For Emma Massingale, the feeling of swinging your leg over an unbroke horse is one that can only be described as amazing. It’s the equestrian equivalent of climbing the peak of an unknown mountain—no one had ever been in that position before, but now here you are. Then to take that horse and experience his native roots while building a trusting relationship is like making that mountaintop your home.
And it all started as a girl looking for her own way with horses.
Finding Her Own Way
At the young age of 15, Emma informed her parents, Stephen and Caroline, that she was going to quit school to become a horse trainer. For someone with no formal riding lessons or training at the time, it was a steep dream to reach for. She grew up around horses in her native Cornwall, United Kingdom, receiving her first pony as a christening present when she was only 6-months-old.
At first the horses were just a mere mention in her life, but it wasn’t until her parents divorced that Emma took solace in the horses.
“I found a comfort with them and realized that I really enjoyed them,” she remembers.
Looking back on her days of riding around with her dad, Emma recalls family and friends commenting on how her father had a way with horses.
“I thought I wanted one of those—I wanted to have a way with horses,” she says. “But that’s not something that you can just go get off the shelf, so I decided that I was going to have to find my own way.”
Growing up in a time before YouTube and media stars like Clinton Anderson and Dan James, Emma set out to learn about horses and how to train horses on her own.
“I wanted to learn myself, I didn’t want to be swayed by a path, method or any system. I was self-taught,” she says. “I still try not to look at too many of the other trainers and what they do, I try to find my own way because I think that’s important.”
The first horse Emma trained was an experiment in itself. She slowly worked with the unbroke horse, trying to go with the flow of what she thought she should be doing as a trainer.
“I got to the point where I felt like he was asking me to get on, so I sat on him and thought, ‘How do I get him to go?’” she says. “I remember thinking that was the best adventure you could go on—starting a young horse and being the first person mounted on that horse. For me, it was like going to the moon or being the first person to the top of a mountain—it was an amazing feeling that no one had ever been on top of this horse before.”
In that rush, she knew she had made the right decision. For the first few years, Emma worked at a retirement home at night while she trained horses during the day, building her reputation until she could sustain the training business on her own.
“We’re always capable of so much more than we think we are, I think.”
No More Naughty Tom
The horse that gave Emma her first steps into liberty work was a notoriously “naughty” pony. While at a local horse show, Emma watched as a young girl was continuously bucked off a plucky pony. Then-18, she walked up to the girl’s mother and asked if she could help her daughter.
“The pony was really bad, really naughty. He had this reputation, people would say, ‘Oh Tom, he’s really naughty,’” recalls Emma. “I thought that was just crazy.”
After working with the gelding, she discovered the power of liberty work. Liberty work is working a horse without any form of restraint using equipment or any manmade structure or pen.
Because many still remembered the pony as “Naughty Tom” even after he was rehabbed by Emma, she decided to show that he wasn’t so naughty any more.
“I brought him into my house and laid him under my Christmas tree,” she says. “I made a charity Christmas card with that picture, and it went viral. From that day on, everyone thought of Tom with a smile and would say, ‘Awww Tom.’”
The power from that changed pony was the direction Emma needed to know where to go next in her career. The use of liberty work with horses was Emma’s way of flexing her creativity. What was at first a mission of necessity because she couldn’t afford any exact methods or equipment became her way of working with the animals she loves.
“As a teenager I wanted something different, but now it is one of the things that I am most grateful about—that I didn’t use someone else’s method,” she says. “It may take longer to work it out, but I feel the incredible relationship and fun you can have. I try and always enjoy the journey, not just the destination.”
“I realized that being creative with horses was something very powerful,” she continues. “We can make people smile and laugh, and at the same time have such a nice time with the horses. So, I thought of a way to combine the liberty work and being creative, just like painting a picture. You can get creative with the horses.”
It didn’t take long for Emma to discover the artist in her when it came to working with horses at liberty.
“(Training a horse) is like being an artist. You can ask 10 different people to paint a picture of the landscape, and you’ll get 10 different pictures of the same thing,” she says. “With a horse, it’s exactly the same thing. They are these amazing, willing and kind participants, and whatever we make them is how they are.”
Emma felt happiness from knowing she was able to teach the horses. Her aim was simple—she wanted to deliver to her clients the best way to get the most out of their horse, and grow their relationship in the best possible manner. And she knew that not every horse was the same, and she treated every horse, and every client, differently because each situation and participant was unique.
“It’s about working with the horses and the owners to get the best out of them, not just one or the other,” she says.
The Island Project
After years of demonstrations and working for other people, Emma decided it was time to focus on working with her own horses and discovering more about the native ponies of the United Kingdom. Her mission has been one of not only seeking adventure, but also to show that horses were for everyone, and not the elite, which is a common misconception in Britain.
“Horses aren’t considered particularly cool here in the UK,” she explains. “They’re thought to be elitist, for the rich and famous. I thought that this was no good. I wanted to show that horses can be cool and still be adventurous.”
In 2015, after a year of planning, Emma rented a ferry for herself and four of her trained Connemara ponies for the Island of Connemara in Ireland. Her mission was to immerse herself into the land of her beloved horses and work with not only her four trained ponies, but two untrained, untouched native Connemaras.
“There’s something about immersing yourself into the horse’s life, not just understanding that the horse comes from Ireland, but really feeling that the horse comes from Ireland,” she says. “I felt completely at home, instantly.”
Emma was going to be working with the six ponies without any round pens or arenas, just out in the open with no restrictions. She wasn’t sure how successful her experiment was going to be, but she knew she had to test her theory of the partnership she’d grown with her four ponies.
“When you’re working liberty, you’re working within boundaries, and within a certain amount of time the horse needs you because there’s no food or water,” she explains. “Even in larger pens, they still know that they need you to some degree for food and water. I wanted to see if you gave them their freedom back, in a place that they come from and they didn’t need me, and were completely self-sufficient with their own water and their own grazing, would they choose to work with me and could I still work with them?”
Rather than taking an elaborate set up, complete with food stuffs for 30 days, Emma wanted to learn to survive on the island herself. Bringing with her only rice, she caught and prepared the rest of her provisions herself—catching crab, mussels and other seafood to survive.
Once she and the six ponies arrived to the deserted island, the ponies took off, stretching their legs and checking out the entire island on their own. Emma set up camp on her own, not knowing if she would see her ponies again. At 5 o’clock the next morning, she woke up to all of the ponies standing outside her tent.
That first full day she began working with her trained ponies, letting the two untrained ponies free to observe, or leave, whichever they chose. As she worked with her ponies at liberty, she saw the other two observing and, eventually, trying to mimic what the trained ponies were doing.
“When I was training horses in Devon, I’d put a young horse in a field with an older horse because the behavior would rub off. This happened massively on the island,” Emma recalls. “These wild ponies were trying to do the same stuff—they were trying to line up and park, all without me doing anything with them.”
When she did start working with the untrained ponies, Emma’s four seemed to act as translators to the wild ones.
“It was almost like they were saying, ‘She means stop, if you hurry up we can go back to grazing,’” she laughs. “They were really comical.”
Within two days on the island, Emma was already swinging her leg over the untrained ponies. She was then able to ride the ponies completely free of any equipment—no saddle, bridle or even a halter.
Battling the weather (rain storms with strong gales for two weeks straight) meant taking advantage of whatever dry moments Emma had, working short sessions of two minutes here and there. She also started to figure out the relationship between low tide and high tide and the ponies’ energy levels—they were sleepier in the morning, so she’d try to do more with them in the mornings just before they went to sleep.
After a month, Emma and her six trained Connemaras boarded the ferry back for Devon. Not only had Emma gained two new ponies for her herd, but a new understanding of the horse and their nature.
More Mountains, Islands and Ponies
Inspired by her trip to the island, Emma started researching immediately for her next project. In 2016 she took two untrained Highland ponies, without any of her experienced ponies. Again, she worked the ponies at liberty and rode them from coast to coast across the Highlands in Scotland.
Taking the knowledge she got from her trip on the island, Emma applied more research to her Highlands trip.
“The idea was that on the island, the ponies had a natural rhythm. They still knew where they were after they initially explored the island—they knew where the water was, where the best grazing was, and so on,” she explains.
Upon her return, Emma attached tracking devices to her ponies to gather data about in regards to the ponies’ behavior. From this data she learned what they liked to do and when, as well as how many hours they were awake and active and how many miles they traveled on average.
“We tend to think that horses in the wild are roaming for miles and miles, but do they actually do that or would they just rather not? Do they do that through necessity or for the pleasure of moving?” she asks.
Her goal for the trip across the Highlands was to see if she could build the same relationship with the new ponies if every step that was new was taken together. She applied her data to the ponies and followed their pattern—when the ponies liked to sleep, they slept, and when they were the most active, she was active in training and walking with them. Together they traveled no more than 5.78 miles each day, which was the average mileage from her data. Again, within two days the ponies stayed with her at liberty. In the evenings Emma would sleep in her sleeping bag while the two slept next to her by the campfire.
“By just being active with them, and not trying to make them rest just because I wanted to, I really felt that my relationship with them was taken to another level,” says Emma. “I had confidence to let them go on at night and they wouldn’t run off. I had only met these ponies once before I did the challenge, and we traveled 120 miles together.”
For her 2017 adventure, Emma is looking forward to a trip to Hebrides, which is off the west coast of Scotland with her Eriskay pony, a breed that is critically endangered, with only 300 of them left in the world. She plans to explore the 10 islands, a total of 185 miles, via horseboarding—a sport where the horse tows a board rider on a mountain board. The board rider is towed by holding a handle attached to a rope measuring no more than 10 meters long, which is attached to the horse’s saddle with a harness.
“It’s pretty wild, but fun,” she says. “It’ll be good to see where (my pony) comes from.”
After Emma completes her collection of adventures with British native ponies, she’d love to journey across the pond to America and work with wild Mustangs and set on new adventures in a new land.
“I would love to come to America one year, I’ve got my eye on Road To The Horse. I’d love to do that,” she admits. “I watched some of it this year, and it looks amazing and so much fun.”
“I love being creative with horses. If you’re passionate and you love something enough, there’s always a way of earning a living from it,” she says. “So, I think that’s what I do now–just be creative and enjoy making people smile with horses. I want to try to inspire people to not necessarily look at horses only for competition, which is great if you love it, but if you don’t, there are other things that you can do and really fulfill your life with horses.
“I love riding all types of horses, but there’s something special about working with a horse at liberty in its natural environment you can really feel the connection between the horse and you if you can immerse yourself in their life more than just your own.”
“There’s something special about working with a horse at liberty in its natural environment you can really feel the connection between the horse and you if you can immerse yourself in their life more than just your own.”
Having Her Own Way
When asked if she feels she now has her own way with horses, Emma laughs.
“It’s a funny thing, isn’t it?” she asks. “I suppose I have my own way, definitely. When I’m working with my horses, I just smile and feel happy with how they look at me and how they are with me. I get a lot of pleasure out of that…whether that’s a way with horses, I don’t know. But when you look at your horse and they look back at you in a certain way, you feel something special. It doesn’t always feel that way, but it does make me happy to see that.”
A Method that isn’t a “Method”
Emma Massingale’s use of liberty work with horses, where she relies solely on building a relationship with the horse without the use of tack or equipment, isn’t exactly what she’d call a method, just how she likes to work.
“I wouldn’t say that I have a method,” she explains. “I believe that with some skills and the right attitude (humans) are an incredible resource. I don’t believe we need much of anything else—we can adapt, improvise, and be imaginative… In fact, we can be anything that horse standing right in front of you needs you to be!”
Emma believes in following the demeanor of the horse, almost like being the horse.
“Horses love enthusiastic horses,” she says. “You’ve seen that one horse that says, ‘3, 2, 1…let’s all gallop!’ and the rest say, ‘Yay! Let’s go!’ and take off. I try and am always enthusiastic, even when it’s not going right. That way (working with me) is always fun!”
Using her already-trained ponies as translators, Emma believes they are the only “equipment” she needs when it comes to her liberty work, and she witnessed that strongly on the island.
“Let’s face it, they can explain stuff way better than I could to a new or green horse,” she laughs.