Freedom is one of my favorite words, maybe because I’m a relative newcomer to the concept. After a lifetime of being dutiful, I now interpret freedom as making my own heart-driven, intuition-trusting choices—honoring my spirit, if you will.
No wonder freedom play with horses captivates my fancy. It’s about joining with your horse in absolute partnership, with no binding elements except trust, understanding, mutual respect, and the joy of playing together side by side. There’s no halter, no lead line, no physical tether—just an empathic emotional bond. Come to think of it, freedom play is a lot like a truly loving relationship, where commitment comes without restraint or condition on either side.
James and Kate held a freedom play clinic on February 25-26 for their more advanced students. (Playing offline with your horse first requires learning basic and intermediate ground play.) Jane and Ben, Emma and Jeannette and Oberon, Amanda and Zip, and Elizabeth and Sonder all lined up for lessons with James. Their freedom play sessions played out just like life: there were so-so moments, frustrating lows, extraordinary highs, and a lot of hard work tying it all together.
One of my favorite moments was watching 13-year-old Amanda skip alongside her quarter horse, Zip, encouraging him to pick up his canter. Young Zip, who is the equine equivalent of a teenager, hesitated a moment, then lifted his neck, muscled his hindquarters, picked up his feet, and did exactly what she was doing. They ran side by side in the arena like two long-legged colts—partners of the heart, perfect playmates. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the moment on film because I was camera-free—but here’s a photo of Zip and Amanda showing the bond that allows them to romp together.
When it comes to playmates, no one can best James and his Arab-quarter horse cross, Indigo, who did a freedom session to close the Sunday clinic. They both have what James calls a high “play drive,” meaning they are both impish free spirits. Watching them run together, leap over jumps, come to a screeching halt, and pivot on a dime was like watching leaves whirl in the wind. Just as wind and leaves can only dance when they come together, James and Indigo moved in perfect harmony, mirroring each other’s mischievous natures. At certain points, I could have sworn they were one and the same being.
Mystic and I are just getting started on freedom play, which means I chase him around the arena more often than not, reminding him that it’s easier to join with me than run away. But the synchronized moments we’ve had are as close to pure joy as I’ve ever felt. Playing alongside a horse who is in perfect tune with you is an honor beyond words. It’s freedom of the highest, purest kind.