I hope you’ve been practicing translating. You’ll need it with this post, in which I’ll start you and your horse on your way to becoming liberty partners.
For this post, I’m assuming your horse has proper ground manners and leads well. Try this test: Stand beside your horse at his shoulder, facing him. Extend your left arm with the lead shank and put pressure on his head, telling him to walk forward. Also see if you can make him slow down or stop from halter pressure while you keep on walking. If you can do this, your horse knows how to lead and not just how to follow. If he doesn’t know this, stop here and read this post or this post to get him up to speed. Teaching a horse liberty that only follows and doesn’t lead could be disastrous! He needs both skills.
With liberty, you can’t just take your horse off lead and assume he’ll follow you around. Actually, try that. If you have a safe place to do so (I recommend a round pen – don’t use an arena. It’s too big, and especially don’t take a horse off line when there is another horse in there, whether loose or tied), take the lead line off your horse and see what he does. Try asking him to walk forward. No luck? I didn’t think so. You need to connect the dots in his brain. So put the lead shank back on, and I will show you how to start.
As I said in the last post, the first parts are all groundwork. You will have your horse in hand the whole time. It builds up slowly to going off line. Your progress will go faster if you resist the urge to take your horse off when he does great in the first lesson.
Get a dressage whip and a long lead line. A crop will work also, but I prefer the length and thereby versatility a dressage whip affords. A lunge whip will be too long and unwieldy. Now, you were taught when you first started working with horses that your right hand is always about 6 inches from the snap on the halter shank, and that your left hand holds the rest of the rope, folded back and forth. This doesn’t give your horse a feel of liberty, though. If you can’t control your horse with five feet of rope between your hand and your horse, liberty won’t work. But don’t start with five feet. Give your horse two to three feet, and hold all the folds in your right hand. You’ll need your left hand free to operate the dressage whip.
First, we’re going to get a few cues down. When you shift your weight forward, you want your horse to shift his, too. It’s his cue that we’re about to leave, so he won’t get left behind when you start walking. So, lean forward (exaggerate it) and start walking. You can add a ‘walk on,’ if you like. Chances are, he’ll do nothing until you’ve hit the end of the rope you gave him. In comes the dressage whip. Reach behind yourself and tap his side – preferably where your leg would sit if you were riding. This is why a dressage whip’s length is handy.
The first time I did this with Jamileh, she danced sideways. That was the right answer to a different question, because I’d given her the cue to go forward, and this was a continuation of that. But I didn’t know what I was doing any more than she did, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Now I know. Keep tapping, and continue applying the forward pressure on the halter. As soon as she steps forward, give a complete release. Then do it again.
The goal is that the horse moves forward when you lean forward and start walking. The leaning is the ‘pre-cue,’ telling him something is going to happen. You’ll use the same idea to get the horse to stop.
When you are riding, you want the horse to shift its weight back when you ask for a halt, and to use his hindquarters to stop. A logical cue, then, for slowing down or stopping is to shift your weight back. The same works on the ground. Leaning back before stoping is like saying, “Aaaaand, whoa.” The ‘and’ is there to let the horse know something different is coming. So when you lean back as you’re walking, the horse is cued that you’re going to stop or slow down, and with the warning he’ll be able to stop when you do without getting out in front.
Give him time to figure it out, and be patient with yourself, too. You’ll make mistakes, and your horse will get confused, but they’re forgiving creatures. Remember, you’re trying to teach him something you don’t know much about, either. That’s what I did with Jamileh – and she hasn’t done too badly.