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farinellimartin-connection1If you are a very ordinary horse person just as I am and your goal is to achieve a magical connection with your horse, one that will see your equine friend actively seeking to be with you while at absolute liberty to leave you to eat, drink or do anything other than be with you, what would you do if I were to tell you that all your current attempts to do so are likely to be futile? What if I were to tell you that you are probably wasting your time, your energy, your money? What if I were to tell you that, even if you do manage enough liberty work together with your horse to merit a short video worth sharing with the world through YouTube or Facebook, it is likely to be built on a foundation of sand which will in all probability be washed away the moment that you abandon the tools which have helped you achieve that, be it a whip, rope, clicker-trained cue or anything else? But what if I were to tell you that it is possible to establish a firm basis for true liberty play with your horse without relying on any tools, preconditioned behaviour triggers, conventional pressure and release methods, “natural horsemanship” join-up or similar techniques, indeed, without even asking or encouraging your horse to accompany you? Would you be interested in finding out how?


True liberty in action

Vicki and I have known that this is possible ever since we attended a seminar hosted by Michael Bevilacqua and Cloé Lacroix in Canada in 2012. There we had our baptism in true liberty work in a herd of seven horses within a field of more than 70 acres (28.3 hectares). Yet when we returned to our horses, we found ourselves unable to build on this, in part because our understanding of horses was still underdeveloped and partly because we were not yet capable of achieving the presence which would ultimately allow us to put our knowledge of equine behaviour to good use.

Enter Martín Contreras Carrizosa, a young man from Colombia who started out with horses pursuing the conventional approach of his country, which like Spain’s Andalusia, is premised on the assumption that “breaking in” literally involves precisely that: breaking the horse’s spirit so thoroughly with tools and a philosophy which are more appropriate to the Inquisition, that learned helplessness is the accepted norm. Now based in Brisbane, Australia, Martín’s search for an alternative approach to horses led him to California in the United States of America, where he trained with Carolyn Resnick. This, coupled with intensive self-study heavily influenced by the public communications of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, has led Martín to focus on liberty play with horses informed by an approach which is uniquely his own and reflects his commitment to a relationship between the species that is liberating, creative and enjoyable (I use this term very advisedly to exploit its full meaning) for both the horse and the human.

Martin Contreras at play with Putumayo at liberty

You have only to view the few videos available of Martín Contreras in action with a horse at liberty to see the huge differences between his approach and that of most of the other humans whose audio-visual footage of their “liberty work” I have witnessed. For a start, there is the human devoid of all tools of “persuasion” or direction: no whip, no twig, no reed, no rope … nothing. Then there is the mood of the human expressed in the lightness of his movements and the relaxed expression on his face. Yet it is in the horse that we probably see the greatest difference. Gone are the pinned-back ears, hard eyes, tight mouth, slobbering lips, swishing tail and/or other telltale signs of coerced or conditioned behaviour so typical of what I usually see masquerading as horse-human interaction at liberty. Instead of the product of coercion and conditioning, I see a horse relaxed and truly at liberty, actively seeking out the human yet free to race off on their own, a horse at play rather than the “work” we insist on as part of our recreational equine pursuits, in short, true liberty in action.

It is important to bear in mind that what follows is my understanding of Martín Contreras’ explanations and my interpretation of events in spite of those explanations.


Liberty is choice

Perhaps the single most important explanation for these huge differences lies in the underlying principle which is the key to understanding Martín Contreras’ approach to horses. Enunciated unequivocally and firmly at the start of the first of the five sessions which Vicki and I were privileged to enjoy with him, Martín was emphatic: liberty is about choice! Any interaction between a horse and a human at liberty should occur in a large area (the equivalent of two thirds of an Olympic size dressage arena is an absolute minimum) with water and hay always available to the horse.

Yes, of course, we may immediately be inclined to concur. This goes without saying. Yet how much do we normally encounter in the way of choice for the horse in the numerous examples of what we see which passes for “working with horses at liberty”? Is the horse really free to decline to interact with us, should they prefer not to? Is the horse really at liberty to run off while we are interacting with them? In short, can we truly talk of “liberty” if the horse has no choice?

Of course, this is all very admirable and principled but how useful is this principle in practice? After all, if you ask the horse to accompany you at liberty and they choose not to do so, what do you do? Wait for the horse to change their mind? But you have a deadline, an appointment perhaps, or an even greater imperative in the form of a paying customer who wants to see results? What do you do? Conclude that you do not have the time to wait and therefore “prompt” the horse into action? And if you do, is the end result really a horse at liberty, even if you do prefer the term “work” to “play”?

More subversively, Martín Contreras’ insistence on choice for the horse questions the very basis of human interaction with the horse. Someone very dear to me insists that, if a horse does not do as it is told or asked (depending on your point of view), a human is fully entitled to give it a slap and that will be the end of that. The horse will then do as it is told or asked and there will no longer be any resistance. If the actions of the horse were essential for the human (to the extent that they can be so), for example, where the human depends on their equine charge for their existence, as is the case in many underdeveloped countries, I might understand this approach. Here in our wealthy Western world, however, where we use horses for recreational purposes or to produce substantial profits and not merely to survive, can the absence of choice really be justified in such circumstances?


Liberty is presence

Although Martín speaks of “liberty training”, he is emphatic that this may not involve coercion or conditioning. We humans have to learn to communicate with the horse. This we do mainly through body language. In this respect less is more. Instead of desensitising horses, we need to sensitise them to us.

First and foremost, this presupposes our ability to achieve presence. Put another way, when you enter the domain of your horse, do they respond to your presence? Indeed, does your horse even notice you? And if your horse, does not, what chance do you have of communicating with your equine friend? None, of course.

So what presence should you have and how can you achieve it? Martín refers to the presence of a “leader”. Although I shudder at the use of the term, I understand what he means when he describes it. Essentially, it demands of the human that they become the kind of creature whom a horse chooses to seek out and be with: someone who is dependable and reliable, who offers safety and is fun to be with. Are you this type of human for your horse?


Liberty is communication

There are some examples of liberty “work” which are truly impressive. A human says and does something, which serves as a cue for the horse to perform one or a series of impressive moves so obediently as to astound the onlookers. I recall witnessing one such performance conducted by Jean-Francois Pignon, brother to Frederic. His mares (he does not  work with stallions, as his brother does) did everything as instructed, from waiting in line until called upon to perform and then returning to their place, to following their master out of the arena in single file. A closer examination revealed that their eyes were profoundly dull. The lights were on but there was no one at home, so to speak. These were examples of horses conditioned through negative reinforcement.

Jean-Francois Pignon explaining the principles of his approach known as l'amour ("love")

Jean-Francois Pignon explaining the principles of his approach (l’amour – “love”)

Similarly, I have seen horses trained through positive reinforcement, the most recent example being a horse capable of performing a series of rather advanced moves in response to a slight gesture from their carer. Throughout the procedure the horse was dripping saliva from their mouth in anticipation of the treat that was sure to come. And come it did, for this was a horse conditioned through positive reinforcement. Like the horse trained through negative reinforcement, the capacity for spontaneous behaviour and hence real-time communication between the species had been banished throughout that specific conditioned procedure.

While it is true that conventional training’s reliance on pressure and release does allow for a limited form of communication between horse and human, it is only secured through force or the threat of force (the “softness” of the aids relies on that threat). As such, the horse is anything but a willing partner in spite of their capacity for enjoying some of the work demanded of them. In addition, their training has partly, if not largely, conditioned their response.

The protagonists of “natural horsemanship” are quick to claim that their horses are readily capable of liberty work. Proof of this may be found in the horse’s willingness to do what is required of them without force. Witness for instance such a horse’s “willingness” to enter a float on request or command without any visible sign of coercion. However, if we consider the path which has led to this, it soon becomes clear that this apparent “willingness” is due to a form of training which essentially renders the consequences of opting for any alternative type of behaviour significantly harsher than those of the behaviour that is sought. The result is a horse that is no longer capable of spontaneously making up its own mind and is hence incapable of any form of interaction which is genuinely at liberty.

Monty Roberts demonstrating trailer-loading the “natural horsemanship” way

True liberty play requires that a horse be capable of spontaneous behaviour at all times in response to a human’s actions or otherwise. It is only then that the horse can be truly free in their behaviour with the human, as the term, “liberty”, implies. This is also a prerequisite for any genuine communication between the species, as is the presence of the human as a creature with whom the horse chooses to communicate. The capacity for such spontaneous communication is an essential element of Martín Contreras’ approach.


Liberty is connection

Yet communication with a human who acts as emphatically in the present as a horse does is far from enough for genuine liberty play with a horse, according to Martín. There also has to be what he calls a “magnetic connection” between the horse and the human. This means that the horse must spontaneously want to engage play with the human, which in turn implies that they enjoy the liberty of declining to do so, should they prefer not to.

Martín likens such a magnetic connection to a piece of fruit that has been so carefully nurtured to ripeness that it is ready to fall from the tree. Preparation is essential and it takes time. The temptation to take shortcuts is acute. And if you succumb to such temptation, he explains, you may get results but, like the proverbial castle built on sand, they may be as short-lived as their foundation. Remove the gizmo responsible for the shortcut and the results may disappear simultaneously. Even worse, you will have no basis for genuine play at liberty, because you will have no connection. And because you have no connection, you will not have a horse that is a willing partner in any interaction with you.


Achieving presence, communication and connection

So how do you achieve such presence, communication and connection the Martín Contreras way? Martín is emphatic: in order to achieve presence we first need to ground ourselves and enter the here and now to become fully present with our horse. To this end, it is helpful to start off any session horse-human liberty session with an introductory body awareness exercise. Personally, I know of no faster, more effective way of doing this than by employing the techniques which I have learned as part of Hempfling’s approach to body and spiritual awareness. Two versions of this are listed on the Horses and Humans website. Variants are also practised by former Hempfling students and trainers in their own right, such as Noora Ehnqvist and Jason Alexander Wauters. Using these techniques it is possible to enter the present virtually at the drop of a hat, much the same way that Hempfling does.

Then there is the kind of presence we should seek to create, namely, being someone who is dependable and reliable, who offers safety and is fun to be with. How do we achieve such presence along with the communication and connection required to ensure that the horse recognises it? Would the horse not have to be open to this? The answer is self-evident. So how do you ensure that the horse is open to it? Although perhaps less self-evident, the answer to this question is unambiguous: you cannot. Only the horse themself can do this. So what should the human do? Nothing!


Five basic activities

This is not the same as “do not do anything”. Rather, it is actively doing nothing. And so we have the first of five potential activities which Martín Contreras employs to varying degrees and in an order, combination and way which differs depending on the nature of the horse in order to help the human achieve the kind of presence required – along with the communication and connection which are essential – for creating a sound foundation for genuine liberty play.

The first of these activities Martín calls “contemplation” and is reminiscent of the first of Carolyn Resnick’s waterhole rituals: sharing space with the horse while doing nothing. This time could be spent reading a book or, perhaps preferably, meditating in the present moment, until the horse comes to you. This is vital for a number of reasons. Firstly, it exploits the horse’s natural curiosity. This means that when the horse approaches the human, they are open to discovering who this presence is. Secondly, the horse approaches the human on its quest of discovery voluntarily and not in response to some trauma, such as that inflicted in the chase that is euphemistically referred to as “join-up”. This means that the horse is not only open to discovering the human’s presence but also to accepting it, should it be worth doing so. And finally, because the horse is entering another creature’s presence, they are more inclined to do so on the terms defined by that presence, provided that they do not compromise their safety.

Vicki and Martín Contreras joined by Farinelli while in contemplation

Vicki and Martín Contreras joined by Farinelli while in contemplation

The other four activities are “protecting your personal space”, “mirroring”, “herding” (yes, I also winced when I first heard the term and read the notes which Martín gave Vicki and myself) and the “circle of attention”. Protecting your personal space is not quite as straightforward as it sounds, for this does not refer to the establishment of a geographical boundary in relation to the human (often called a “personal bubble”), which the latter maintains in relation any horse. Instead, it denotes the limits of equine behaviour which a human with a presence that is dependable, reliable, safe and fun to be in is prepared to accept with a specific horse in the circumstances in which that behaviour occurs. Because we did not perform the circle of attention, I do not explain it here except to say that, based on the notes in which it is explained, it seems to be an exercise designed to sensitise a horse to the presence of the human. And rather than explain what “mirroring” and “herding” entail, it is perhaps best to suffice with an account of our own experience of Martín Contreras interacting with one of our geldings in Australia over a number of sessions in November and December this year.


The sessions

Vicki and I had a total of five sessions with Martín, which apart from a general introduction and a limited physical involvement on our part, centred largely on his interaction with our younger gelding, Farinelli. I was particularly keen to see how his approach would pan out with a strange (to him) horse. The experience was educational. I am sharing it here like a series of snapshots of a spontaneous experience rather than as markers of an applied method for the simple reason that this best reflects Martín Contreras’ approach.

The first session sees Martín introduce his approach to us starting with his insistence on the horse enjoying absolute choice to do something other than indulge in liberty play with the human, should they choose to do so. He then expresses the importance of grounding ourselves before going to a horse and leads us through an exercise designed to achieve precisely that. This is followed by an explanation of the first activity, “contemplation”, or sharing space with the horse and doing nothing without focusing on the horse at any stage other than to protect one’s personal space. I am impressed by the amount of time and effort which Martín devotes to doing nothing in the presence of a horse. So important is this activity, he insists, that not only should it be performed every time we go to our horse but we should also try and spend at least twice as much time doing this with our horses than everything else combined. As if that is not all, Martín recommends that, should we ever get stuck while interacting with our horse, this is the default activity we should fall back on.

It is also an activity to which we devote most of our time during the first four sessions. Not that the horses do not come to us of their own accord. They do, and they do so fairly soon after we head off to find a spot in the shade of a tree to engage in shared contemplation early on during each session. In most cases it is Farinelli who approaches us first. Being less mobile following his recovery from a six-week bout of tendonitis on top of his arthritis, Gulliver is more inclined to arrive later, if at all.


The individuality of the horse

As unique as humans, horses are very much individuals. Martín Contreras acknowledges this, insisting that his approach is neither a method nor a chronological procedure but a series of interactions which may be pursued in various ways depending on the horse we are with, and which are derived from the spontaneous manner in which horses naturally treat each other. Although I am sceptical of the explanation of their origin, which is so reminiscent of the justification which some forms of “natural horsemanship” offer for their abuse, I applaud the scope which Martín’s approach affords to spontaneity and flexibility, qualities which are essential when dealing with unique individuals, especially when they are as sensitive and introvert as Farinelli.

Our younger gelding is both curious and sometimes a bit too forward in his interactions with us, albeit without malice. We usually have to tread a fine line with him, as too abrupt an indication of what is unacceptable can easily lead to him feeling rejected and withdrawing from all forms of contact. Although Vicki and I have no difficulty in encouraging him to abandon his self-imposed isolation, a stranger may find themself challenged to do so. And so it transpires.

During the first four sessions with Martín Contreras, Farinelli eagerly but cautiously comes to greet us while we are seated on the grass. He grazes in a zig-zag towards us until he raises his head to greet Vicki or myself, usually seeking a scratch or a head-rub. Martín sees this as an occasion to explain and demonstrate the activity, protecting your personal space. Trying not to touch the horse he makes slow but determined movements to drive the horse out of our personal space. Farinelli neither understands nor is impressed, until Martín lays his hands on the gelding without applying any real pressure, allowing his energy to be felt. Feeling that the energy is directed towards him, Farinelli leaves and withdraws into himself. I recognise the signs and resign myself to the fact that we will probably have little further interaction with him that day.

Unperturbed, Martín uses Farinelli’s self-imposed isolation to demonstrate another activity, mirroring. This entails approaching the horse from the front while being intensely aware of their response to the human. As he explains in the accompanying notes which he has given us, the rules are simple: “If you move towards me or seem welcoming, I can move towards you; if you show doubt, I stop; if you turn away, I turn away; if you walk away, I walk away.” To this we may add, “And when I walk away, I do so determinedly without looking back.” As such, the human mirrors the horse, while unconditionally accepting their right to decline contact. Paradoxically or so it may seem at first glance, this is the exercise which builds trust. The effect may be enhanced by adding the odd treat to the equation, giving it seemingly out of the blue without making any demands of the horse.


The basis for genuine liberty play

This pattern is largely repeated throughout the first four sessions and during the frequent times that we return to the contemplation activity, Vicki and I use the opportunity to glean as much from Martín about his approach as he is able to tell us in the time available. The fifth session starts precisely where all of the others have: seated on the ground in contemplation. This time we are seated next to a water trough under a shelter in a smallish open enclosure in the corner of the large field which serves our geldings as home. In the shade it is warm but we eagerly turn to it for relief from the naked sun. In the hot, humid circumstances contemplation seems to be an excellent idea. It is then that the magic begins. To give you some idea of the type of breakthrough which can occur when employing Martín Contreras’ approach, I am providing a fairly detailed description of what transpired next. If you prefer to skip the step-by-step description which follows, just jump to the section entitled So what actually happened? below.

Fainelli approaching Martín under the shelter

Fainelli approaching Martín under the shelter

First Farinelli joins us under the shelter ostensibly to have a drink, although his water intake is so limited that I suspect it is as much a form of displacement behaviour as his usual approach to us through grazing during the previous four sessions. Martín raises the question of safety. Vicki and I are seated on the ground and Farinelli is so close as to tower over us. Are we concerned? No, we smile. Farinelli knows where we are and is keen not to harm us. Rather than backing out after drinking, the gelding chooses to cross between Vicki and myself in order to leave via the side of the shelter to his left. Because this would bring him in what might be uncomfortably close proximity to Martín, Vicki stands up and guides him around us. Farinelli moves away and starts to graze at the edge of the enclosure. After a few minutes Martín stands up, engages in the mirroring activity with the horse, gives him a treat and walks away immediately. Farinelli returns to grazing within the small enclosure and the group continues to talk. A little later Martín repeats the mirroring activity, gives the horse another treat and leaves. Farinelli returns to grazing.



Shortly afterwards Farinelli approaches Martín with ears forward and a friendly attitude. After Martín gives him a treat, the horse searches him for more treats. Martín gently but determinedly attempts to herd him out, thereby introducing us to the fourth activity, herding, which essentially involves moving the horse away from the human without touching the creature. Because Farinelli does not respond, the human lays his hands on the horse but without applying any real pressure. Farinelli picks up on the energy, moves away to the edge of the enclosure and starts to graze again. A little later, Martín repeats the mirroring activity with Farinelli and leaves him to continue grazing and shortly afterwards the horse again approaches the human with ears forward and a friendly attitude. Again he receives a treat and again he attempts to search Martín for more treats. In response, the human again attempts to herd the horse away and yet again Farinelli fails to understand Martín’s gestures, with the result that the trainer feels the need to lay his hands on the horse again. Again Farinelli picks up on the energy communicated through Martín’s hands and moves away to resume grazing.

Farinelli again approaches Martín with ears forward and a friendly attitude. After Martín gives him a treat, the horse again searches him for more treats. The human again attempts to herd Farinelli away from him with gentle but determined gestures. Initially as puzzled as during Martín’s previous attempts, there is suddenly a visible breakthrough, which Vicki captures on camera. Farinelli begins to understand, which leads to the start of genuine communication between horse and human, and the gelding retreats as requested, this time heading out of the enclosure to continue grazing some way off in the field, while the group resumes its discussion.

The breakthrough - the beginnings of communication between Farinelli and Martín

The breakthrough – the beginnings of communication between Farinelli and Martín

Somewhat later Martín repeats the mirroring activity but this time out in the field and walks away immediately. Not long after Farinelli again approaches Martín in the enclosure with ears forward and a friendly attitude. Again Martín gives him a treat and again the horse tries to search his person for more. Just then Gulliver, who has been closely watching all of these proceedings, decides that it is worth his while to intervene. He enters the enclosure and lunges at Farinelli. Martín immediately intervenes and sends Gulliver out. Farinelli is visibly relieved and I sense that something profound has occurred. Martín turns back to Farinelli and motions him to leave.

Gulliver entering the enclosure en route to muscling in on Farinelli

Gulliver entering the enclosure en route to muscling in on Farinelli

This time Farinelli turns to me but I look away, raise the back of my hand to him and shy away from contact with him. Martín gently but emphatically guides the horse away from me with his hands. Then he directs Farinelli towards the entrance to the enclosure without touching him and the horse leaves as requested, moving fairly far off into the field. Has he returned to self-imposed isolation? The answer is not long coming. Within a few minutes Martín exits the enclosure. When he is a few steps outside it, Farinelli notices the human and moves towards him. Martín waits for Farinelli to approach him and, once he does so, turns back towards the entrance to the enclosure. The horse then follows the human into the enclosure. Back under the shelter, Martín turns towards him. Both creatures wait. Then slowly Farinelli approaches Martín again but this time does not attempt to touch him or search him for treats. Instead the horse is utterly soft and open to the human, who reciprocates and magic happens.

and magic happens…

farinelli-following-martin-1 farinelli-following-martin-2 farinellimartin-connection2


So what actually happened?

What we have here is the establishment of the close connection between horse and human which is essential for any liberty play to occur without the need to resort to tools or gadgets. Although this in itself is hugely meaningful, it is the process through which this occurs that is truly profound.

First of all, we need to bear in mind that the connection is achieved solely on the basis of the horse’s desire to be with the human. This connection occurs when the horse approaches the human of their own accord. This is absolutely vital, not only because it involves the horse exercising choice and its own free will, but also because the horse is then fully able to accept that, when they enter the domain of another creature higher up the pecking order, they may be required to comply with what that creature deems to be acceptable behaviour in the circumstances or to leave should they decline to do so. Horses are accustomed to this. It is what happens in a herd.

Secondly, when the human does show the horse what is acceptable, they do so with empathy. The human is firm but simultaneously gentle and considerate when “herding” the horse away. Yet I feel that this activity would be even more effective if indirect energy were to be employed, as horses instinctively understand such energy to be non-threatening (see the section entitled Pressure and energy below).

Thirdly, at no stage during the entire process is there ever any expectation on the part of the human. This is also true in those cases where the human approaches the horse. Rather than expecting the horse to mirror the human, it is the human who mirrors the horse, because the human is aware that they are entering the horse’s domain and, when doing so, need to comply with what the horse would deem to be acceptable behaviour.

Fourthly, throughout the process there is a continual interplay of energy between horse and human. Yet it is not just any type of energy. It is the energy of empathy, empowerment and joy on the part of the human and of a growing willingness to trust and take risks on the part of the horse, as the two species seek each other out and explore their shared universe of what is possible.

Finally, it is clear that this specific process between Martín Contreras and Farinelli is not a replicable method which can be employed with any other horse. While the overall approach and some of the activities could be the same or similar, the specifics of interaction between any other horse and human will be as unique as they are.


Pressure and energy

Looking back on these events, I reflect on the different ways horses and humans employ pressure and energy. We humans find it so easy to resort to a model of pressure and release irrespective of whether or not there is physical contact between horse and human. Yet horses have a very different approach to pressure and energy. They draw a sharp distinction between pressure applied through physical contact, which they instinctively resist at least initially and then may yield to reluctantly, and the direction of energy towards them usually in the absence of physical contact, to which they are instinctively inclined to yield readily. It is a distinction which many, if not most, of us humans almost inexplicably refuse to accept. Why?

My observations of horses in herds (true, they are herds in captivity but where else do we encounter these difficulties than in captivity?) reveal that horses also draw a distinction between energy which is directed towards them, on the one hand, and energy which indirectly affects them, on the other. Direct energy is what we often see in so-called “dominant” horses (probably the product of human error more than anything else). They tend to chase other horses away from them, for instance, in situations of perceived competition for resources such as feed. A similar type of energy may also be seen in one horse pursuing another because they have decided that the other horse has to become their “friend”. The horse on the receiving end of direct energy feels threatened because the energy is directed at them.

Indirect energy is most typically employed by horses simply acting in accordance with their current position in the pecking order in a herd. Such a horse wishes to move from one place to another, for instance, a feed station, and any horse in the way that is lower down the pecking order, senses this indirect energy and simply moves out of the way. In a situation in which such indirect energy is employed, any horse yielding to it does not feel threatened, recognising that energy for what it is, nothing other than that of a horse with a superior hierarchical standing in the herd.

I frequently ask myself how much more effective communication between horse and human would be if we were to acknowledge the horse’s different approach to pressure and energy, and to act accordingly? A more detailed discussion of these matters may be found in my paper entitled Yielding to Pressure: the Reality of the Myth, which may be found here: http://horsesandhumans.com/documents/yielding-to-pressure.pdf. It is a work in progress and is scheduled for further editing in the new year.


And now … liberty training, work or play?

Within five hours of interaction Martín Contreras has managed to establish the three factors which are essential for any liberty play involving interaction between a horse and a human without the use of instruments of coercion: contact, communication and a connection based on trust and the horse’s acknowledgement of the human’s ability to offer them dependability, safety and joy. A horse will seek the company of any human who can offer them this, as Farinelli showed Martín and our horses demonstrate to us each and every day when we arrive to spend time with them.

The question now arises as to how we can utilise this firm basis to move on to liberty play. Before answering this, it is perhaps opportune to explain why I prefer to refer to “play” rather than “work”. The differentiation may seem to be merely semantic at first glance, yet if we dig deeper it becomes clear that the difference in terminology reflects a profound difference in approach. “Work” is a term humans frequently employ to denote meaningful interaction between the species for what are essentially recreational purposes, which includes sport to the very highest level. As such, this type of interaction soon comes to be viewed as a duty on the part of the horse rather than a celebration of the joy which is so indispensable to spontaneous interaction between horse and human. To this extent it actually denies any joy and, by doing so, becomes self-defeating. If liberty “work” is a duty, why would a horse want to do it? And if liberty is to be precisely that, a voluntary act on the part of both species, then surely it should embody joy? And does not the term, “play”, express this more emphatically than “work”?


Unison and magnetic

According to Martín Contreras, experience has shown that, when his approach is adopted, at a certain point a magnetic connection will develop between horse and human, and another two types of interaction will spontaneously occur between the species. The first is when a horse begins to follow the human, as Farinelli did, or to accompany them at their side. This is when we have the beginnings of voluntary “movement in unison”, without which there can be no genuine play with a horse at liberty. This type of interaction exploits two of the natural inclinations of a horse, as alluded to above, namely, to move away from that which moves towards them and to move towards that which moves away from them. Moving in unison is the activity in which human presence is absolutely vital as expressed through their energy and intent. Without such presence the human is impotent and consequently has to rely on tools and gadgets to make the horse do or omit to do anything.

As the relationship between horse and human develops, the interaction can take the form of “magnetic games”. In this case the human encourages the horse to leave them, allowing them to decide whether or not they wish to return to their human. The more magnetic the relationship, the more likely this is to occur. And it is then that we can truly talk about genuine liberty play between horse and human.

Martín Contreras at play with Barichara at liberty

In his notes Martin sets out various tips for communication with horses involved in these activities. From what I can gather from these notes, if there is any training involved, it is the human who is the primary trainee and not the horse. Indeed, the training of the horse appears to be confined to allowing them to understand human communication as opposed to learning conditioned routines. This approach is self-evident if the true purpose of liberty play is to encourage free, spontaneous interaction between horse and human, as opposed to the denial of such interaction by confining the horse’s movements to the narrow boundaries of what may be conditioned behaviour secured through positive reinforcement at best, or restricted movement secured through the use of force or the threat of it at worst. The only question that remains for us to answer is which approach we would prefer for ourselves and our horses. Like the horse enjoying genuine liberty, we too have a choice!



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4 Responses to “The Power of Being with Horses at Liberty”

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    Best blog ever. Work vs Play is great, so is all the rest. So profound.


  2. Kerry skinner says:

    I cannot travel to see Caroline Resnick at present due to family commitments but I am keen to train my horses with her methods & someone such as Martin would be fantastic.. how do I find someone who can come to Cornwall to help me?
    Thank you

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Kerry

      As far as I know, Linda Salinas, who is a certified trainer in the Carolyn Resnick method, regularly gives clinics in the UK. Usually, it is the human who requires training and not so much the horse, so you may be interested in attending one of them.

      You can find Linda at http://www.lindajsalinas.com. All the best!

      Be well!

  3. Jocelyn Grey says:

    I can’t begin to explain how much the information and videos in this blog have impacted me. There is so much about it that is similar to how I spend my time with my horses. We don’t interact quite like this (the exercises shown in the videos) but it definitely describes my time with them. I go out and sit with them in their field or their winter paddock. They come to me and we play in less active ways but they come. In their summer field I will appear and they all look then return to grazing. I will zig zag over to them and begin in a bent over position to pull pieces of grass with them grazing next to me. They come over one by one to see what I am getting from the earth and then go back to grazing in their own space. When the herd of 3 moves to another location I walk along with them and just hang with them. If they pop their heads up to look at something, I look with them. I will sit on the ground and they will come over and snooze next to me. I have one that stands directly over where I am sitting. He will rest his mouth on the top of my head and I can feel his head getting heavier and heavier on mine. I follow them, they follow me. Some days when they are up by the back of the barn I will invite them to walk with me down to the lower field. They look at me inquisitively and then they follow. Their choice. I am telling you all this because I am so excited to have someone who is interacting with horses the same way or similar to what I am doing. To have someone that understands and practices the same or similar Liberty activities that I could share stories with. Wow! I have been struggling to figure out what “At Liberty” really means when there are times when you have to get them to cooperate in things they may not want to such as hoof trimming, vet visits, etc and this is when it seems to be a grey area for me. I think the love I feel for them helps also. They feel the genuine caring and respond to it. I have a dominant horse who chases my old gelding and sometimes I stand in his way and forbid it. My old gelding looks to me for protection sometimes. I ensure he has water and food and he will come and stand almost behind me for protection. He follows me when I am in with them and he loves to play. It’s more about picking things up, knocking things over and opening and closing doors. All things he comes up with himself. I have had him since he was born 29 years ago this April. We used to play hide and seek together It was such fun. Thank you so much for this blog. It makes my heart sing to see like-people interacting in the same way I do with my horses and not demanding of them to “work”. To have people that appreciate the value of Liberty work and not be critical of those of us who do not wish to ride them but rather cohabitate and connect with them from the ground is so exciting for me and makes my heart sing.