We have just watched amazing riders and horses, tölting and pacing through the hall to loud music and even louder applause. This is something different. Something unlike anything most of these Icelandic horse lovers have experienced before.
It’s September 29th, the night before Laufskálaréttir horse roundup, a festival in the horse county Skagafjörður in North Iceland. Locals have gathered in the riding hall in Sauðárkrókur where horse breeders are demonstrating the cream of the crop and riders of all ages their best skills. But Caeli is not riding the horse; she is about to demonstrate liberty training. People gasp as she takes off the rope and makes the horse follow her every move. It chases after her, spins in circles, does the Spanish walk, stands on its hind legs and lies down – practically embracing Caeli – all the while following subtle signals.
Caeli Cavanagh, from Vermont, US, is a third-year student in equine science at Hólar University College in Skagafjörður. “I wanted to go there since I was like 12 or something, when I first heard about a college where you could study riding.” Until her first visit to Iceland in her teens, Caeli had ridden jumpers. “My dad wanted to see where his great-grandmother was from, near Blönduós, and I came with him. I wanted to ride and out on the tracks I discovered the freedom of the horses. The barn I rode at at home wasn’t super great, it almost felt like I was fighting with the horses because of bad training and instruction. Here it seemed that the horses enjoyed riding free.” After that, all Caeli wanted to do was to be with Icelandic horses, so through her teens she worked at Icelandic horse farms, mostly in the US, in exchange for room and board.
In 2012, Caeli joined a travelling horse performance troupe, Apassionata, participating in the North American tour’s Knights of Iceland act. That was another life-changing experience. “I really loved watching the liberty horses. Sometimes we would have downtime between practices and I would just watch the liberty horses practice. They were magical. I made a friend on the team, Lilliane. She ended up living with me and taught me the basics, the Spanish walk and bowing.” Caeli continued practicing on an Icelandic mare, Sóldís from Sólheimar, learning more from videos on YouTube and trying out new tricks. To begin with, she and Sóldís were “mostly playing around,” seeing what worked and what didn’t. But soon after she published a video of one of their liberty routines on YouTube, interest in her training grew and Caeli started teaching the technique at various clinics around the US.
Liberty training has different benefits for different horses, Caeli says. “The reason why I picked the mare at home was that she’s really smart and got bored. She learned how to untie knots and open gates, causing mischief in the herd. I noticed that if I broke down our communication into smaller steps, everything was more of an interplay.” Þeyr, Caeli’s horse in Iceland, is a bit introverted and nervous in crowds, so liberty training helps build his confidence. “The moves have different benefits. The Spanish walk is like power stepping out with confidence. Also, that I can lie him down, show him that I can pet him everywhere and make him relax like that is good for his mental balance in general,” she explains. “My mare at home is much more extroverted. She wants to show off, so teaching her to lie down and calm down and wait for the next signal helped her mental balance. Liberty training is another tool in your tool box to improve communication and help the horse find mental balance.” Liberty training is like “gymnastics for the brain,” she says, adding that it’s a little like dressage. “A little bit would help almost any horse but not all horses would win the grand prix.” Not requiring a lead line is convenient, too, Caeli adds, not having to tie the horses up and being able to send them into trailers serves a practical purpose.
Liberty training goes well with other training, Caeli says. Þeyr is her third-year student horse at Hólar and with Sóldís she used to compete at tölt competitions. As long as people can find the time, she would recommend some liberty training for everyone. Caeli has worked with Þeyr for two and a half years. They work in short sessions at a time and only when it’s fun for both of them. To make a horse perform certain tricks, Caeli first has to consider under what natural circumstances the horse would use such movements. For example, a horse would kick its front legs to get rid of a fly. So, for the Spanish walk, Caeli uses the whip to imitate a fly. When the horse does something right, it receives a treat. Caeli says Icelandic horses are well suited for liberty training because they’re mostly raised in herds and have had a chance “to be horses.” She explains that it’s easier to train them than horses that grow up in stables without much interaction with other horses because the body language derives from horse-to-horse communication.
Caeli and Þeyr performed a little last year, including the show before Laufskálaréttir, but nothing that went quite as well as in Sauðárkrókur on September 29th. As Þeyr still has some issues with his confidence, Caeli was concerned that he would be nervous in front of such a big crowd and had intended to keep him on the rope for longer than she did. “I don’t want it to sound too cheesy, but it felt as if he was telling me that he was ready. I took the rope off and it went really well. I’m really proud of him.”
Next year, Caeli will complete her studies at Hólar and she has a job waiting for her back home. “I have signed on to work at Red Feather Icelandics in Trout Lake Washington owned by Linda and Dick Templeton,” she reveals. “There are some really promising and talented horses and great people at this facility and I am excited to start next fall.” She hopes that she will be able to take Þeyr with her to the US. “I want to introduce him to my other liberty horse and try training two at the same time. I’ve never done that before.” Caeli is also planning to visit Iceland regularly. “I love it here. I will find the time somehow to come back.”