How do I start freedom based groundwork with horses?
Updated: Dec 1, 2021
What does 'freedom based' mean?
Freedom based training is a form of horsemanship where the horse is literally free, at all times. There are no halters or ropes attached to control or steer movement of the horse. It also means that there is never punishment, especially not for not participating. If the horses chooses to walk away its his free choice to do so.
The best way to really be “free” is when the horse doesn’t need to be enclosed in a arena first and brought there by halter. I know this is not a natural given in the most horse accommodations. But you can always stay in the field and work there where the horse has water, food, shelter and his herd.
For example, Damiro lives in a big open space attached to a paddock paradise and sand arena. I don’t have to take him out there but just invite him into the arena, freely. We close the gate though, with his approval, because the other horses would come into the arena as well and Damiro tends to ‘defend his resources’, which is me with the treats :).
But even if you have to get your horse out of the field, you can clearly see if hes willing to come with you or would rather stay in the field, which is a choice that should be respected, too.
And lastly, the horses needs should be fulfilled in terms of food, water and shelter but also social contact and energy level like on hot days. We don’t want to work with a horse that feels uncomfortable and has his attention on his natural needs instead of working with us. Same thing for recovering or sick horses.
Once a freedom based relationship is established you know exactly when your horse is okay with something and when not and you can go wherever you two want to. Of course you can start freedom based riding as well, if your horse is healthy and strong enough (and also willing).
Why should I work freedom based with my horse?
Working freely does a lot for you and your horse, both mentally and physically, but especially for your relationship. For free work we use absolutely no punishment and no 'pressure and release' (negative reinforcers), but we use positive reinforcers, a method from the teaching theories of psychology. Scientifically speaking, this is the fastest, most effective, friendliest and most sustainable way of learning.
Through rewarding with food, the horse makes positive connections in its brain linked to the behavior and the situation experienced. This is a chemical, unconscious, reliable and repeatable process that can be used for all behaviors, emotions and situations. Also for previous negative or even traumatic experiences.
A horse that has had a negative experience in the past and often shows behavior that was rewarding at the time (flight from an object = reward > the trigger disappears, or stop while riding, after being kicked too hard = reward > human gives up and pain disappears), can learn how to deal with the particular trigger again, in a way that we reward and thus confirm in the brain.
This works very well for horses that, for example, clearly show when they are about to use a flight or fight pattern. But also for horses that have completely shut themselves off and no longer allow anyone near them or show no reaction and interaction at all. These horses have withdrawn so much into their negative emotions that punishment and threat no longer trigger them and the classic methods of 'pressure and release' (for example a bit that pulls) no longer show any effect.
In contrast to threat (an external motivator: walk or you will be whipped), freedom based training makes use of a horse's intrinsic motivation. The horse is free to choose whether he wants to do something for a treat, then make a conscious decision from within: I will follow her because it pays off!
This 'paying', which at first is a small treat, becomes a pleasant emotion and the agreement: I feel good here!
The horse therefore learns not only to show a behavior that is beneficial to both, but also that it has control over itself and can influence its environment. This gives a huge boost of confidence and body awareness that so many horses lack. And this creates an upward spiral of positive emotions, for the horse as well as for the human.
Horse training becomes light and fun again!
How does it work?
Here is a small summary of my understanding and way of freedom based training and how I apply it. It is not a pre-made method that knows right and wrong an can be copied one to one, but more a personal choice and attitude about dealing with horses (and other animals). Everyone is free to give it his own interpretation so that it feels good for horse and person.
The basis: body language
Freedom based training is not much more than learning to understand and use each other's body language. That means human learns the language of the horse, communicates and it teaches the horse the language of human. And thus a partnership and relationship is created between two different species.
That also means that there is no miracle cure and quick fix. Every horse has to learn what we humans mean by our signals, they can't do that like that. And that takes a lot of patience, time and knowledge about how we as humans can explain something to the horse.
You can try though to communicate purely on the body language of the horse without teaching them ours. Natural horsemanship also uses this. And that is driving and pressure, stopping, turning away and giving way. Horses do this very subtly with their fine signals. Humans on the other hand, who are not horses and can't send these fine signals (your ears don't turn in different directions, do they?) have to use some more expressing, bigger, threatening signals, like swinging a rope or whip on the hindquarters.
We don't want that in free work. We use the body language of horses to make ourselves understandable through 'translator' signals that can be learned thanks to positive reinforcement. These signals are also called cues. These can be voice commands and gestures, as well as objects such as a target.
Pressure - how much is enough or to much?
And that includes the subject of pressure. Pressure isn't necessarily wrong or bad. Pressure is above all a scale: a fly that lands on the skin produces a very small amount of pressure, a tickle that would be nice to disappear. But pressure can also be the threat with the whip or even hitting with the whip.
While in all disciplines it is always said to have 'a fine hand', some forms of pressure, as weak as they can be, are still a threat and therefore 'too much' for my taste. Because even a small signal with a fine hand is ultimately just the smallest form of a threat and can escalate eventually.
For example, I can teach a horse to give way to the touch of a whip, but not from the threat "otherwise the whip will hit your butt a bit harder", but from a cue: "I have the first muscle tension when the tip of the whip (or target or finger) touched the skin very softly, already rewarded with a click and a treat. This is how the horse learned: aha! touch=movement=reward and never made a negative experience as in no reactions follows a hit.
The pressure during free work is therefore always as low as possible, its more a cue than pressure at all. What becomes much more important, is the timing.
Now imagine how you can teach a horse to step forward, if you don't use the threat of the whip. Exactly, not from behind and not steering, not as in "away from something", but through following and "towards something". Which, by the way, can also be a very nice attitude to life ;)
Click and treat
Unfortunately, food reward and hand-feeding still has a bad image among many equestrians and there is a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice about why you shouldn't do it.
I can assure you: they are all not true!
Food is the most powerful motivator for all living things. Why wouldn't you want to use it? Because then you just 'bribe' your horse?
I already explained above that this is not the case, but even if it were, would you rather choose threat and force than harmless treats?
And as long as your horse gets enough to eat during the day and can always choose to participate, you don't have to worry about bribery or dependency. Often enough, even though you have food in your hand, your horse will say no to you if he's allowed to. And often enough you will see how your horse's pleasure and fun for life will grow during positive reinforcement training.
However, there are a few things to consider about the subject of food reward.
This is also the best way to begin freedom based training: learn not to beg.
For this, first reward your horse a lot of times for: doing nothing.
Namely to not search with his nose in your pockets, come closer and closer or even nibble and bite.
You click and reward (timing!) ONLY if your horse doesn't 'bother you' for a while (begin short like 0,001 seconds, increase time between wanted behavior and treat).
You can also experiment with the quality of the treats. If your horse is crazy about food, just try it with hay or grass pellets (and make sure your horse has 24/7 access to low-sugar hay).
Are there other ways to train without using treats?
Yes! An important part of free work is the smelling game with horses. However, this is not a form of 'training' but an addition to the life of horses as in enrichment.
Horses can smell extremely well and scent is an important part of their natural life, which unfortunately has been underestimated and ignored since domestication and stalling in traditional stables.
Smelling is therefore also a form of communication, exploring the world and self-regulation.
So you can enrich your horse's living environment with objects, minerals and scent! But also as a session in the arena, 'smelling' offers a nice variety and a basis for especially insecure and introverted horses. Forget the classic "de-spooking" and better let your horse smell & explore and track!
You can read more about this in a following article.
Video: 5 basic exercises
In the video below I filmed and explained 5 basic exercises with Damiro and me.
The exercises are:
- follow and halt
- backing up
- gait changes
- trick training
Please note that I have only been working with Damiro since June 2020 and that Damiro is a horse with traumatic experiences. Every horse has a different progress and needs more or less time for a certain exercises. It is important how you respond to it as a trainer and what goals you set yourself.
This is my first video ever and I'm still at the very beginning of this project. But it really is a heart project for me and I do it with great pleasure and passion. Do you have tips, advice or questions? Don't hesitate to get in touch with me! I am also super grateful for any kind of support, whether with like & share, comments or a donation for a coffee to keep writing energetically :)