Liberty. Riding. Is there really a difference?

Liberty and Riding? The same thing? In most circles they’d be considered independent and unrelated. Liberty is generally practised as it’s own exercise, separate from anything else we might do with our horse. The answer to whether liberty and riding are the same thing depends entirely on what we think liberty means in the context of horsemanship.

So, What IS Liberty?

There are exercises touted as liberty that are tantamount to trick training. That is, the horse is taught to do something via cue through a repetitive training process. The word liberty is used because there is no physical connection between horse and handler. Handlers may employ tools, motions and sounds to cue the horse to the trained maneuver. Horses can be taught do to many amazing tricks and this has a high degree of entertainment value for audiences.

In a broader, more common sense, liberty is synonymous with freedom. The freedom to choose. And we would all agree that being taught how to do a trick and choosing our own path are two different things. Thus, true liberty is simply the horse doing what they already know how to do. When we watch a horse with their herd running freely in the pasture, we’re observing a horse at liberty. And in that liberty, the horse can choose to follow a leader.

It’s all in Nature

liberty with spud

Playing with Spud was so much fun. Nothing was more enjoyable for him. Click to watch the whole video. We were able to relate to each other in his language. That meant the world to him, and it showed.

When we watch a herd of horses moving together, observe a flock of birds in formation or a group of fish swimming, we’ll notice something they all have in common: they move as one. The leader doesn’t don’t use sticks and cues and tricks to get the others in the herd or flock to do what they want. No repetitive cue-based teaching is involved nor required.

They simply do it because it’s instinctive.
It’s entirely, 100%, natural.

This innate ability is predicated on instinctual communication. Horses and other animals employ techniques of communication that humans also intrinsically understand but are seldom consciously aware of. Those are: space, energy, empathy and presentation.

Liberty then, is a product of two things:

  1. The desire of the human to learn and practice the language of the horse, and,
  2. The desire of the horse to follow the human in the way they naturally would another horse.


It goes without saying that sharing a common language is necessary for functional communication. Consider two cultures meeting for the first time. Each one of them has a different spoken language. They can advance in their communication in several ways: one culture learns the other’s language, they learn each other’s, or they come up with an entirely new way of communicating.

The latter is most likely the most difficult, because both parties need to start from scratch to create and learn something. But that’s exactly what happens in the equine community. We’re taught methods of communicating with horses that might be close to how humans communicate with each other, but far removed from how horses naturally communicate.

Clearly, horses cannot speak nor understand human language. They do not have the vocal capabilities nor the language center in the brain required to parse the complexities of human speech. And we certainly don’t need to come up with a new language when the horse is already adept at one. So what does that leave us with?

One option. We master their language. And it’s not hard, because it’s a primal part of human communication, too.

We all agree that an understanding of the core language of the horse (which I need emphasize at this point, is not body language) would support our communication and thus riding. Perhaps this is one point in which schools of horsemanship diverge, simply because we need to make a choice in our primary style:

  • We choose to learn the language of the horse, or,
  • We work to teach the horse a cue-based language created by humans.

Liberty: A Pursuit

A functional and rewarding pursuit is learning the language of the horse and thus exploring and utilizing all the capabilities that nature has already granted us.

Liberty is that pursuit in action. Liberty begins with a commitment to the beliefs that:

  • The horse is exceptionally proficient in a language: that of the horse.
  • The horse can move in incredibly athletic ways without training.
  • The horse can follow with remarkable precision.

When we employ liberty, we capitalize on those facts. A fantastic aspect of viewing liberty in this light is that it puts the onus on us to not only learn horse, but to learn, practice and demonstrate exceptional leadership.

liberty in the riding - with Chip

When we commit to that path, our perception of the horses changes; it becomes elevated. We see horses not as a simple animal that needs to be trained, but as a conscious thinking, intelligent species with incredible capabilities. We feel an incredible connection to our horse because we are connected through their language. We are no longer constrained to using aids as controls to get the horse to do something.

What we do in liberty is entirely natural: a horse following another horse. And it is enjoyable, for both horse and human.

In liberty, the horse is a mirror of the human, because they choose it. They choose it because they enjoy the experience, it meets their needs, and provides them purpose.

Connecting the Dots

Liberty is an energetically powerful, athletic connection between human and horse. A connection where we present with clarity in order for our horse to follow us with precision. A connection that is independent of our position: be it in front of the horse, beside the horse or on their back.

Liberty, from the perspective of the horse, is simply this:
Pride in following with precision.

Liberty exercises are fundamentally important to riding, as this is the venue in which we create the required connection to horses that we need to be able to ride them. And when I say ride, I need to emphasize this is something we do with a horse, not something we do to a horse. When we ride, we simply continue to communicate the same way we do on the ground. We present ourselves in the same way. The horse follows in the same way.

Liberty can be considered a definition of the relationship we have with our horse. One that encapsulates everything we do with them, including riding. We can also think of liberty as a required component, or ever precursor to riding: a venue in which proficiency need be attained prior to a first ride. Liberty, if we define it within parameters of exceptional leadership married with precision followership, can be an integral part of riding, or maybe even a definition of.

Are riding and liberty the same thing, then? I’ll let you decide.

Scott Phillips

March 2023

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About admin

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

2 thoughts on “Liberty. Riding. Is there really a difference?

  1. Marjorie Phillips

    After reading this article I believe liberty and riding are one and the same. Liberty is about connection as is riding. You are in different positions, either on the ground or on the horse, in both you need to be “one with the horse.” A tall order. I also listened to the podcast. Thank you for the option of reading or listening. I hope these reminders will continue to come to my mailbox. As you know I don’t go to Facebook or Websites unless I am alerted by an email that there has been a post .

    1. admin Post author

      You’re exactly right. Our connection with a horse is not dependent on our position. Liberty. Leading. Driving. Riding. They all require the same relationship with the horse in order to be successful. If, in our journey with a horse, we take the time to ensure that our horse is confident and trusting in us in all positions, then everything we do out of the saddle supports what we do when we’re on their back. It’s a great way to start a colt. Thanks for your comments Marjorie!

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