Nothing will ever replace my childhood daydreams of galloping my horse down the beach without a saddle or bridle, just like Alec Ramsey and “Black” in the first of “The Black Stallion” Series by Walter Farley. When I grew into a stupidly brave teenager I even went so far as to attempt to jump my Young Rider event horse Wesley bareback and bridleless. A sweet-tempered gentleman and a fantastic jumper, Wesley carried me over the giant Swedish oxer safely. However, looking back on my daring feat, I would have to consider it to be one of the more reckless moments of my childhood (and for a girl who grew up in Eventing, that is saying something).
For most riders, liberty work may seem like a daunting, if not dangerous task. For a select few however, riding bareback and bridleless is not a child’s fantasy but a very tangible reality. Robin Gates beautifully defined equestrian liberty training when she effused, “At liberty, in a free environment, unrestrained, with the absence of tack, a bond is created through a series of companionship interactions that are naturally enjoyable to the horse. This bond is the key to a magical relationship with your horse.”
Equestrians have been unlocking the secrets of the bond between horse and rider for centuries. Indeed, it is often this mutual understanding of trust and partnership that riders seek to build with a horse of their own.
In the United States, liberty training has primarily been popularized in the western disciplines. Stacy Westfall demonstrated an unshakeable bond with her horse Whizard’s Baby Doll with a breathtaking reining performance at Quarter Horse Congress in 2006. Competitors like Stacy have shown liberty training is nothing short of awe inspiring.
Another example from the western discipline is the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program, which has promoted the advantages of liberty work with horses for more than 30 years. Pat and Linda Parelli can often be found demonstrating the work that can be accomplished, if the rider is patient and the horse is willing, without the need for tack or equipment. Like Pat has said, “The more you use the reins, the less they use their brains.”
Recently, the idea of liberty training has gained momentum abroad in the English disciplines. New Zealand free rider Alycia Burton acquired international attention when she started breaking jumping records bareback and bridleless on her Palomino Paint Classic Goldrush (or Banjo, as he is known around the barn).
While more riders across all disciplines are seeing the allure of liberty training, the real question is whether riding without a saddle and bridle is something any amateur rider can learn to do with their horse, or if it’s a skill best left to the professionals?
An event rider at heart, I always considered the Long Format Three-Day Horse Trials to be the ultimate test of horse and rider. However, looking at photographs of Alycia and Banjo jumping around the CIC**** Cross Country course at the Sydney International Equestrian Center with nothing more than a neck strap, I realized the partnership I have with my horse is not predicated by how high I can jump, or how fast I can ride, or how many ribbons I win, but by how well my horse and I communicate. I firmly believe that any equestrian would agree that it is always possible, and more importantly beneficial, for a rider to build a closer, more connected relationship with their horse. Along that line of thinking I personally challenged myself to explore liberty work with my own horses and see what progress, if any, could be made.
Over the next months, I will be writing a series about liberty training. This will include both my personal experiences as well as contributions by professionals who have utilized this technique successfully. I hope to safely bridge the gap between what the average rider can do at home with their own horse and the astonishing accomplishments of professional riders that specialize in liberty training. At the end of this series it will be up to readers to decide for themselves if riding bareback and bridleless is a silly idea best left to others, or whether it might be something to integrate into their own program.