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Don Jessop

Most horse lovers eventually discover the art of liberty training. It's one of the most enriching, beautiful, inspiring parts of horsemanship and it's something you can do when you can't or don't want to ride.

But did you know there are three different modes of liberty?

It's important to understand the distinction so you don't confuse your horse with your outcomes.

The first type that most people are familiar with is called "round pen liberty" or what I like to call "foundation liberty," because honestly... you don't need a round pen. Read why... link to how round pens can ruin horses.

Foundation liberty is designed to teach a horse how to move freely in every gait, change direction, transition smoothly, learn to carry a saddle, and join up. "Join up" is a term coined by the famous horse trainer Monty Robert's. It simply means the horse turns to you and joins you where you stand and may even follow you around without the lead rope.

Technically there are dozens of ways to achieve these foundation goals. Some people highlight voice cues to train transitions and such, other people highlight hand signals, some highlight body position relative to the horse, while some highlight flags and sticks as their primary tools of communication. It's important to know, the technique is not half as important as the clarity of your outcome.

Foundation liberty is typically done in a round pen to help a developing horse become more fluid and better prepared for riding. Don't confuse foundation liberty to the other modes because... I guarantee you... it will screw up your poor horse's brain and make the other types of liberty nearly impossible.

Why would it screw up the other types, you might ask...?

Because foundation liberty is primarily a driving away training style. Not a joining up training style. It may involve a small amount joining up but it's not the primary goal. It may teach a horse to canter, but on his own, not with you. And without any doubt, if your focus is foundation or round pen liberty, when you take the round pen away you will not succeed in keeping your horse close to you. For that, you need to learn the next types of liberty.

The second mode of liberty training I like to call "natural liberty training." This type of training indicates you leave a rope and halter on your horse while you guide and educate them to understand simple and/or complex maneuvers. Imagine asking your horse to walk next to you then as they learn it, tossing the rope over their back and testing the skill without the rope. Eventually you take the halter off completely and test the same skill with nothing on the horse. This game of naturally diminishing your use of tools supports learning without getting lost and allows for progress with more clarity.

This just happens to be the simplest version of liberty training and it can apply to every single training behavior from cantering next to you, to spins, to rearing up, lying down, working in open fields, working with multiple horses at once, you name it. When the horse learns the trick (behavior) then you toss the rope over their back and test it, ready to grab the rope just in case they don't know it as well as you thought. Then finally, you take the rope off altogether.

Anything is possible with this type of training. It takes patience and persistence to get to the upper level stuff, but it's fun and simple. I probably teach this mode of liberty at more clinics than anything else because it's so relatable and practical. Plus, horses seem to understand what you want much easier

But it's not the only way.

One thing you'll learn when you study with me is there is always more than one way. Deciding which one you want to challenge yourself with is up to you.

The last type of liberty training is called "purest liberty training." This is analogist to the people who watch that famous old movie, "A River Runs Through It" with Brad Pitt, and decide they will master the art of fly fishing. So they throw away all their normal fishing tackle and only fly-fish, casting that new thousand dollar fly rod for the rest of their days. Purest means you're dedicated to the art, not the task. A "purest" fly fisherman or woman, won't fish with anything else because it's not about catching the fish, it's about being "one with the fish." Or so they say. It's the same for purest liberty trainers.

To be clear, I'm not strictly a purest, although I'm dedicated to the art too. I'm an educator. I love the magic of true connection-based liberty training but I understand the value of practical application too. But... for the sake of education, let's dive into what purest liberty training entails. I've certainly enjoyed the process. You might too.

Here is how purest liberty works. It's ALL about connection. Your horse must learn and value being connected to you above all other things. And... you never use ropes to guide the experience. Some people even go so far to never use sticks or whips. And the goals remain the same. The outcomes remain the same.

In other words, if you master the art, you could teach your horse to canter next to you in an open field, lay down on command, rear on cue, and anything else, all without ever using a rope to guide the horse into compliance. It's a beautiful art form that takes enormous patience and skill. Often, in the beginning, the horse may refuse to participate and won't even follow you around. The skills required to encourage that simple task and discourage anything else requires finesse. Push too hard and you get a resentful, fearful horse. Push too little and you get nowhere. The balance is beautiful and worthy of pursuit.

As a practical horseman I encourage studying all modes of liberty at different times. In my own practice I employ each mode for different personal experiences and practical reasons. For colt starting I may encourage fundamental gait work inside the round pen to reinforce a better riding experience. If I'm not colt starting, I may combine the different modes. For instance, I may be working toward purest liberty, teaching the horse to trot with me, only to find he or she gets lost and is finding it hard to understand my goals. Then briefly, I may use a rope to help guide and quickly reward the correct footwork. Sometimes the horse will appreciate the clarity and we can move to understanding and connection sooner.

There is no "right" answer or "right" technique. The purest will try to convince you there is, the foundation trainer will try to convince you there is, the trick trainer will try to convince you there is, but... they are all right! All modes have their place, all techniques are worthy of learning. There is only one real wrong way of doing it. And that is through fear, force, and intimidation training infused with frustration and abusive feel or timing toward the horse. All other modes are acceptable and part of the art of learning together with an amazing equine partner.

It's okay to get off track and lose your connection and then work to get it back, even if it takes longer than you expected. It's okay to learn about treats and clicker training and conditioned responses. It's okay to dive deeper and learn about feeling for the fragile thought connection, the weight shift, the muscle tension, the attitude shift, rather than always focus on positioning and footwork. Liberty is FUN, enriching, inspiring. It's meant to be a worthwhile journey.

Would you like to experience it? Follow me. I'll guide you through it. Through each mode, through each step.

Comment below. I love hearing from you! Don

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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Don Jessop


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