Ben & Jane: Freedom Play

Over a year ago I wrote two blog posts about Jane Hester and Ben, her thoroughbred-quarter horse cross. With James and Kate Cooler’s help, they were developing a new relationship after a traumatic accident in June 2010. Ben threw Jane during a ride; she ended up in intensive care with a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Two and half years later, she still has not regained full balance and vision.

Ben and Jane

Ben and Jane

After the accident, Jane felt sure she’d never ride again. She agonized over whether to keep Ben, but ultimately her love for him trumped her fears. Together they began a slow, careful journey toward a deeper, more connected way of being together through natural horsemanship. They began with groundplay, Cooler Horsemanship’s term for playing with your horse on the ground with a lead line and progress stick and string.

After eight months of groundplay, Jane and Ben progressed to freedom play—playing on the ground without a lead rope. Jane discovered she had a knack for communicating with Ben at freedom, and he took joy in running and jumping freely while also looking to her for leadership. They’ve been at it for a year now and show a partnership worthy of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Ben, Jane, me, and Mystic practicing for the 2011 Christmas show, in which we did groundplay and fledgling freedom play

Ben, Jane, Mystic, and me during a rehearsal for the 2011 Christmas show

I asked Jane for more details about what she and Ben have been up to, and, true to form, she was generous and thoughtful in her answers.

What have you and Ben been working on in the last year?
I’ve been working on being more consistent with my cues and requests—and at the same time varying what we work on, and where, so we don’t get bored. We’ve learned side passing away and toward me and how to drift the hindquarters.  And how to “mirror me” so we can do the same things in unison. The most exciting thing has been progressing to freedom play. And jumping at freedom!

The ultimate partnership

The ultimate partnership

We’ve also gotten into taking “trail walks,” either alone or with friends. I think I’ll start a club for people who enjoy horses from the ground. I know there are people out there who think they can’t have a horse unless they ride. There are so many fun and exciting things to do with a horse besides riding that I find I don’t miss it at all.

How has your relationship with Ben changed?
Ben and I have tremendously increased our confidence and trust in each other. We both like to know what to expect, so we’re very similar in our approach to our play. Even if Ben gets too excited or frightened, I know what to do to bring his mind back to me, and he looks to me for comfort and safety.

Enjoying the pedestal at freedom

Enjoying the pedestal at freedom

How have you changed?
The biggest thing is that I’m so much happier. When I took time away from Ben after my accident, I was pretty miserable. Now I have goals for us. I also have much more confidence around horses in general. I took Ben for a trail walk at our new barn the other day without anyone else. I would have been too nervous to do that before I started to work with James and Kate. And Ben would have been spooky. Instead we just had a good time exploring the new countryside.

Tell me about the freedom play you’ve been doing.
Freedom play is so much fun because you can see the strength of the bond between us. We spent about eight months with the lead line on, just learning the basics. When we started freedom, James and I worked with Ben in the round pen, mainly to see where his focus was, to get his attention on me, and to teach me the more subtle issues of body position and how it affects what the horse does.

Early days practicing freedom in the round pen

Early days practicing freedom in the round pen

When we tried freedom play in the big arena, I was skeptical: surely we’re not ready for that! As James predicted, when I tried the sending exercise without the halter and lead rope, Ben took off and lapped the arena full tilt about 25 times! I just stood there and asked James if Ben would ever stop. James was very calm; he said, “He’ll stop when he realizes being with you is more comfortable.”

Sure enough, Ben soon stopped and turned to face me. At James’ direction, I turned my back to Ben and waited. Then he walked across the ring to me! We did one more sending exercise, which he did well—and then he got big praise and rest. We’ve been steadily improving since that breakthrough moment. I could never have done it without James, as he is expert at reading the horse and teaching the proper response.

It's easier to join than to run laps...

It’s easier to join than to run laps…

What’s your next goal in freedom?
My next goal is to progress to more and better freedom jumping—Ben loves it and so do I. I just can’t be greedy and do too much or it won’t work well. I have to spend the majority of our time on line. As James says, “Working on line is for teaching; freedom is to test what you have learned.”

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting freedom play?
My advice would be: a) have James teach you! b) spend lots of time on basic groundplay exercises first to build a foundation c) don’t overdo the freedom as you really can’t teach in that mode (or correct mistakes since there’s no halter and lead rope).

What’s your dream goal with Ben?
My dream goal is to do multiple jumps at freedom, with me pointing out the pattern of jumps. We can do three or four in a sequence now, if the wind is blowing from the right direction and “the force” is with us! Aside from jumping, I just want to learn more and get better.

And the two become one

And the two become one