At SAFE, we realize that our horses have many different gifts to share. As we learn about who they are and what they are capable of, we find that their future may not be as a “riding” horse. Dear Rosie has had a lot of miles on her in the past and from what we can tell they were not always very pleasant. There is a lot of fear around saddling and riding and we have decided to take it easy with her. From what we can tell, she is over 25 years old and it really isn’t worth a ton of stress on her to make her a “riding” horse again.
When Sarah approached me with the idea of doing some liberty training at SAFE with her trainer Nancy, I was very excited. Nancy’s style of liberty training is very positive and sounded like something that could make a big difference in Rosie’s life. Sometimes when horses have been abused or mistreated it is very hard to get them to trust and connect with humans. Abuse can come in many forms, and for a sensitive horse like Rosie, it may have just been people not listening to her or speaking her language. When a horse is confused and feels threatened, it can leave scars on their relationship with humans. Introducing Rosie to something she has never experienced, like liberty training, may be a door that can be opened to show her a different way of being with humans. This might just be the start of a whole new life for Rosie. At the very least, she is finding peace in a space with humans and learning to trust. Here is a what Sarah had to say about Rosie’s first liberty lesson with Nancy:
1st week: As I watched Rosie weave her head back and forth in her stall, I couldn’t help thinking it was a confirmation of what I had already assumed. Rosie was anxious, herd bound and it was going to take forever to get her to trust us. Nancy, my instructor, calmly advised me to wait it out. Thirty seconds later, and to my surprise, Rosie stood still and waited for us.
Nancy is an at liberty instructor. That means the horse has no halter, rope, or tack of any kind. It is a method focused on a partnership between horse and person. A partnership where the horse can say “no”. With the option to freely choose “no” the horse can also freely choose and act upon “yes”. As a person, my role is to act as a fair leader of our little (or big) herd. It is a connection built on trust and respect. Rosie continued to surprise me. I had assumed that she was so attached to her herd mates, that it would be forever before we would make any progress. Well, you know what they say about assumptions…
We started her in the round pen on a lead rope as she called and strained for her mates. With each round she walked and each reward, she calmed a little more. The treats were nice and we soon found that she favored carrots. By the fourth pass around, she was walking calmly and in step with us. Feeling that she had settled down enough, we slipped the halter off. Rosie turned straight back to the gate, took a moment to roll, and then began pacing and calling out again. In my mind, we had lost all of her attention, but Nancy cautioned that Rosie had to work this out for herself. She needed to figure out that being with us and the yummy treats was a better deal than pacing at the gate. Then we started a sort of dance. Rosie would come back, get a treat, and then get right back to pacing at the gate. But as the minutes went by and we backed farther away, she began coming farther to get a treat before going back. Nancy then stood in front of the gate and I took up my post in front of the treats. You could see the wheels in Rosie’s head turning. She couldn’t pace the gate without having to interact with Nancy, and I wasn’t handing out treats as easily. This is where we introduced a payment concept. If Rosie would do something that was asked of her, she would get paid with a treat. Nancy would ask her to walk beside her and I would ask her to stand quietly. We needed to create a space where Rosie could let go of her fear and start seeking the reward. She was free to say “no”, but those carrots were sure tempting.
By the end of our time together, she had walked beside Nancy of her own choosing for small increments and relaxed with the two of us. The horse we put back in her stall was more aware and more relaxed with the people next to her. What a change! Rosie taught me that for us to work together, I need to let go of my assumptions about what she is capable of and give her the chance to let go of her fear.
In the weeks and months ahead, I have a feeling Rosie and I will learn much from each other. We will need to earn each other’s trust and respect in this open dialog at liberty.
2nd week: Wow! Rosie has made so much progress this week! She went from anxiously pacing the gate on Tuesday, to a relaxed mare who calmly checked on the gate by Thursday. She will now walk beside me and stop and turn with me. I was even able to put the “cookie dish” in the middle of the round pen and she learned to leave it alone until I gave her a treat for good “work”. She is also learning very quickly to wait for a treat to be given instead of taking it. Rosie really is a sweet mare who is very responsive and intelligent. I am so glad to be working with her.