"When people use tack they can reprimand a horse easier and because of that they do. However, if a horse is at liberty, the horse is able to get away easier when reprimanded, and when he does, he loses interest in that person. Because of this freedom at liberty, the person stays away from reprimanding the horse in order to keep from losing their connection."
--Carolyn ResnickHow many times have I read "Praise your horse when she does what you want her to, ignore her when she doesn't" and that almost all "punishments" are futile? I have no problem whatsoever in upping my taps with the whip to a whack when Starbuck is ignoring me, letting her barge right into my waving crop in front of her nose when leading or using the leather popper on my rope to protect my personal space, but I really strive never to yell at her or hit her after she's done something "wrong". I much prefer to just make her work a little harder (backing up and leading forward several times, turning tight circles or yielding her hindquarters right and left) afterwards to get her mind off whatever caused her "misbehaviour" and make her think twice about it the next time. But it's true - having the rope tying her to me makes it all to easy to give a sharp tug on her halter or yell at her a little when she makes a mistake.
So seeing as how we had such gorgeous weather at lunchtime today, I had a bag full of carrot rounds and I wanted to try something different and fun, I decided to give some liberty work with Starbuck a try. We started out with a longe line just so she'd get the idea that this was in fact work and that I had treats to give her when she did the right thing, doing a few laps in walk and trot and then doing a little ground tying as well as working on our "back up" and "come here girl" cues. But after about 15 minutes I manned up and unsnapped the lead rope, leaving it in the sand and waiting to see if she'd just high-tail it towards the grass on the edges of the arena.
And she didn't - she stayed right with me just looking at me asking me what we were going to do next! At first I just walked around with her following beside me, seeing if she'd stop and back up with me. She did so well at that that I stopped her and gave her a little rest as well as some rubbing and a carrot round. I then tried sending her out on a circle like I do in the roundpen. The first three or four times she went superwide and wandered off, so I adjusted my body language but especially my focus on her and my energy to be able to regain and maintain her attention. And what do you know if she didn't come back and start walking circles (well, ok, maybe more like ovals or pears) around me at liberty!
We changed direction a couple of times with no problems so I decided to up the difficulty and started jogging a little bit. She broke right into trot and made her circle a little bit bigger, but stayed tuned in always coming back to me - we ended up cavorting up and down the arena together, changing speed, distance and direction fluently using only my body language. At one point when she got a little too excited for my comfort zone, I was even able to stop her in her tracks by just inclining my head a little in the direction of her hindquarters. During the 20 or so minutes we were playing, I stopped every few minutes to give her a rest and a carrot round.
At first she was a little confused and confounded by this new dynamic, but I think the sheer joy that I was feeling must have transferred over to her because she ended up having a good time too, and we even drew a bit of an audience since we started just when lunch was ending and lots of folks had the day off today (yesterday was a regional holiday). At the very end Marina said what a good job I was doing and that it had been lots of fun to watch and I let Starbuck graze while we were talking, but when it was time to go and I walked away she stayed on the side of the arena grazing. So Marina told me to call her, which I did, then Marina shuffled her feet which startled Starbuck and she came running right to me, stopped when she reached me and stood still while I snapped the rope back on her halter. It was a glorious way to spend my lunch break and I feel like we're really taking our relationship to the next level.
Next time I do this I'll try to get some video or at least some photos, but I'll leave you with some amazing footage of Carolyn doing her thing - hopefully some day Starbuck and I can have this kind of connection and finesse!