“All I had to communicate with my horse was body language and it felt like the most honest conversation I have ever had.”
~ Farah DeJohnette, trainer and creator of Liberty Dancing
Central Massachusetts trainer and international clinician Farah DeJohnette has traveled the world solving problems with horses. But it was her own very personal experience with her gelding Mercury that led this daughter of contemporary jazz great Jack DeJohnette to pare training down to its major chords and strike a truer harmony. And, she does it using a tack-free groundwork approach she came to call “Liberty Dancing.”
“If Mercury did what I requested it was because he chose to. I had no way to coerce him,” she says of their early Liberty work. Her “four-legged soul mate” is as fluid and powerful as his chemical element's namesake, and, free from tack and all other contrived connections, the pair has found a synchronicity, purely through body language. A YouTube video of Farah and Mercury's debut Liberty Dance art performance, with her father’s live accompaniment, improvised to her horse's syncopated footwork, has gone viral since its release last year.
Farah discovered Liberty work through Path of the Horse, a film about trainers who, like herself, were approaching equine communication from “outside the box,” and whose exercises led to interacting with Mercury in a “more horse-like” way.
“There was no tack, no confinement to control him. All I had was body language and it felt like the most honest conversation I had ever had. The concept of giving a horse a choice and their choosing work opened a new way of thinking about cooperation versus coercion through pressure, tack, or round pens. This way of being with a horse felt truly natural.
“I thought I had a great relationship with Mercury and I did, but when I added Liberty work we performed in ways I never dreamed possible. Doing dressage and jumping bridle-free and bareback—it deepened our bond and isn't that at the core of everything we do? Just please, before trying Liberty work be sure you can be safe with your horse in an open space.”
Their deepening bond led to a one-of-a-kind evolution: “Training and Suppleness Liberty Dances.”
“Training and Suppleness dances are my brain child and evolved from my desire to link flowing movement with practical training exercises, as well as my love and recommendation to always work with music.”
Farah's emphasis on suppleness is twofold. “I have always seen yoga in horse suppleness exercises. So my dressage and yoga backgrounds allow me to weave ground and mounted dances in flowing sequences that are yoga-like, and encourage relaxation and focus, in horse and human minds and bodies."
“Mercury will always be my best Liberty Dancing partner. He taught me how much fun it is to dance with a horse in freedom and that, by letting go, we dance together in all areas of our relationship. He is a Fire element horse and that has lent itself well to the exploration we have done, and will continue to do, as we advance in our Liberty Dancing and show more people what is possible.”
Farah has already made hope possible for horses and owners at their wits – or life's – end. “I've had horses branded as dangerous, or should be euthanized or sold, and teamed with their owners to turn such horses around, using carefully selected exercises relevant to learning new behavior patterns at Liberty. I love using it with stallions. As long as you use safe practices it can be an integral activity with any horse and can successfully rehabilitate difficult horses in a humane, gentle way.”
Liberty Dancing is applicable for more than just the bad actors and for five very good reasons: symmetry, suppleness, balance, tempo, and natural frame/outline.
“Some people and horses are born to dance and get it quickly in the first sessions. Some take longer at learning to dance and teaching their horse to flow again. Like any activity, take into account a horse's fitness, age, conformation, and character. When a horse is at liberty, if you pay attention, they will tell you what they can and can’t do and when they've had enough. Some pairs move along quickly and naturally. Some take longer on the journey.”
All ultimately benefit. The five fundamental benefits of Liberty Dancing apply to all breeds and types of equine, she says. “Some have conformation that finds a natural frame or outline more easily but the point is to approach each horse as an individual and support their overcoming weaknesses or conformational challenges.
“I successfully use Liberty Dancing with horses who travel on the forehand, or are stiff and hollow. It helps them rediscover their bodies and find balance with suppleness and grace. It is a very productive way to work horses not yet strong enough in their topline to carry a rider, for extended periods, in good posture and balance. I work with a horse for a month or more before riding to develop them.
“Liberty Dancing lets them shape their work. All horses and ponies love and benefit from this. And I think what people enjoy most is how Liberty work is enjoyable for both involved. You really learn your true horse. You learn to see and hear how your horse feels and if you listen, they will open up in ways that lead to a deeper, more satisfying partnership.
“I can say in all honesty, having integrated this work into my training, that it truly is the missing piece to our relationship with our horses,” Farah concludes. “Everyone who learns it says so.”
You and your horse can dance your way to harmony, too. In conjunction with this feature, Farah will be producing an FDHorseTraining.com Virtual Clinic exclusively for Holistic Horse readers, looking at real training issues in real time with real horses, and using the tools of Liberty Dancing to improve their horse/human bonds. Look for this live, interactive training session and conversation with DeJohnette to be announced soon on the Holistic Horse Facebook page, HolisticHorse.com and FDHorsemanship.com.
Farah is strongly influenced by the masters of natural horsemanship and Linda ('T-Touch') Tellington, and operates the holistic and Self-Selection boutique facility, Ohana Farm, while maintaining clients and leading clinics in the USA, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Learn more at www.fdhorsemanship.com.
L.A. Pomeroy is a 2015 AHP Equine Media and 2016 Syracuse Press Club Sports Writing awards winner committed to bringing readers the horse world's most forward-thinking individuals and trends. Learn more at lapomeroy.com.