Working with a horse “at liberty” as it is called (i.e. without any tack, bridle/saddle or rope to control the horse) both on the ground and mounted has become increasingly fashionable in the last few years. This is in big part thanks to Natural Horseman and horse world phenomenon Pat Parelli. While Parelli has successfully built an empire around natural horsemanship, his unparalleled success has also created a bit of a confusion about the difference between natural horsemanship, trick training and liberty work.
As natural horsemanship trainers we are often asked ‘What tricks can your horses do? Can you ride it without any tack?’ When, or if, you say “no” it creates a lot of disappointment.
Natural horsemanship is a method, and therefore a means to an end. Things like tricks (rearing or lying down on demand, for example) and tackless riding are an end product which may or may not have been achieved using natural horsemanship methods.
We recently spoke with a young girl who, like so many others, dreamt of riding a horse without any tack. She joined a special clinic (‘course’ in the equestrian language) to do so. Sadly, she left very upset. The students were asked to use a whip, and whip the horse in the face to get it to turn without the bridle.
Similarly, we recently saw in the media a bridle-less competition in Europe which included jumping and dressage tests. As stated, the participants were not allowed to put a bridle on their horses. They could use saddles (some didn’t) and they were allowed a neck rope. The idea in and of itself is great. It’s a way to streamline what could potentially be something of a revolution in the horse world. The reality, however, was, as it always is, far more complex. A look at some of the performances showed that a few horses were under high levels of stress (swishing tails, ears back flat on the neck, shaking of the head).
The misconception is that, if a horse is ‘free,’ then it will only be doing what it wants to do. Following this logic, whatever the horse is doing when it is not wearing tack is something he wants and chooses to. I think the flaw in the argument is quite obvious here.
It’s not because a horse is doing what it is being told without tack or ropes that it has been trained in a gentle way. If this was the case, tigers and elephants in circuses would not so often be at the heart of animal cruelty campaigns.
In natural horsemanship, you aim to train a horse in a gentle, non-violent way that uses the horse’s natural psychological and behavioural characteristics to be the most efficient and least traumatic possible.
Some of the best natural horsemanship trainers in the world use bits, bridles and saddles. The concept is that it’s not the tool that creates pain, it’s how you use it. A whip in and of itself is harmless. It only becomes the source of pain if one decides to hit with it. But there are a lot of things you can do with a whip that do not inflict pain and are very helpful in training. In the same way, you can inflict a lot of stress on a horse without using anything that inflicts direct physical pain. Liberty training is a very good example. Done right, the trainer can communicate with his horse using body language that makes sense to the horse resulting in a beautiful and peaceful performance. Done wrong, you see a horse swishing his tail, ears pinned back and nostrils wide open - all of which are often signs of stress and anxiety. Look out for those the next time you see a video of liberty work or tackless riding so you can decide for yourself whether it is indeed natural horsemanship or not.
There are probably as many ways to train horses as they are to raise children. This also means that while there are a lot of bad ways of doing, there is no single right way. There are precepts, such as avoiding pain and distress (some people may even argue that this is a necessary part of any education) and looking for the most effective learning tools.
All in all, if a horse is calm, balanced, responsive and safe, chances are that it has been trained using natural horsemanship methods (whether the trainer was conscious of it or not). If a horse is stressed, aggressive, anxious or numb, even if it is being ridden tackless of doing liberty work, then the methods are not natural horsemanship.