Amber Buresh, with her horse to her left, performs at a show
Amber Buresh and her horse, Thor, do a performance together.

For Amber Buresh of Ulysses, performing with horses has always been something she’s wanted to do. She owns a travel-based equine massage business and massages other people’s horses before the horses perform and compete. This led to her doing liberty performances with her own horses around the same time she started her business, and she has been performing ever since.

“I started the liberty and trick training in 2016,” she said. “It all kind of happened pretty quick, but I really did most of it in 2017.”

Buresh competes in liberty performances which is different than the type of performing most equine performance teams do. Most perform in English or Western shows which have different types of reining on the horse, but liberty is completely without reins and is unrestrained. 

“Everything I do is completely without any attachment to the horse,” she said. “The horse has nothing on them; I am just giving them cues with body language.”

She said she wanted to start performing several years ago, back in 2014 when Lincoln still had the Nebraska Horse Expo. She said she has always loved horses but didn’t know what she wanted to do with them and the expo really helped her figure that out.

“I went and I saw a performer that did liberty and it was the first time I’d ever seen it,” Buresh said. “I thought it was pretty cool so I started looking into it and just playing around with it and then I found that I really liked doing it.”

She said she was inspired to look at different performance genres and find what would work with her own horses. She has three horses and two ponies but only perform with one of her horses, Thor, a Paint Horse, right now, but is training the others to be able to compete in the future.

Buresh said her body language cues have to be very detailed so Thor knows what she wants him to do. Cues can be as subtle as looking down at his feet so he knows to go into a small circle, versus looking at his shoulder so he knows to go out into a bigger circle.

She said she also has a small whip that she may use in addition to her cues, and that she barely gives any verbal instruction since Thor is more in tune to her body language. The whip is used solely as a visual cue for Thor. Buresh can be extremely precise with her cues with the whip and it allows Thor to know exactly what she wants him to do.

“I will have a small whip that is an extension of my arm,” she said. “I can do it without it and just use my arm or my hand, but the whip gives me a longer signal so I can be more exact with my cues.”

Buresh said that Thor’s mood can sometimes determine how well he will perform on any given day. She said there are a lot of variables, and that even though she prepares for each performance as much as she can, each show can go differently because horses are so temperamental.

“Even though I plan the routine ahead of time, it doesn’t always go 100% like you plan it,” she said. “Working with horses, you just never know what they’re going to throw at you so you have to learn to just kind of roll with it. He does very good, but usually the routine changes so you just have to kind of go with him.”

She also said that her mood can affect how well he performs, since horses are able to sense people’s feelings. She said she has had to work on staying calm since she started performing because the more nervous she is, the more nervous Thor gets.

“I’ve had to learn to kind of control my own feelings to help level him out,” she said. “Also, the more nervous I am, the less clear I am with my cues and he can get confused.”

As part of Buresh’s equine massage business, she said that massaging horses can help them perform their best, so she will try to massage Thor before he performs because the shows can be so stressful for the horses. 

“It gets to be a lot to ask of [the horses] and that just really helps them make it through and feel good while they’re doing it,” she said. “Unfortunately they don’t quite get massages as often as other people’s just because of time…but I do try to regularly massage them and to keep them in good shape.”

Buresh learned about equine massage while working for different horse trainers around the country and always found it interesting. She said you can learn how to locate a horses sore spots both visually and by feel, and that there is a technique to get the best releases for them that she is trying to improve upon every day.

Buresh has to plan out her routines for each performance as the shows are always different in what she has Thor do for each. She said she gets ideas in her head that she thinks would look cool to do and has to figure out different types of music and costumes that go with each routine.

“I decide what I want to train the horse to do, and I use that in my routine,” she said. 

She said that for some performances she is given a theme and a song ahead of time to work with, but she has the freedom to make the rest of the routine herself. Other times she will just be given a time frame and otherwise has complete freedom to do whatever she would like for the performance.

She said she’s been training Thor for the past three years for these performances, but you never really stop training with a horse.

“It depends on what degree of level of difficulty that you want to perform at,” she said, “but the more tricks you add and the more things you add just continue on to their training.”

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Buresh cues Thor to go up into a rear during a practice performance.

There are a ton of different moves and tricks that Thor can do that Buresh said the crowds love. He can walk in small, medium and large circles. He can bow, lie down and do several different types of turns. A crowd favorite is when he will go across the arena, and pick up a rose on a stand and bring the rose to Buresh. He also has more complex tricks like rearing and the Spanish walk.

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In practice, Buresh cues Thor to start the Spanish Walk

“Rearing is when they’ll stand on their back legs with the front in the air,” Buresh said. “The Spanish walk is when they’re going to extend their front foot out, and then they bring it down, and then we’ll extend the next one out, and they do it at a walk.

Buresh said that Thor typically knows when it’s time to perform and he acts accordingly. She said there’s a huge difference in his energy between practice and the show.

“He’s very much into showing off for the crowd,” she said. “The minute he knows it’s showtime, he runs in, he’s full of energy. He likes to throw his hair around and show off to the crowd.”

Buresh performs at liberty shows all over the country, but since they are hard to come by, she usually just goes wherever the next show is going to be. She said the shows are pretty limited in terms of who has them since liberty is more of a limited market.

She often travels to places and will stay there for long periods of time so she can perform in all of the shows they have. She said she will stay with friends while she’s away, or sometimes the event center will have a place for the performers to stay.

Since she puts such a large amount of time and effort into these performances, she uses the money she gets paid to help supplement her massage business. She said that although she has to schedule her local clients around when she will be gone for performances, she does get new clients at the shows.

She was recently gone for the entire month of August in Shipshewana, Indiana, where she was doing one performance a day Monday through Friday and two on Saturdays, and she said it was hard to be away from her family for such long periods of time. 

“I’ve been blessed that I have a lot of family and friends that will travel to see my shows, so I do get to see them a little bit in the time but it is hard,” she said. “I’m always happy to go home and see everybody.”

Buresh said she would love to be able to perform more locally in the future as that’s always been one of her big goals. She said most people don’t really know what she does and she wants to be able to show them so they can understand better.

“I would really enjoy to perform for more local people,” she said. “I want to perform for people that I know that either aren’t able to come travel to see me, or just haven’t been able to make it yet so they can see what I do. I would really love it.”

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Buresh and another perform help advertise for their Christmas show.

Buresh’s next show will be a Christmas themed show at The Michiana Event Center in Shipshewana, Indiana, from Dec. 13-21.

* This story was published in the Dec. 4 edition of the Seward County Independent as part of a joint project with the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

I am a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and am studying journalism and English. I am from Omaha, Nebraska, and will be graduating from UNL in May 2020.