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My 101 Guide to Parelli Natural Horsemanship!

This is an article I wrote at the invitation of my goddaughter Verena.  Verena is passionate about dog training and has recently graduated f...

Sunday 9 October 2016

Competition and horse welfare - Can they be compatible?

One of my non horsey friends once asked me if my horses actually enjoyed being ridden, and whether given the choice, they would ever want a rider on their backs.

With the last Olympic and Paralympic Games behind us, we heard and read growing concerns about the welfare of horses at these high levels of competition, and some groups are even saying that equestrian events should be excluded from the big games (although this also has a lot to do with economics and the cost of hosting equestrian events).

Is it fair to ask a horse to travel such long distances and endure very unnatural living and training conditions for the sake of competition, a strictly human endeavor?  Is it humane to endanger horse and rider by requiring them to jump enormous fixed fences at extreme levels of difficulty, as seen in eventing?  How about those horses who have to submit to questionable training methods that are deemed cruel, harsh and even abusive?  Every sport has them!

Cottesmore Leap (Burghley Horse Trials)!

Difficult questions are being asked.  I do believe most riders out there truly love their horses...  I always loved mine deeply, even when I competed and rode very traditionally in the hunter-jumper world.  Even when I had to force my horse into a trailer for a show, or put a chain over her nose to clip her ears.  I just did not know what I did not know, and I did what I was taught to do by well regarded coaches.  Did I ever question my technique - yes, often.  Did I know there was another way, no, not then (this was over 35 years ago).  I had not yet been exposed to other systems or methods, and I was being directed and maintained on a competitive track. Let's be realistic:  this is how a large number of coaches are able to earn a living... it is a fact that riders that compete generally spend more money than recreational horse people - on lessons, horses, coaching and entry fees, etc.

Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet, social media and the growth of natural horsemanship and horse welfare movements, it is harder to remain unaware and it has become impossible to forget, if not ignore, that the world is watching how riders and competitors are achieving their results. The issues arise when the love of the sport and the need for recognition start overtaking the love of the horse... in other words, when the goal becomes more important than the relationship.

Jolie, my former competition horse and the reason I found a different way (Coco 2003)

Back to the first question:  do my horses enjoy being ridden?  I truly believe they do, because they have been given the opportunity of a kind, solid start (or restart) and foundation training, one that values their dignity, their confidence and allows them to understand the process.  One that allows them to learn the fundamental skills they need to operate confidently in our environment and prepares them for a specialized endeavor.  They find purpose in the riding, because I try very hard to give it meaning and provide variety.  I believe it enriches their otherwise very monotonous lives in always too small pastures where everything is provided and they don't even have to flee from predators.  I am convinced that just like us, horses need to have a sense of purpose and a reason for being in their lives.  In the wild, they have to find food, water, protect the herd, reproduce and care for their offspring and herd mates.  In our human and unnatural world, if left to themselves, they become pasture ornaments or barnyard pets with limited stimulation and very few opportunities to think, make decisions and learn.  Horses do love to learn!

I see it as my duty and responsibility as a horse owner to provide meaningful enrichment to their lives by setting them up to learn something new every day, to become calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic.  Idle hooves are the devil's workshop and horses, not unlike dogs and children, do need regular activity and mental stimulation to stay in balance, mentally, emotionally and physically.

Competition can offer such a purpose and meaning, and it can also be done WITH the horse rather than TO the horse, as long as we uphold the principles of good horsemanship and allow the horse to set the timeline.  Questionable training methods are often used for the sake of saving time, taking a shortcut to the desired result, often at the expense of the horse's mental, emotional and even physical well being.  The result is a large number of horses that break down young, can no longer take the pressure, sustain training injuries or even die on the job.  I believe competition done with the horse first in mind can be enjoyed by both horse and rider. I also believe that not all horses are suited for competition, just like some people just don't have the personality to enjoy competing.  Putting the relationship first may mean finding a different career avenue for a horse that is not able to cope well with the crowds, the pressure, the constant changes and the travel involved in a competitive career.

Luca Moneta, international show jumping using natural horsemanship

Is it possible to find freedom within the harness of a rider development and competition system that rewards horses that are trained too fast and must compete at young ages?  That rewards the use of artificial aids, quick fix techniques and often unnatural movement and exercises?  That is designed to teach riders to compete above all, and barely addresses essential horsemanship skills and knowledge? A select few have been able to do it; it takes dedication, a strong resolve and a very open mind. Choosing the path less traveled requires grit, passion, hard work, motivation, determination, core values, and a healthy dose of talent.  Thankfully we are seeing more and more examples out there, riders who choose to put the horse's dignity, confidence and well being above all else and still manage to succeed at very high levels.  They are not the norm, but they exist and they give me hope that things are slowly changing.

Lauren Barwick, Canadian Paralympian, Silver and Gold Medallist, and 4 Star Parelli Instructor

What if we all considered achieving the following three things with our horses:  Bonding, Obedience and Exuberance.  Many people are able to achieve bonding with the horse through kindness, food, etc., but without obedience, these large reactive animals can quickly become dangerous.  I spend a lot of my time helping well intended and kind people stay safe and teaching their out of control horses respect without fear.
In the competition world, we see a lot of obedience.  Unfortunately, many of these horses would rather be anywhere else than with their human.  As horsemen, we are constantly learning and relearning how to obtain willing obedience without losing rapport with the horse, and it is a fine balance that can easily tip one way or the other.
Exuberance is the horse's willingness to put effort into what we want.  This is when we know we have won the horse's heart, when they choose to do our thing, their way.  They are then able to express their own selves while contributing to the achievement of a common purpose or goal.  After all, horses will run faster and jump higher out of heart and desire!

Blue Moon, an ordinary horse learning to do extraordinary things through Bonding, Obedience and Exuberance

Another great example is Amy Bowers, Licensed Parelli 4 Star Instructor, who is moving up the eventing ranks and now riding at the Preliminary level. A very talented young rider and accomplished horsewoman, she is learning to master that delicate balance with her partner Piper and quickly getting noticed in the eventing world.

Amy Bowers and Piper

What if every competitor has these three things in place, Bonding, Obedience and Exuberance, Would it help ease many of the concerns for the competing horse's welfare?  Might we be able to see more examples of harmonious partnerships and happier horses, which in turn might fuel a growing interest in equestrian sports?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Are you ready to go back to (horsemanship) school?

It is that time of year, summer is coming to an end and we start to prepare for fall and winter...  Yet some of the best riding months are still ahead of us, with cooler temperatures, bug free days and gorgeous colors.

My J2S Your Journey to SavvyTM distance coaching program has been extremely well received in the last 2 years. Students especially love the group interaction and support, as well as the guided learning with regular assignments, immediate feedback, timely answers to questions, and live coaching.

The distance format allows them to work at their own pace in their own environment, and on their own timeline, while staying accountable and remaining motivated by the group and the instructor.
The group coaching can be further enhanced with the addition of one-on-one video coaching options for those of you who want more specific support and coaching on a monthly or bi-weekly basis.
J2S combines video coaching, group interaction, support and guided learning with a Licensed Parelli Professional, all from the comfort of your own home and barn!

Get focused, make progress, meet new friends, have fun thanks to this innovative format!
Registrations are now open for the next class starting October 1st.  Take a look at the different options and make sure to sign up before September 25th to enjoy a fall season full of Learning, Experiencing, Sharing, Success and Celebration!

I sincerely hope you will consider joining us and I look forward to helping you on your journey!
Naturally yours,

Geneviève Benoit
Licensed Parelli 3-Star Instructor

What's new in J2S?

J2S 2.0 was launched last March.  Students still enjoyed the connection and group support, as well as the opportunity of receiving one-on-one coaching with the instructor. However, this improved version features a brand new curriculum, based on the new Savvy Club’s 12 Touchstones of Horsemanship, simplified assignments, and more fun tasks!

This new class will be held for 3 months instead of 4 (ending in December).

Here are a few of the great comments received from past classes:

"J2S is already the best value I’ve seen in horsemanship – anywhere, anytime."

"I really like your leadership and direction in the group. I have already progressed more with my horse in the first week than the previous six months (or longer). I thought the homework gave me a lot to think about … but then there was the hangout!"

"I LOVE this class! I have done more with my horse and learned more already than I have in a very long time (if ever).  And what a treat to be with like-minded people! I already feel so much less isolated.  I may never graduate"

Registrations are now open for the October 2016 class.

Click here for details and registration forms

Sunday 19 June 2016

This week, the horsemanship world lost a great teacher and horseman and I lost a friend

The news struck me fast and furious.  Mark Russell suffered a horse accident at a clinic a week ago and he was being flown to Boston, unconscious with serious neck injuries.  A quick exchange with his wife Hela who was waiting to fly to meet him left little doubt... We had to prepare to say goodbye.

A day later, Hela posted the sad inevitable news.  Mark was gone.  He died doing what he loved, pursuing his life's work - riding a young horse and teaching.  The horsemanship world and I have been mourning since.

You see, there has been a huge outpouring of love and sadness at this news.  Mark was widely appreciated and loved by his students and all who spent time with him.  How could they not love him?  He was wise, patient, incredibly giving, highly intelligent, generous and so knowledgeable.  He was an advocate of the horse.  He smiled and shared his wisdom and understanding with generosity and passion for the horse and the people who love them.

I could go on and on about his career, but they are many people in much better positions than I to do him justice.  I want to speak of the man, the friend that Mark was to me.

He started by being my farrier.  My young Lusitano Menina was quite particular about her front feet, and since my trimming skills were only budding, and no other professional was having much success with her, I happened upon Mark.  He showed up in his truck and trimmed her right in the parking lot without fuss or dust.  I instantly knew he was different.  She loved him.  She did not love everyone, especially when it came to holding her precious feet.  Little did I know that Mark and I would share as much as we did.  I did not know Hela then, they were not married and he had kept her to himself.  Every time he showed up at the Rhode Island farm where I worked, we would talk horses, especially young horses, as I learned to educate my spirited young filly.  He told me to 'get a deep seat and a far away look' as he tickled her right on the loins and she cabrioled on the spot!  I knew I had my hands full with this one. He knew what she was apt to do, and how great she could become, I accepted the lesson and the challenge.

Mark had not yet published his first book, Lessons in Lightness: The Art of Educating the Horse.  That was going to come soon after.  Only a small select group of people had seem him ride, and he was not yet doing much in the way of clinics.  He was self-effacing and never put himself forward, he was easy to miss. Unless you had an eye for horses and how they respond to humans.

Then suddenly, he was married to Hela and they moved to Tennessee!  I am not sure how that happened, it just happened.  I was getting out of Rhode Island and preparing to enter Parelli University hoping to become a Licensed Parelli Instructor.  My only riding horse was diagnosed with DSLD and had to be retired a few months before my move to Florida.  Menina was just a baby.  So Mark offered a horse - Easter - who is featured in his first book!  He said I could have her for however long I needed her to go through my training with the Parellis.  She had some baggage from a previous owner, and he only had a few hours on her, but, as he told me, 'she is tough as nails, very well bred and she is a good horse.  Take care of her and she will take care of you'.  He had liked how I handled and ridden the horses at the farm and thought we would be good together.  What a gift!

I drove to Tennessee with baby Menina in the trailer to pick up Easter, and spent a few days on the new farm.  This is when I got to know Hela.  Mark and I talked horses, Hela was adjusting to life on a farm. Mark gave me his book, signed it and wrote something about 'lightness'.  We talked some more, I helped with chores and I cooked for them.  The farm has an old plank barn on it, there was barbed wire everywhere, and the house was not even heated!  The only riding enclosure was a round pen, which I believe was Mark's playground for several years until he build an arena.  This is where we introduced Easter to Menina, and left them overnight to bond before I headed South.  They have been pair bonded to this day. Easter adopted Menina as a mother adopts a baby and they have been best friends ever since.

Several months later I returned to Tennessee with both horses and left them in Mark and Hela's care for a few weeks while I went home to visit family and sort out my life before returning to the Parelli campus, this time in Colorado for the summer months.  Once again, we shared stories, sat on the porch and I cooked for them.  Hela was adjusting, learning, still doubting, but faithfully doing her best.  She loved Mark and she was going to embrace the lifestyle.  I gathered my horses and I left for Colorado.  Throughout those first months with Parelli, I was learning to get to know Easter.  She had huge confidence issues, especially with riding, at least my riding! It took me a while to recognize it and I had to learn to earn her trust.  But what she did have, and I take no credit for it, was a deep understanding of contact and flexion, and a lightness to the bridle I had never felt before in my life.  She taught me what light could be, and I have since been able to take that feel to my other horses.  She taught me only because Mark taught her!  Her flexion started from way in the hind and carried on through to the hand and rider.  I was left with a big responsibility, and that was to preserve it! That horse was going to return to Mark, and I kept thinking, what if I 'break' her?  I remember a session riding with Karen Rohlf and Karen was explaining connection with the reins.  She took a feel of Easter's bridle on the ground, and with surprise, said 'Wow, that is light'.  It is all Mark's doing, I replied, I am just trying to keep it that way.

At the end of my year at Parelli, I returned Easter to Mark, hugely grateful for this wonderful mare and a fabulous gift of learning.  By then, we were doing most of the higher level tasks in the Parelli program, and Finesse was definitely our best savvy.  Mark liked what I did with her, he saw the bond we had developed, and he told me we had done well together and she had to be my horse... he would keep her until I could come back to give her a home. Six months later, we met in Connecticut and I took her home for good. Now 21, Easter is retired from riding due to old scarring in her legs from the damage done to her earlier in life and resulting arthritis, but I still play with her on the ground. She is a wonderful friend and partner, the lead mare in my small herd and a reminder of all I have accomplished in my journey.  Today she takes on a new aura as she carries Mark's memory and the full meaning of the gifts he left me before moving on.  Did I ever really thank him?

My last visit with Mark was at a clinic in Florida in 2014.  I still remember his smile and warm hug as we finally reconnected, and I spent the weekend watching him teach and ride.  We joked and reminisced about past days and mishaps, and I intently watched and listened as he shared his extensive knowledge.  I told him I thought I had finally learned enough to begin understanding what he was teaching!  He laughed at that.

At one point, he was riding a student's horse and no one was paying any attention to him or to what he was doing, least of all the owner.  The horse carried many physical and emotional scars from years of poor riding and handling, and Mark was softly and patiently working through the tensions to help him relax, find a better posture, soften, while explaining what he felt.  He did that so well, he knew how to restore a horse to health and comfort.

Later in the day, I asked him if it bothered him at all that everyone seemed so uninterested and disrespectful. He smiled and said 'I am here and this is what I do.  Not everyone is here to learn.  But you are here to learn.  So it is all good.'  What a lesson!  As a coach and teacher myself, how could I find that grounding and forgiveness in myself, and be able to be genuinely humble and loving in the presence of less than stellar students?  Knowing that we all have our own journey and that it is not be measured by who is doing what at the time.  Another gift.  I promised I would find a way to see him again.  Then life happened and I could not keep my promise.  Now he is gone.

Mark will remembered fondly and his beautiful spirit lives on. I will cherish Easter girl until she is ready to leave this world as one of the greatest gift I got from Mark. Without him and her I would not be where I am, I would not be the horsewoman I have become. They taught me a lot. I will cherish all my memories of times spent with Mark and Hela, in New England, in Tennessee, in Florida. Farewell Mark, we love you, we hope to make you proud as you watch from the heavens.

Hela is left with a farm full of animals and horses, medical bills, and the grief of losing a husband unexpectedly.  Mark Russell passionately, progressively and uncompromisingly worked to become a remarkable horseman. He was a teacher whose communication skills transcended the horse and made him a respected, sought after clinician worldwide. His work inspired horses and horse lovers, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

The impact of his immediate loss to the horse world is profound, as is the hardship for his family that will be felt far into the future. We are coming together to show our support for a man who has changed the lives of so many of us forever. 

Because of all the generous donations, Hela and her friends will be able to keep producing more of Mark's work. That is a blessing. Thank you for everyone that has contributed so generously, and if you would like to contribute, but have not had a chance to do so, that would be wonderful!

If you would like to donate to this fund, click here.

You don't dance by forcing your partner into movements

Dressage should serve the horse, not the horse serve dressage

Sit on your horse like a champagne bubble

Any retraction of the reins leads to compression, not collection

Mark Russell