by Laura Crum
Warning: for those of you who enjoy my upbeat posts about what is good in my life with horses, this is not such a post. Every now and then I like to keep it real by calling it as I see it when it comes to some bit of what I consider to be dangerous silliness that is circulating around horse blog land. (Or that I see in real life, for that matter.) Sometimes this stuff is coming from what most people consider to be “reputable sources” and I notice that, for whatever reason (maybe folks are intimidated), nobody seems willing to speak up and say, hey, I don’t agree with this. So, I’m speaking up. Mostly because I do believe some things are truly dangerous and should be avoided by all but the most experienced horse people. The downside is too great. Those who disagree with me on this one, feel free to say so in the comments. I am always Ok with hearing a dissenting point of view. I like to raise “difficult” questions and issues because sometimes the discussion that comes out of this is very interesting and productive. For those who would rather not hear my fairly strong opinions on the subject of horse training methods, please click on the “x” now.
So here’s my rant:
Not too long ago I read a couple of blog posts written by two very different women who both call themselves horse trainers. There’s not too much these two have in common, other than that general classification. But yet they both wrote lyrical pieces about “playing” with a rearing horse at liberty. And I have to admit I winced.
Both of these pieces were well written; though they come from very different perspectives. One woman was advocating (and offering to teach) this sort of thing. The other was merely writing about something she’d done in the past. But both made the “game” sound downright magical. Had I not had as many years of experience with horses as either of these gals, I might have been tempted to try such a thing. And all I can say to that is, yikes(!)
Let me just put this simply. Playing games with a rearing horse at liberty is foolish and dangerous for most people. Maybe these two trainer gals have some extra special skills that protect them from harm. Or maybe they’ve just been lucky. But I am here to tell you that won’t necessarily happen for the rest of us, and the downside is huge.
Not long after I first began blogging, I read a post in which a woman who had been playing such liberty games with her horse was kicked hard in the chest and suffered a heart attack. I read that and my first thought was, “Ouch. This is just the kind of life threatening, completely unnecessary wreck we horse people DON’T need.” My second thought was, “Who teaches these people to do these silly things?” Having been raised by traditional horsemen, I would no more play “games” with a horse at liberty than I would lie down in front of one and try to get him to step over me (and yeah, they probably do that, too).
(I would like to add as an aside here that I’m sure that there are positive, relatively safe ways to work with horses at liberty, aside from round penning—I’m quite familiar with that-- and I’m equally sure that some of you can explain them to me. I do know that some training methods rely on these liberty games and some people think highly of them. I am not an admirer of such methods, but I totally respect everyone’s right to their own approach. If you’ve studied this stuff and you are an expert, more power to you. What I am trying to point out in this post is that there is a big, big possibility of getting hurt if you are not totally on top of your “game” in this area. This is not something to play around with because an online “trainer” that you admire has talked about it.)
At one point, in a discussion with one former horse trainer on a similar subject (interacting with horses at liberty while feeding), I said, “Well, that works until it doesn’t.” And boy did I catch hell for saying that. I had disagreed with the mighty trainer and put forth an opinion that assumed I might know as much as she did on this subject. And that didn’t fly at all. But folks, I am standing by what I said. These kinds of games work until they don’t. And when they don’t, the horse has just double barreled you in the chest.
How do I know this? Because I’ve spent plenty of time watching horses play with other horses in the pasture or paddock. And yes, they rear and play bite face and run about, having great fun. Until eventually a non-dominant horse thinks this might be his moment, or a dominant horse decides the other horse has stepped out of line. And whammo, here comes the double barreled kick. And its not playful. Its powerful.
Plenty of horses have been seriously injured this way. Plenty of horses have had to be put down due to a broken leg—some I have known. A few horses I knew of were kicked square in the head and died on the spot. Yes, it happens. And if you don’t think it can happen to you when you’re playing with a horse at liberty, interacting with him like you are another horse, then I think you’ve been drinking too much of the Kool Aid.
The one woman who advocates these games goes on and on about how you can deepen your relationship with your horse by doing this sort of thing and brags on the magic that is possible. There are photos of her in EXACTLY the wrong position to be in with any loose horse. I’m reading away wondering what she puts in that Kool Aid to get folks to suspend their common sense, when I come upon the icing on the cake. This woman recommends that you play these games before you ride your horse. Every time. And if your horse doesn’t want to “engage”, then you shouldn’t ride the horse that day. I mean, seriously?
Now if this person wanted to reply to me, I’m guessing she would say that she stands in these oh-so-vulnerable positions with a loose horse because she has developed a relationship of trust with said horse. And that this is all part of the magic that is possible. And my reply to this would be just what I said before. It works until it doesn’t. And at the point where the horse decides he’s not in the mood for your game—well, you’re back to being double barreled in the chest. And yes, this happens to experienced horse people. And yes, they do get badly hurt. Again, the downside is too great.
OK. Here’s my thoughts on the magic that is possible with horses. And I absolutely have this magic with my horses all the time. If it weren’t so simple to achieve, maybe I could set up as a horse guru myself.
Magic is walking down to the corral and having your horse meet you at the gate and put his head in the halter. Magic is grooming and saddling with no issues and climbing aboard. You’ll notice I don’t mention round penning or lunging or any other “ground work” first. We just climb on and ride off—on two relaxed well-behaved horses. We walk until they’re warmed up and these horses carry us willingly and reliably wherever we want to go. Along the beach, through the woods, across the creek, up the steep, narrow path through the trees…you name it. Magic is feeling completely relaxed and comfortable as you ride along by the surf on your equally relaxed and comfortable horse. Magic is being free of anxiety, let alone not being scared or hurt. Magic is doing this over and over again, hundreds of times, with the same pleasant result. That’s the kind of magic I have with my horses.
My horses nicker when they see me, they meet me at the gate to be caught, as I said before. They do what we ask when we ride them. They are calm and reliable. I believe that we are all happy with each other. And this is the magic I have—and the magic I want. I cannot imagine a system that involves giving up a proposed ride simply because Fluffy doesn’t choose to engage in the liberty game today. In my eyes that’s not magic. That’s silly.
How do I achieve my brand of magic? Its simple, and I’ll give you the secret right now for free. I interact with my horses as a competent, kind, firm, consistent, traditional horseman. And I thoughtfully chose two solid, broke, experienced trail horses in the double digits for my son and myself to ride.
Its not tricky. I don’t play games with my horses. I do catch them at times to turn them loose to graze, I do make sure the rides are well within their capacity, I make sure they have plenty of space to move around 24/7 and I feed them carefully such that they are at the right weight. I feed three times a day. I don’t ride them if they are sore or off in any way. I care about them and retire them when their working days are done. My horses take reassurance from me and accept my leadership. They trust me. Just as I trust them. But I still treat them as a traditional horseman treats a horse.
What does this mean? It means I stay in charge. I remain the boss. A kind and thoughtful boss, but the boss at all times. I am a boss who is willing to listen to another opinion (cause yeah, I pay attention when my horses try to tell me something). And I don’t fool around playing games with loose horses. (Yes, I’ll go in the corral or pasture and rub on a horse or whatnot, but I remain carefully aware of staying in a safe position at all times and I keep a watchful eye on the horse’s body language.) I’ve seen too many wrecks in a lifetime spent with horses (fortunately very, very few of these wrecks involved me), to want to take an unnecessary chance of getting hurt. You horse gurus feel free to comment and tell me what I’m missing. I’m here to say what I’ve got. A solid track record for staying safe, having lots of fun on horseback (and not spending my time dinking around with my broke horse on the ground, which I don’t enjoy), and keeping both horses and people undamaged and happy. That’s poetry to me.
And playing games with a rearing horse at liberty? That’s foolish/dangerous in my book. Perhaps the gals who wrote those lyrical passages can manage to do it safely…most of the time. But they are doing no one any favors to describe such a thing in a way that encourages naïve young girls and equally naïve and not-so-agile middle aged women to see this as a fun/magical thing to do with a horse. Even with an experienced “trainer,” I’ll stick with what I said long ago. That sort of thing works until it doesn’t.
Feel free to give your own take on this in the comments. I’m aware that some folks I respect are more partial to these liberty games than I am and I am happy to hear where I might have something to learn. I always like hearing others’ ideas.