Alice MacGillivray, PhD, is author of “Riding Horseback in Purple” written for “women of age” who maybe considering horse ownership – first timers and re-riders alike.  Alice guides readers through scenarios that help dissect the reality of horse ownership from our childhood fantasies. An expert in adult learning, Alice explores ways we connect with horses as leaders, care givers and riding partners. A great read for casual and professional WARHorses who want to make their horse purchase the start of a long, fulfilled partnership.

Alice shares her experience working with her horse, Bocina, at liberty and explains how this type of training can strengthen the bond between you and your horse.


Communicating with Your Horse

I hear from women who are trying to deepen two-way communication with their horses.  This post is about working with your horse at liberty.  I believe this is a very interesting way of bringing communication to a higher level.

In my case, I suspect I miss clues from my horse because I didn’t get a horse until I was in my late 50s.  I have always loved animals.  I’ve spent considerable time learning how to interpret the behaviors and body language of animals.  But those animals were mostly dogs and cats.  Horses are usually more subtle.   So I am catching up.  But I’ve heard this same goal of deeper communication from women who spent a lot of time with horses as children or teens.  That story is often different, and reads something like: “I rode a lot, and we used to go out on trails, and jump, and go to some shows.  But I didn’t really think much about communication or relationship.  I just got on and rode.”

Liberty work with horses basically means semi-structured time with your horse, without using tack.  Sometimes people carry a crop or longe whip, but there is no saddle, bridle, cavesson, halter, rope, etc.   People who do liberty demonstrations or liberty coaching often tell stories something like this: “I have ridden for years, and am comfortable working with horses.  But I started to realize the horses might simply be obeying me.  They really had very few choices.  And I wasn’t even sure what they wanted to do.  At liberty, they can just walk away from the interactions.  You have a responsibility to be respectful and interesting and collaborative.  It’s very different.”

In my view, having a good coach is important.  My work with Heather Nelson provides an example.  My horse—a Norwegian Fjord mare named Bocina—is food-obsessed.  It seems the world essentially disappears for her when she has a chance to eat fresh grass.  At the time of this particular liberty workshop, I had never felt more important than grass to my mare.  So I asked Heather if we could start the session on grass.  There was a large field (at a friend’s farm) opening into a sand riding ring.

For some time (I am guessing 15-20 minutes) Heather gave me guidance about what to do.  Sometimes I walked up to her and greeted her—holding my hand out and touching her nose.  Sometimes I simply stood.  Sometimes I wandered off to “do my own grazing.”  Sometimes I pushed her with gentle energy—maybe 20 feet or so—and then let her graze again.  I could tell that eventually Heather thought Bocina might be ready for some work in the ring.  And I had the same feeling.  So I moved up beside her and “trotted” across the field into the ring.  We stopped beside each other centre ring to a round of applause.  It was such a surprise for everyone that none of the video cameras were rolling.

I do have a more recent video from another of Heather’s clinics.  Bocina is much less centred and focused in this video, but I still find it fascinating.  The visuals follow Bocina.  Turn the sound on, and you will hear what Heather is asking me to do.  As I recall, my body language was pretty subtle.  I find it helpful to watch this video as a “bystander.”

You will hear that—at times—Heather gives me directions, which I follow.  Some will be obvious, such as “Think of the yield through the shoulder,” when I push her shoulder back towards the rail, or “push her forward a little,” when I get her moving from the corner.  Others are more subtle, such as “Here, start to lift her up [shifting weight from forelegs to hind] a little bit.”

Why do I care about liberty work?  For at least two reasons.  It is an amazing way to learn to “speak horse,” (the topic of chapter 9 in Riding Horseback in Purple) and to get instant feedback from Bocina about how well I’m doing.  In that chapter, I share a quote from “Dressage with Mind, Body, and Soul” by Linda Tellington-Jones.  She says that you want your horse to act like “an intelligent, independent being who is capable of taking care of you in certain situations, not just vice versa.”

Another reason I love liberty work is that it is wonderful to have a horse come to you and work with you because they want to spend time with you.  Not because you put on a halter and rope and led them to an activity you’ve designed.

Alice MacGillivray and Bocina working at liberty

I also find liberty work helps me to become more aware of my energy.  In our western culture, we tend to ignore the concept of energy.  I don’t know how to explain it in scientific terms, but we affect the people and domestic animals and probably wild animals around us through the nature of the energy we emit.  If we acknowledge the subtle influences we have, it is a great first step towards better relationships in our lives and societies.

Photography Courtesy: Heather Nelson

Video Courtesy: Kerry Marcus








Alice MacGillivray, “Riding Horseback in Purple” is available on

You will also enjoy reading Alice’s advice for WARHorses considering their first/next horse purchase.

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