Liberty Lesson with Jess Roberts

As a child I obsessed over the Black Stallion movie. My favorite parts were the sweeping running shots of Alec and the Black on the desert island, lost in the thrill and joy of the gallop. I was utterly in love with the idea of running alongside a horse, nothing to hold them back but them choosing to be alongside me on a huge beach with sparkling water in the distance. It seemed like the most ideal fairytale.

Throughout my many adventures with horses I have always strived to make a tangible connection. I would go out into the pastures and simply be with the horses. In my riding lessons I would take forever grooming, talking and observing the entire time. The magic of the curry comb would cause the best lip wiggles known to man, and I enjoyed finding each horse’s favorite itchy spot. I would speak low and soft, noticing how they would react to the tone of my voice.

None of this has changed. As I grow older, I grow more observant and more aware of the energy I bring to the conversation. Even if I don’t know the horse I’m working with, I try to see what I can bring to the table for that horse in the moment, and I want to get better at doing this with every horse I meet.

It can be a challenge to make a swift connection with a horse. We speak different languages, have different energies, and different wants or needs. If I can learn to adjust myself to meet them where they are, then we can start something good. As a perennial lesson kid, I feel this is so important for my growth as an equestrian. I don’t need to own a horse to have a good relationship- but I need to be faster to learn and listen. I need to grow more adjustable and malleable in these conversations. 

When I signed up for a liberty lesson with Jess Roberts based in Franktown, CO, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to learn from her. I just knew I wanted something that I couldn’t put into words. I had been following her on Instagram for some time and had listened to her interview with Mosie Trewet on the podcast In The Spirit of The Horse. I had a good feeling bubbling inside me as I drove down to her barn on that cold February morning. 

I arrived at the barn and made my way over to the indoor arena where Jess gave me a warm welcome. I was there a bit early and was able to see her work with a young filly who had just arrived to the barn that weekend. Jess’s prerogative was to establish a place of trust and friendship first. As she walked with the filly, she described her process out loud to the handful of onlookers. The goal is to walk with the horse and establish trust, a friendship. If you ask the horse to do something for you with no trust, that relationship is already on slippery terrain. She used this metaphor: if you ask a stranger at the grocery store to carry your groceries for you, they will react one of two ways, either positively or negatively. However, if the reaction is positive, they likely don’t know why they are carrying the groceries for you. There’s no exchange for the stranger, no reason for them to continue carrying the groceries for you. If the relationship is one-sided, it goes sour. But, if you are friends, they will happily carry your groceries for you as you are asking from a place of trust and safety. There’s already an exchange of energy and relationship. But in the same token if you don’t feed into that friendship and carry your friend’s groceries for them too, then they will likely get fed up with you too. It’s all about establishing that friendship and return of energy.

I was excited and nervous and very much ready to dive in at this point. Jess asked me what I wanted to learn from her, why I was there. It took me a minute to think about this. “I want to focus on energy and connection. As someone who doesn’t own a horse, I want to work on ways I can connect with horses more quickly.” Jess said, “I have the perfect horse for you, come with me!” and whisked me outside to meet her beautiful chestnut paint mare, Poppy. Jess told me that Poppy is sensitive and will show you quickly if you are giving the right things, or she won’t connect.

The first thing Jess taught me was called a harmony walk. The purpose of this harmony walk is to cultivate a safe space for you and the horse, like walking with a friend. To establish this, you walk just slightly behind the horse’s head, with a gentle downward pressure on the leadline, very light, if their head is raised to encourage them to lower it. Breathe deep. It’s basically like a walking yoga pose to me. I took the leadline and stepped into it, softening my energy bubble with my breath. Poppy knows the harmony walk, and was invited in by my energy, and settled right in. At one point she neighed for her friends, but with a light ask of the leadline I invited her to return to me. Jess praised me on this subtle correction and told me that Poppy tends to be herd bound, and if a correction isn’t made on time she starts to spin and is difficult to get back from that point. 

We did the harmony walk in both directions while Jess talked me through her process and thoughts. Then she showed me how to do her liberty walk, and I had a revelation. “Our language as people is very vertical. But horses are horizontal and they use their whole length to speak.” DUH. Why had I never really thought about that? It’s like I’ve been doing it the whole time but actually hearing it out loud really resonated with me. Sometimes the simple things are the ones we overlook. The liberty walk utilizes a dressage whip as a tool to communicate horizontally, as a wall almost. A flick behind you acts like a tail to ask to move forward, and moving it up and forward acts like a nose to signal a stop. You walk shoulder to shoulder with the horse as a herd member, and use your breath and body to ask for them to match pace with you.

And so we began. I set out on a circle, matching my pace to Poppy’s. Then I increased my stride, and lifted the whip slightly behind me to encourage her to match me. When I was ready to stop, I half-halted my shoulders back, planted my feet, and lifted the whip forward and up. It took a few tries to really get the pace and method in my body, but when I got it Poppy stopped with her front feet matching my front feet exactly! Jess stepped over to us and talked me through a few pointers, and then she took the leadrope and draped it over Poppy’s withers. “Let’s try it at liberty.”

Liberty walk with Poppy. VC Jess Roberts

We picked up the pace this time, and both stepped forward into a jog. The energy I felt from her resonated with “this is good, this feels like home” which totally blew my mind. It distracted me so much that I didn’t effectively prepare for the stop. We negotiated for a half circle while I remembered the dance step I needed next, and she stopped a bit off. We did it again a few times and I got progressively better at it, with solid stops. At the end of the lesson, Poppy showed off her Spanish walk and Jess taught me how to ask her for it, such fun!

I don’t really know how to put into words the depth of connection, excitement, peace, and home I felt during this lesson. I walked away hungry for more and I know that I have found a piece of my puzzle I want to fit in my heart. Admittedly, I was surprised when my eyes welled up with tears on the way home from this revelation. It’s as if my heart has been longing for a home it could not find until now. The emotional and energetic life of horses is what drew me to them in the first place, and I cannot wait to cultivate this connection more strongly. It’s time to open up more, listen carefully, and be vulnerable in my pursuit of home.

Love with a fuller heart, Connie

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