start to build that trust is through walking with your horse at liberty. I’ve seen some trainers use this exercise as a gimmick, but the idea behind it is pretty basic- you are acting as the leader in the herd, and your horse is following you because he believes you to be deserving of that role. There is no halter, no lead rope, no bridle to make him follow you- and he can wander off at any time if he so chooses. The goal, therefore, is to ensure that your horse is always following you.
This exercise, in its simplicity, really shows the relationship (or lack thereof) between the person and the horse. I’ve seen people whose horses are well-trained and perform well under saddle refuse to follow the person. Just because a horse is well-trained does not mean he trusts you. I’ve seen people who, due to their abusive training and hubris believe that their horse will follow them around, find that their horse definitely does not trust them, and will choose not only NOT to walk with the person, but will find a way to be anywhere BUT where the person is.
This being said, I’ve seen some horses, especially those used in therapy, more apt to follow people around, especially if they think that there might be a treat coming. Treats can be given after the exercise is completely over, but they should not be given during the session- the horse should follow you because you are you- not because you have a cookie. The best way to ensure that the horse is following you is to start the exercise, then stop and release the horse so he can wander off. After a few minutes, then try to restart the exercise… if the horse is not terribly interested in anything you have to say (because he knows you don’t have treats), then you know that you need to continue to work on your relationship.
If your horse does wander off, you need to get his attention and have him come back to you. Say he wanders off to the middle of the arena while you’re walking- you need to move to cut him off, then angle your shoulder so he comes back to you. He should readjust and come back to you- if he wanders off constantly, you need to go back to the round pen and work on having him listen to you.
If your horse is walking well next to you, then you can think about jogging or running around the arena- that being said, this is much more dangerous, so be aware of your horse and only think about running or jogging if you trust your horse and have built up an excellent relationship at the walk first, where he stops immediately when you stop. Some horses will kick out or play when people run with them, and that is dangerous. While I will walk with the horses at our rescue, there are only a very few who I will run around with- just because our relationship is not that solid, and because, quite frankly, I don’t trust them not to do something silly that might accidentally hurt me. I don’t think any of the horses at our rescue are malicious, but even just an errant kick can end up breaking your leg.
When doing this or any exercise, always remember the two rules:
- Take care of yourself.
- Take care of your horse.
Always think about your safety when working with your horse, and be aware of where they are when at liberty in the arena. Again, while this is a simple exercise, it does require trust on both the human and the horse’s part, and your relationship just may not be there yet. Be patient, and be sure to practice having your horse come to you, leading correctly and round penning in order to build those foundations of trust that will end up helping you build that solid relationship with your horse.