I've had the good fortune to enjoy Sylvia Zerbini's Grande Liberté performance several times over the years. Working with as many as 12 horses at a time, the remarkable horsewoman controls them with super subtle physical and verbal directions. They gallop, circle, turn and prance in scenes that seem drawn from the imagination of a horse crazy young girl. No tack, no aids, just loose and free as if horse and human had chosen to play with each other in nature.
I've always been so swept up in the beauty of the performance that trying what she does on my own didn't even occur to me. Fortunately, others thought to inquire about Sylvia teaching us non-magical horse owners to use her methods and the result is clinics that fill up fast, for participants and auditors.
Sylvia's March 7-9 visit to Beaumont Farms in Petaluma will feature three days of one-on-one clinic time, and culminate in an evening performance of Grande Liberté featuring 12 gorgeous white Arabians. The evening performance is a benefit for The White Barn Project, which improves the lives of at-risk youth, developmentally disabled and chronically ill children through interaction with animals, gardens and unique activities.
To get a better handle of what's in store for the clinic portion of this weekend, we chatted with Sylvia during a break in her busy schedule.
Kim: I love your performances, but I have trouble picturing how your "magic" translates to us regular horse people.
Sylvia: What I do is teach people how to connect with their horses through eye contact, energy, emotions, body language and body positioning. What I'm teaching is horse language and it has a very small vocabulary.
Kim: Can everybody get it?
Sylvia: Yes. Some are a little slower. It's all about timing and if your timing is slow it will take you a little longer to get it. But horses are so forgiving. They want to please and if you get the language right and are precise, they'll understand you.
Kim: What is the format for working with clinic participants?
Sylvia: I work with eight horses/owners a day, one at a time, for an hour that's split into a half hour in the morning and another in the afternoon. I ask them a few questions about their horse and what they do with them, and I read them as a team. I'm watching for clues to their relationship, confidence, connection and whether the horse has respect for the person.
Then I work with the horse, showing the person what I am doing. I explain the body language, where I am applying pressure with it, and where the horse's "zones" are. If you see horses grazing, there are zones where each won't let another horse graze. I explain the horse's three warnings: a toss of the head, pinning his ears, then stepping away before coming back and biting.
Kim: Why don't you use any artificial aids?
Sylvia: A clinic host in Australia told me I am the only person in the world giving liberty clinics without using any whips. It's much easier to get horses to understand what we want if we start completely free.
Kim: How does liberty work correlate with under-saddle work in various disciplines?
Sylvia: It's a great foundation of communication for work in any discipline because it is all about understanding, communicating with and controlling the horse's brain. We use liberty training on all the horses in our shows; whether they do jumping, dressage, trick riding, etc. It gives your horse a very good mind.
Kim: How does liberty work affect the people who try it?
Sylvia: A lot of the clinic participants are women, some with low self-esteem. They learn to control their body and to build and project energy, which sometimes involves building up the kind of energy that lets the horse know you are upset with it. For some participants, the clinics are a transformative experience.
Kim: How do you let a horse know you're not happy with something they are doing?
Sylvia: I use a set of three warnings, as a horse does. The first is a verbal cue, patterned on a horse's squeal and in a tone they know means "pay attention." The second is another verbal cue, at a different pitch that conveys more intensity. The third warning is that I walk in the opposite direction from where the horse is going, then I cross back and invade the zone I talked about. I release those cues by freezing immediately once the horse is paying attention.
Kim: How do you control 12 horses at the same time, as you do in your performances?
Sylvia: My energy is nice and strong and they can sense it. It's like electricity. My body position—whether I'm pointing my belly at their barrel, for example—is a cue. I maintain visual connection with them. Not all at the same time, but they've been trained to give me their attention when I ask for it. Some people say maintaining visual connection is too much pressure, but I think that couldn't be further from the truth. If you watch wild horses grazing, they are constantly keeping an eye on each other.
The horses are constantly giving me their attention because they know I'm going to release it right away.
Kim: So it goes back to speaking their language?
Sylvia: Yes. They give their attention freely. And this is in a 200' by 300' arena: they know they can go. It's because we're making sense, and not overloading their brain. I am often telling people to do less: the work is really very simple. When people see that, it's very powerful and it can become very emotional.
For more information about the clinic with Sylvia Zerbini and/or the show, contact event organizer Dawn Williams at email@example.com or call her at 650-851-1128.