After teaching her BLM mustang Stardust to watch her body language for cues and commands Sequim’s Marissa Steffen gradually taught her to work At Liberty, which means to respond to cues without the use of physical restraints, such as a halter with lead rope or bridle and reins. (Karen Griffiths/For Peninsula Daily News)

After teaching her BLM mustang Stardust to watch her body language for cues and commands Sequim’s Marissa Steffen gradually taught her to work At Liberty, which means to respond to cues without the use of physical restraints, such as a halter with lead rope or bridle and reins. (Karen Griffiths/For Peninsula Daily News)

HORSEPLAY: Trust, kindness are keys to training wild horses

TO QUOTE THE Glen Campbell song, “You Got to Try a Little Kindness” when training an unbroken or wild horse to willingly accept human touch and then respond to asked tasks.

“The first step in all training is to earn a horse’s trust and confidence in you,” said Marissa Steffen, 16.

Marissa’s training methods emphasize enduring connections with mustangs and, after basic training is down pat, so takes their training to a more advance point through At Liberty methods. More advanced training includes trick training, such as learning to bow, lay down and rear up.

In a herd, the horse’s main communication is through body language, which can be very subtle.

At Liberty training builds on that concept, asking the horse to pay attention to the trainer’s movements and cues, all the while building trust and a bond with your horse so that he or she WANTS to listen to you. At Liberty training teaches both horse and rider to communicate without the use of tack, such as a lead rope or reins, using stress-free and force-free methods.

“It’s important to learn how to read your horse’s body languages and queues, and to understand how to encourage desirable traits behaviors,” Marissa said.

“Mastering ground work training is essential before getting on and riding the horse, or trying At Liberty training” she continued. “All horses gain a far better understanding of what we expect from under saddle if we learn how to communicate with them on the ground.”

A bridle-less Stardust willing follows Marissa’s cues to walk, trot and lop around the arena. Her advanced At Liberty training includes tricks such as bowing, laying down and rearing on command. (Karen Griffiths/For Peninsula Daily News)

A bridle-less Stardust willing follows Marissa’s cues to walk, trot and lop around the arena. Her advanced At Liberty training includes tricks such as bowing, laying down and rearing on command. (Karen Griffiths/For Peninsula Daily News)

Marissa said a great place to start with groundwork is with the halter on to teach the horse to respond to pressure and release tasks.

These include pulling the lead rope straight down to encourage the horse to bend the head down, and releasing the pressure the moment the horse starts to comply, or moving away from pressure, by using your hand or a training pole, so you can ask the horse to leave your space. Always give lots of praise the moment your horse starts to respond and then moves away from the pressure.

“When you’ve got the basics down, meaning your horse is understanding and performing all the maneuvers correctly with a good loop in your lead rope, then you’re both ready to go At Liberty,” she said. “After that, if your horse is struggling with a maneuver, then go back to using the halter and lead rope to help him understand what’s being asked.”

She’s discovered the more fun you and your horse have together, the faster the sessions go.

“When beginning At Liberty training, start by asking little questions the horse can easily get correct, such as standing by your side and following you as you step forward, stop, and then step back a few steps,” she said. “And always praising your horse for the smallest tries.”

From there, it’s taking it slow to make sure your horse understands and follows your cues correctly before moving on to the next “ask,” such as following you in a circle. At first in a walk, then trotting and then jogging (requiring the trainer to jog, too).

Once each “ask” is mastered, then you can move on to teaching the horse a different move.

Again, the more fun you and your horse have together, the faster the sessions go.

Be gentle

When I was younger, and for years prior, breaking a horse was akin to breaking a its wild spirit by forcibly throwing a saddle and bridle on the horse and then sitting on the bucking, nervous, scared and sweaty horse until he tires out, calms down and becomes submissive — usually taking place within a few hours. I’m so glad mainstream horse training has steered away from those unforgiving horse methods and is now focused on gaining a bond with the horse so he willingly decides to follow what its trainer asks of him.

And who among us, be it human or animal, doesn’t respond better to kind, positive and encouraging words rather than harsh, critical and abusive words or actions?

Marissa mentioned the first steps of At Liberty work start with using a halter and lead rope to work on basic leading exercises such as walk, trot, stop, back, turns, moving side-to-side, both towards and away from you, all the while encouraging the horse to be quick in responding and engaged in what you’re asking. Of equal importance is to constantly praise even the smallest of movements in the right direction.

“You did not have to be an expert trainer to try these methods,” she said. “Learning together is absolutely the best way to build a long lasting and strong partnership.”

Marissa uses At Liberty training to instruct Freesia, 6, a Paisley Desert HMA Oregon BLM Mustang, to lift her left leg up. (Karen Griffiths/For Peninsula Daily News)

Marissa uses At Liberty training to instruct Freesia, 6, a Paisley Desert HMA Oregon BLM Mustang, to lift her left leg up. (Karen Griffiths/For Peninsula Daily News)

Everyone can use these training methods, she said. “They don’t require any special equipment or facilities; you do not need a round pen or arena. This training method can take place in the field or anywhere your horse can move around safely without any restrictions. However, the area must be secured with a fence, otherwise your horse may just exercise his free choice to leave and disappear over the horizon.”

And, training can even take place in the rain. With At Liberty training, the overall goal is to help your horse decide that hanging out and doing things with you is the preferred place to be.

Freedom

In At Liberty training she said it’s a matter of course that every once in a while, a mustang will break loose from the following the trainer around (after all, they aren’t wearing a halter or lead rope) and run around the arena in a quick burst of energy, as is to say, ‘Ha, ha, I’m free! You can’t catch me!”

She said while you may want to laugh at the horse’s antics, it’s key to, in essence, not to use harsh words or a type of punishment, just simply command the horse to keep running (and this is where training in a round-pen or small arena is helpful), making sure you are the one deciding which direction the horse should go and when he/she is allowed to speed up or slow down. After the horse has run around a bit, she said to ask him to slow down and come to you by facing the horse and getting in front of him, and then taking a step back.

If the horse ignores you, then push him forward to keep moving until he tires himself out a little more, and then use the same method of stepping in front of the horse, and then taking a step back, thus inviting him to come to you again.

It’s amazing how well this works! It’s the method I used to finally get my horses to not run away— and to actually walk up to me to get their halter put on — when out in the pasture. It did help that if they walked right up to me, I rewarded them treats.

With years of competing in Teens & Mustangs Challenges in Oregon and Washington under their belts, she and her older sister Sierra, 18, have started their own horse training business, Steffen Stampede (www.Steffen stampede.com). Younger sister Eliza Steffen, 10, also trains her own mustangs (I was very impressed when I saw Eliza ask her mustang to sit on a pile of smooth gravel — and he did it easily and willingly!) and will likely join the family business when older. Read more about the Steffen family in my Dec. 2022 column at https://www.peninsuladailynews.com/life/horseplay-the-steffen-family-is-all-in-for-the-mustangs/

Sierra recently received an exclusive invitation to show her Mustangs in the Rolex First Mustang Classic Challenge, held at the Kentucky Horse Park Sept. 13 -15, 2024. A $50,000 prize will be awarded to the Grand Champion.

She plans on bringing her two latest Mustang projects Dazzle and Moondance (Marissa can’t show there until she’s 18).

She’s also featured in the Dec. 2023 edition of Equine Business Magazine. View it on Steffen Stampede’s Facebook page, along with her vlog journeying her progress to the Rolex competition at https://steffenstampede.com/range-to-rolex-my-journey-through-the-mustang-classic/.

________

Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Saturday of each month.

If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at kbg@olympus.net at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.

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