Creating balance between Liberty and ridden work

Can you ride the same horse that you play with at liberty?  Is riding going to damage the partnership?  How can you combine the two styles and how do you introduce them?

Extra is my liberty horse and she gallops around me with her red mane whipping and tail like a ball of fire chasing her down the field.  She prances up to me snorting and blowing.  Everything about this dragon of a horse screams “freedom.”

Extra is also my riding horse and when we are practicing dressage she rocks back on her haunches with her withers high, her neck arched into the contact of the bridle.  She is balanced and safely supporting me in the saddle.

Can they possibly be the same horse?

I say HELL YAH!  And so does Extra. But originally I was very confused about combining the two styles.

In my liberty work I was very focused on developing my friendship with Extra and giving her the choice to choose her involvement in our schooling sessions.  Under tack there are far less options for her to have a voice in the session so I was nervous that the riding would wreck our relationship.

Extra & Heather dressage

Extra & Heather dressage

Extra has been very clear that she prefers liberty training to riding.  She demonstrates this by running into the arena for her liberty sessions and running right back out when I cart my saddle out of the tack room.  I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what she prefers doing.  However, I would rather play games and eat cookies than do aerobics as well.

Unfortunately Extra’s waist line (if you can find it) was suffering greatly under the play games and eat cookies regime.  You need only to watch my Christmas training session video to see the effects of a steady diet of liberty.  So riding is back on.  I could chase Extra around to get her fit, but then I would have to run around lots too.  Uhm…riders aren’t known for their ribbons in track and field. That’s why we get made fun of in the Olympics.

It seemed like riding and liberty would cancel each other out.  But au contraire, the styles compliment each other.

If you want to see a horse who has strongly benefited from combining liberty on the ground, tackless riding and conventional riding then check out Maddie and Indy’s video.


I want to ride a horse that I can trust, a horse that responds to me, can carry me easily and wants to be around me.  I’m not interested in getting on a 1 ton animal that I have no relationship with.  Been there done that.  I’ve got the injuries to prove it.

Currently there aren’t a lot of competitions or clinics out there for liberty fanatics.  And if you want to gallop cross country and jump or explore the mountains then horseback is a great way to do it.  Yes, you could run alongside your horse and do all of these things, but I think we covered the average horse person and the “running” thing already.  (If Lacey’s person, Danna, is reading this she is thinking “but I love running!”  Yes, Danna, but you are a rare bird in the horse world.)  So riding is good!

My students and I practice liberty and ride too.  We have no set schedule for this.  Sometimes we do only liberty.  Sometimes we tack up and ride the whole sessions.  At other times we play at liberty, then ride in a session, or we ride and then untack and play at liberty.

If you are new to liberty and you want a great relationship then do more liberty than riding for awhile.  If you have an amazing relationship and you really want to ride then ride, but don’t forget your liberty sessions because your horse loves to see you on the ground and to communicate through body language.

I haven’t noticed a dip in our friendship since I increased the ridden work with Extra.  We are still pals.  But I established a very strong foundation between us through our play time and our passive companionship time.  We are still doing that because it is a passion of mine and I believe that you need to always feed your relationship.

Liberty is going to help your riding horse develop greater balance, forward movement and collection if you use the right exercises.  Extra can canter and maintain a 10 metre circle around me at liberty.  Under saddle she isn’t there yet, but I can see her confidence in herself building.

There is a place for liberty in your work and there is also a space for riding.  Have fun combining them!

How you are currently balancing the two styles?  What concerns do you have about it?  Please write in the comments below.










Comments 11

  1. I find one of the real benefits of liberty work is when you focus on your energy, and how to use that for communication. That is totally transferable to mounted communication. Once the horse knows you are aware of your energy and where and when it is directed, they suddenly pay attention to it, rather than ignoring it, as they do when it is there in a non-communicative manner. Another crossover is in the five elements of a command. 1 Preparatory Command
    2 Angle
    3 Pressure
    4 Timed release
    5 Pattern
    All of these can be introduced or reinforced in the Round Pen. Patterns for correction of undesirable behaviour such as giving relief for the desired response and increasing the workload as a result of an undesirable response would be an example of this.

    1. Post

      Energy is the strongest form of communication that we have and the most powerful way to connect and convey messages! That’s an excellent note to remind everyone how well it transfers between the liberty and the riding.

      I’m not sure horses ever ignore our energy since they are so much more sensitive than us. I think they are always aware of it, but when we aren’t conscious of our energy then it can really confuse them.

      I prefer to use large spaces rather than round pens to train horses at liberty because I like them to have the opportunity to escape my influence, but if a round pen is the only area you can work at liberty (and for many facilities it is) then it’s a decent option.

  2. Hello,
    Thank you for sharing your love of horses. I am training and playing with my 5 year old gelding , at liberty and astride. I find the liberty training greatly enhances our mounted relationship. The more I introduce play time and new games and objects into our liberty training the more Half-Pint, my gelding, responds and is eager to play when we are mounted. It is really fun and exhilarating to be riding Half-Pint and know he is asking me,
    “and where are all the toys and obstacle courses to play with now, quit going in circles, let’s explore and do something new!”

    Again, thank you for the forum of sharing.
    all the best, corinne

    1. Post

      Hello Corinne,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences! Your work with obstacles is great for keeping Half-Pint in a curious mode during his work. You can really use those obstacles to ride around too for creating suppleness, bend and strength during mounted work. I like to use obstacles as targets too for young horses, as in “we need to trot to that ball over there!” or “it’s time to circle that pylon!”

      You can also join the Facebook group “Liberty Horse Lovers” for another place to share with everyone about liberty.

  3. Thank you for this blog. I am indeed very concerned with this issue because as you have said, and I have the same problem, my horse runs into the arena to play at liberty with my. He loves it so much. But the moment he sees the saddle he walks away from me and he moves when I want to get on his back. I’m concerned to damage our relationship and I ride the less I can but I feel guilty of getting on his back when he clearly says NO. I try to figure out how to make the ride time a pleasure for him but I don’t know how. He hates riding!!! I have get rid of the bit and now I ride him bitless but he still dislikes ridding time. Thank you Heather very interesting blog.

    1. Post

      Hi Maria! Have you checked out his saddle fit? I like to keep my rides very short as I’m introducing a horse to the riding part and I make them very easy. Then we work more as they get fitter and happier about it.

      A lot of horses believe that the riding is going to be way too much work because of past experiences. Bitless is a good idea. Using obstacles like Corinne suggested is a good plan.

      Something I’ve used was giving my mare a treat after mounting. She didn’t mind me getting on if it meant that she could have a treat immediately. If one of my students is having trouble with a horse standing still during mounting then we just practice the mounting. If the horse doesn’t stand like a rock you dismount and get back on. Usually this takes three times, but it depends on the horse. You can give a treat after he stands still and then you can sit there for a bit and either go for a short ride or even just dismount and go play at liberty.

      1. Hi Heather,
        Yes I have checked the saddle fit and also I give him a treat when I mount and after the ride and during the ride to teach him some things. But I think he is bored of ridding as he is 24 years old. I don´t work hard with him, most of the time I do supple exercises in walk and only a little of trot. Cantering is getting dificult for him.
        Thank you Heather!!!

        1. Post

          Hi Maria,
          You are probably right that at his age, he is likely unenthused about the riding. This probably isn’t an age thing, but more that he’s had riding in his past that he wasn’t a fan of and he’s not interested in changing his mind about it now. He still could though. My mare Maple took a long time to come around to liberty even. The other horses would run in the ring and she would either not bother to come in, or she would just come in to graze. Then one day it was as if the light switched on about it all and she loved joining and having fun.

          1. Yes Heather, I will keep trying to bring back the sparkle in his eyes while riding. THANK YOU! 😉

  4. Hi Heather!
    First of all I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time how much I enjoy your blogs and the videos on your site. But this time I just HAD to respond because it is a concern of mine, and in fact I have stopped riding completely for the time being while I work more on my relationship with my horse, with the hope that perhaps once there is more trust and respect – then he will be more willing when it comes to riding as well. And as for the waistline – hehe, well, he too has developed that problem. So thanks for this blog. I sure miss riding… 🙂

    1. Post

      Hi Naomi! Thanks for speaking up and joining the blog. There will be more willingness under saddle once the relationship is solid. It’s true that Extra will choose liberty over riding every time, but I’ve seen a marked improvement in her willingness under saddle and she just feels different. We are communicating more in the saddle now than ever before and we understand each other better.

      You can bring the riding back in any time you want, but keep it simple and mix it up! Heather

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