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What Is Force-Free Horsemanship?

I practice Force-Free Horsemanship.

Today I want to talk a bit about what Force-Free means to me.

Force-free, to me, means without coercion, and without force.

"Force" being the use of aversives that give the horse no choice to comply. Either via continuous application, or intensive application thereof,

and "coercion", being the use of appetitives that are so strong that the horse will put aside concerns and endure discomforts to get it

In other words, if we’re using a constant, or a high level of pressure or “energy” to get a horse to do a behaviour, and only give relief when the animal does the behaviour, without opportunity for the horse to leave the situation, then that constitutes as force. There’s no choice but to comply if the horse wants to avoid the aversive

On the other hand, let’s say, as our reinforcer of choice we’re using high value foods, such as apples, molasses cookies, sweet treats etc. which the horse really wants, and doesn’t usually get. If we are training in an environment lacking enrichment, which will cause the horse to look for any sort of enrichment it can find, even if the training is not necessarily comfortable. Training a hungry horse using food, or even withholding affection, freedom or separating the horse from friends, not allowing them to experience said things until they comply.

That is going to cause the horse to put up with much more than it normally would because they badly want to get these desirable things.

All of these restrict the choices a horse can make, and thus will create compliance. However, I don’t want compliance. I want willingness, enthusiasm, and for the horse to choose to take part in their education despite other options.

So, force-free for me means, I am giving the horse full freedom of choice as much as possible, and I am constantly working towards more of that. This means, that I avoid all of the things mentioned above, and whenever I can, I implement as many of the following into my training as possible:

  • Ensure my horse has had food & water prior to training

  • Ensure my horse has food & water access during training

  • Work in an open space, with access to enrichment and friends.

  • Work at liberty, without physical and mental restrictions.

  • Putting the same food I use to reinforce behaviours, freely accessible for the horse in the training space

  • Ensuring there are no negative consequences for the horse for disengaging during training

  • Paying close attention to body language and facial expressions, to ensure my horse is willing and comfortable at all times.

  • Teaching start and

stop buttons, which give the horse further communication to start and stop a behaviour or training.

It also means I am continuing to educate myself, refine my training, improving the horse’s environment & our space to allow more freedom and choices for the horses.

Now sometimes we do have to restrict choices for our horses. If there are safety concerns, health concerns, or if there are simply circumstances that do not allow for us to give full freedom of choice, it is okay to do so. We are all subject to the laws of life, and perfection does not exist.

However, my philosophy is that this should not stop us to practice a force-free approach whenever we can. And continuously improving ourselves and our way to allow for true choice.

It’s not easy, but the benefits are immense. Because when your horse does truly wants to work with you despite having all the options of not needing to, it’s incredibly rewarding, and it really does build a connection like none other.💜

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