Kaleigh Marie from Braveheart Beasts, is a liberty focused trainer with a unique training background and a passion for building a strong relationship with her horses. If you see her performances, you see that connection she has with them. She puts on a breathtaking show with her beautiful steeds. Often working two or more at liberty at once on the ground and riding. Her background and start with horses was an interesting surprise to me, but it’s given her a unique perspective. I love drawing inspiration from those around me and soaking things up and you will not be disappointed with Kaleigh, there is lots to soak up! Enjoy the interview!
Can you give a brief history of your background with horses?
Even though my family wasn’t involved with horses, I was determined to work with them from a young age. I grew up in Vermont and rode horses all throughout my childhood, but took a break from riding as a teenager when I was given a pair of twin Holstein bull calves to train as a team of oxen. After training them to work in a yoke together, I went on to train them to ride, work at liberty, perform tricks, and even roman ride bridleless. From cows I moved to training mules and donkeys as well as horses, working with everything from mammoth donkeys to Lipizzan stallions, rescued equines in need of rehabilitation, teams of draft horses, and more. Eventually my love for horses helped me decide to work with them primarily, but my experiences with so many different species and their different backgrounds remains a big influence on how I got to where I am today.
You use a word that I haven’t heard a lot in the horse world and that is attunement. Tell us what that word means to you.
The word “attunement” refers to a key element in creating strong, trustworthy relationships with our horses. As prey animals, horses value safety and relaxation over anything else. We see that horses find this feeling of safety to be the strongest when they are with other horses.
The question we all should be asking ourselves is why they feel that way with each other, but usually not with us. When horses are in a herd, the strength of their numbers provide them with something very important to their safety – awareness. The more horses there are, the more awareness there is, and the less likely it is that a threat is going to go undetected. If we take a close look at this awareness, it goes even deeper than the surface level ability to observe.
In order to stay safe, horses have to be able to observe and respond appropriately to their environment, which is what brings us to attunement. Attunement is the ability to respond appropriately to our environment as it responds to us. This pertains just as strongly to horses in a herd together as it does to our daily interactions with them.
Every relationship is made up of back and forth exchanges, and the more aware and attuned we are to our horses, the more appropriately we are able to respond to them as we interact with each other.
These back and forth exchanges create a pattern – “I’m going to change what I’m doing so that you change what you’re doing, and when you change what you’re doing, I’ll acknowledge that by changing what I’m doing, which will change what you’re doing”, and so on and so forth.
Our ability to change what we are doing when our horses change what they are doing – whether that’s a change of pressure, body language, physical, visual, or verbal cues, or even energy – determines how strong our relationship is with them.
If we only change on the obvious things, when a horse bucks, bolts, refuses to go forward, or flat out ignores us for example, we are demonstrating to them that we are not attuned enough to read all the subtle signs they gave us beforehand.
To them, this is us showing them that we are not capable of contributing anything significant to their safety, and in some cases even potentially jeopardizing it simply because we are unaware and unattuned to their needs.
When we start to observe and pay close attention to our horses, we can start to notice these changes much earlier, when they are much smaller, and can respond much sooner. The sooner we respond, the more exchanges there are going to be, and the more exchanges there are, the deeper the relationship gets between that person and horse.
The more attuned we are, the more we are able to show up for our horses as someone who adds value to what they prioritize – safety – and once those needs are met, they are then able to show up for us as a steady, willing partner.
You work a lot with horses at liberty. What is something that is really challenging?
For me, the most challenging part of working horses at liberty goes beyond the physical side of training. Because horses are not attached to us when we work at liberty, there is a piece of horsemanship that becomes more significant in liberty work than it does anywhere else. This piece is something called emotional control.
My liberty horses have to learn to manage their focus and emotions to such a degree that stress and distractions won’t break the connection that keeps them with me. This is especially important as I prepare my horses to work in large, loud, busy, and unfamiliar environments as we teach and perform together. When we are physically connected to our horses, it is much easier to give reminders to them to keep their focus on us.
At liberty, we are limited in our ability to offer that support, so have to rely on lots of preparation and training to keep them calm, confident, and consistent. Breaking it down into manageable steps, and not jumping into too much too fast, is key.
What advice do you have for an aspiring young trainer?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get as much experience as you can. As someone who is primarily self taught, these two things were incredibly important to my development as a person and as a professional. Many of us are often discouraged by the idea of doing something wrong or having an experiment fall apart, but I’ve noticed that the belief that these experiences aren’t valuable and should be avoided is one of the biggest obstacles that keeps people from pursuing the things they really want to do. Each failed attempt is simply information on how to do better the next time around. The ability to keep going and to keep trying in the midst of these failures is what creates success.
Getting experience with a variety of people in a variety of places is also important, both in the horse industry and out. Learning what it takes to run a small business is one of the best things you’ll ever invest in. Some experiences you will love and some you might strongly dislike, but even if it shows you what you don’t ever want to do again, those lessons are still incredibly valuable. These experiences will lead to the start of a network that will follow you through your whole career, so work hard to be professional, make good impressions, and be respectful of opinions that are different from yours.
How would you encourage horse owners to add liberty to their sessions?
The majority of advantages for the horse can come from exercises still on the halter and lead rope as we develop body control and softness. The more refined the body control is on the ground – think about being able to ask each foot to move independently the better we are able to translate it to work under saddle.
Working on these exercises at liberty is a great way for people to challenge their feel, timing, and understanding of horse communication as they need to rely on attunement to translate to their horse what they’d like them to do without any physical connection to them. As a result of this attunement, liberty work often strengths the relationships we have with our horses as well. I would add these exercises in before riding as a warmup, or as a session all on their own for something fun, different, and engaging to do.
What is one thing you’d like to improve on as a trainer?
With a big focus in my program being on collection at liberty and bridleless, I am always striving to help my horses move and feel their best while working at liberty or under saddle, so I’d like to improve my understanding of horse biomechanics to be able to do an even better job of this.
Who or what has had the biggest impact on your training style?
I grew up in Vermont, and although my family wasn’t involved with animals, I started riding horses from a young age. At 11 years old, I shifted from horses and started working on a local dairy farm where the farmer eventually gifted me a pair of twin bull calves to train as a team of oxen. I spent countless hours with them teaching them to work in a yoke, and eventually to ride, work at liberty, do tricks, and even roman ride.
My training with them is what started my business and eventually led to so many other experiences, like working with mammoth donkeys, rehabilitating rescued horses, training with Lipizzan stallions, and performing with the horses I have now. Those two steers, Simon and Oliver, and all of the experiences with different animals that I’ve had since then have had a huge influence on my training style and understanding of the animals I work with.
What are the biggest challenges you face being a professional trainer?
One of the biggest challenges of being a professional trainer has been staying true to myself and the ideals that I believe in as I work to continue growing in the horse industry. It can feel like the easier path to let these lines blur and to follow others in order to find new, exciting opportunities, but I have learned the importance of trusting that the right opportunities will show up as long as I stay on the path that feels right for me.
Can you share one of the most joyful moments you’ve had with your horses?
My horses bring me an unimaginable amount of joy on a daily basis, but one of the most joyful moments for me this past season would be winning the 2022 International Liberty Horse Association Championship Freestyle with them. Not because we won, but because the previous year at the same competition all three of us really struggled under the stress of that environment.
I worked tirelessly for that year in between – traveling internationally to discover new ideas, investing countless hours into improving the training and relationship I had with my horses, and tracking down as many opportunities as I could to help us grow and gain confidence – and showed up to that competition only with the hope that we would do better than the year before.
To step into that arena and experience the three of us in such a different place only 12 months later was one of the proudest, most joyful moments I’ve had on this journey with them. The ribbon might collect dust, but the memory never will.
What is the most important lesson that horses have taught you?
Horses have taught me that even if we are not in control of what we see, or of the behaviors of those around us, we are always in control of how we respond. Those responses determine the relationship we have with everyone around us, and with ourselves, and horses have shown me the importance of always responding with understanding, love, and respect. They have made me aware of who I really am and have loved me for it, and for that I am forever grateful.
A huge thank you to Kaleigh for agreeing to this interview! If you’d like more information about Braveheart Beasts, please use the following links! All photos credited to Braveheart Beasts.
Contact Info: Kaleigh Marie