Sunday, October 9, 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, September 7, 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, June 19, 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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What does YOUR journey to savvy look like? The power of doing simple things with excellence and having support

Earlier this year, I launched a brand new distance group coaching format which has drawn attention from students around the world.  Ever since I started teaching Parelli 10 years ago, I have always wanted to be able to follow students on their journey for more than a couple of days at a time.  Clinics are certainly fun and I love to see the changes in people and horses that can be achieved on only a couple of days;  they also foster new friendships and a sense of community.  However, once everyone goes home,  the instructor might not see or hear from those students again for months if not years, and we can only hope that they have felt inspired enought to continue seeking more knowledge.  I always felt a bit disheartened to see the same people come back year after year and look exactly the same as the year before.  Why were they not progressing?  

Looking in the mirror at my own horsemanship, I reflected on those times where I was not making progress and at the obstacles I had to face to keep advancing my skills and my horses.  Like most students, I don't have my own facility and I have to contend with the constraints of boarding.  In order to be allowed to be different, I have in the last few years resorted to boarding my horses at small, privately owned facilities which are open to a Parelli mindset.  That freedom to do the kind of horsemanship I want to do often comes with lack of training facilities, no indoor arena, small spaces to ride and having to contend with weather conditions - challenges that most of my students also face daily.

Isolation is another factor we all experience unless we can be lucky enough to be surrounded by like minded professionals or friends.  Keeping the motivation alive and managing pitfalls can be challenging without support, even in the best of times.  Compounded with factors involving weather, time, timing, availability and just plain lack of focus or goals, this can be a steep hill to climb even for the most dedicated rider, especially when it means finding time away from work or familly, having to get in the car and commute to the barn!

So with that in mind, I created a group distance coaching format which is designed to address these issues.  

Students have joined from all walks of life, ages and stages.  From beginner to Level 4 students, some as far as the UK and Australia, it has been a diverse yet incredibly fun group of aspiring horsewomen (and now even a gentleman!) sharing and supporting each other while being guided and instructed through various horsemanship concepts and assignments.

The key to J2S Your Journey to SavvyTM is that everyone is on their own journey and while guided, is allowed to progress at their own speed and level.  The primary rule is a good attitude, natural, positive and progressive, and we also try to have fun as we learn.

We celebrate our accomplishments and breakthroughts, and help those who are in the Learning Pit see what is on the other side of the wall.

It has been absolutely wonderful for me as an instructor to see students actually gaining depth and scope into the program, improving their relationships with their horses and getting more and more savvy each month!

Here are a couple fun pics and videos of current J2S members and what they have to say about their journey.

Melody (Brandon, Manitoba) started out in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter in the Prairies. She was still recovering from a major horseback riding accident which left her physically impaired and scared to ride.  But mostly, she had to come to terms with the fact that she did not understand why her horses did not act like partners. This is her third J2S class and to quote:  "I have attended many clinics and ridden in many places -- BC, SK, MB, ND, CA -- but I learned to learn in J2S and it has completely changed my horsemanship."   She has started to ride again, with savvy, and after almost getting out of horses altogether, is now having a great time with her four equines.  Here is fun movie she made of her Haltering with Savvy assignment.

Karen (Nova Scotia) has been a long time Parelli student, but her new partner Java, a young LBE, caused her to seek more regular support.  His playful and dominant nature constrasted sharply with her RBI Humanality.  Through distance coaching and a dedication to studying the program, Karen has made huge strides with her young horse and they are now having a lot of fun together.  Check out her dragging an object project video after I challenged her to teach Java something purposeful and interesting. 
"For me, this J2S class has all been about inspiration. I am able to put all the other key words together when I am inspired by watching each of us learn and grow with our equine partners, share BFO's that hit us in the middle of the night, post triumphs, a few set backs and then more triumphs, and all under the excellent guidance of Geneviève who allows us to take this journey exactly as each of us needs to. That's Inspiration!!"

Sandra and Mariya (Melbourne, Ontario) are a mother and daughter team and Sandra has been a Parelli student for many years. She had however never really taken instruction from a Licensed Parelli Instructor, and was having trouble keeping Mariya interested in riding and playing with her pony Ginger.  I visited their farm a couple of times in 2015 and Mariya's interest started rising.  
In Mariya's words:  "When Geneviève came to Ontario last year, I hardly ever played with my pony.  I was unmotivated and going backwards.  After my first lesson, things changed. I started playing with Ginger at least once a week.   After my second and third lessons, I became motivated and confident about riding again."
Both then joined my distance coaching programs, and are now enjoying a lot of great horse time together.  
Mariya has started riding again and passed her Level 1 with flying colors last fall (L1++).  She is just about ready to submit Level 2 On Line.  This video of Sandra and Mariya made the Parelli social media pages and was their take on an assignement which instructed them to do something fun and imaginative with their horses!

Lisa (Rodney, Ontario) has always dreamed of having a great connection with her mare Derby.  Her little Appaloosa is 21 years old and has been there and done that, and she is a great, safe, steady riding horse.  However, for years, she showed no interest in her human partner and would leave when Lisa showed up.  Through lessons and distance coaching, Lisa learned how to motivate Derby to find her and catch her, and then to connect and want to stay.  For Lisa, this is a dream come through.  Derby will now seek her and catch her from way back in the pasture, leave the herd and the hay to be with her human partner. As a bonus, she is now exhibiting a lot more expressive behavior during their play sessions and offering lots, rather than just being submissive and obedient.
Says Lisa:  "Went out to the pasture this afternoon to bring Derby in for our foot picking project and all the horses were down at the bottom of the pasture . I called Derby and she lifted her head and started walking towards me. Then she started trotting and she trotted the whole way up the pasture to me ... at the front of the whole herd!!!! Trotting !!!! TO ME !!!! Derby !!!! How extremely awesome is that???"

Our next instalment of J2S Your Journey to SavvyTM will be revamped this spring and be centered on the 12 Touchstones of horsemanship.  For me as an instructor, it has been so much fun watching these students grow and learn throughout the year, even during the winter months where we focus on small but important tasks that to keep improving their feel, timing and balance, and their overall relationships with their horses.  By having them study with me consistently for several months, I am able to get to know them, coach and support them through highs and lows, and really see them blossom.  There is nothing more rewarding that that for a coach!

Your Journey to SavvyTM is a group distance coaching program spanning four months and run by Geneviève Benoit, Licensed Parelli 3-Star Instructor.  Students from all over the world gather to share their journey, celebrate their achievements and support each other.  Check out the student video from the first class in 2015!

Find out more information at or on Facebook

Sunday, January 3, 2016

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 from the Karen Pryor Academy.  She wanted to understand more about my approach to horse training, so I had to come up with a simple way to explain Parelli Natural Horsemanship to someone who is not familiar with horses.

I have been a student of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship since 1999, and became a Licensed Instructor in 2005.  Just about everyone I come across asks me what I do with my horses, and my answer usually prompts some kind of statement or opinion from my auditors.  There are many, many horse people who totally adore the Parelli program, and probably just as many who seem to despise it for one reason or another... but in truth, most of you out there probably don't really know what it is, unless you have or are actively studying the program.  So here is my 101 Guide to Parelli!

According to the Parelli Web site:
Parelli Natural Horsemanship’s goal is to help raise the level of horsemanship worldwide for the benefit of horses and the people who love them.
The Parelli Program is a people-training program focused on the study of horse behavior and horsemanship skills. The program spans Four Savvys, or areas of development, through four distinct levels of skill improvement. 
The cornerstones of the program are a dedication to never-ending self-improvement and an acknowledgement that the improvement of horsemanship is a lifelong pursuit for those passionate about the horse. 
The program encourages students to develop creative problem-solving skills and think in a lateral manner, while taking the non-verbal feedback and expression of the horse into consideration. 
As you can see, the Parelli family has a pretty big mission.  This big bold mission requires passion, hard work and dedication, and this has been Pat Parelli's life's work since 1981.  Surprised? Yes, this stuff has been around for more than 30 years, in fact, it has existed in some form or another since ancient times.  Xenophon might have been the first natural horseman on record, and he wrote a fabulous book titled On Horsemanship where he dictated an approach to horse training based on understanding and patience!  

Back to 1981 which marks the year Pat Parelli went on the road and started teaching what he had learned from his mentors.  He is responsible for actually coining the term 'Natural Horsemanship', effectively naming something he had been witnessing and learning with some of the greatest horsemen of the 21st century, a different way to be with horses that treated them with respect and kindness, and got great results without fear, force or intimidation.  In those days, people who knew about this way called it 'IT'.  IT was what the likes of Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Troy Henry, Ronnie Willis and a few others were sharing to a select few who chose to listen, and IT was different. IT treated horses like friends and partners, like intelligent beings that could be taught to do things with their human friends and enjoy them.  IT was a way that was gentler and kinder; it caused horses to actually want to do what their humans asked them to do.  So after trying his hand at the normal way of horse training, Pat came across IT and became a student.  He got pretty good at IT and when he started teaching IT, he decided to give IT a name.  Especially since he was travelling America living out of a motor home and needed something that made sense painted on the trailer to identify his trade!  

Fast forward to now and it has become quite fashionable in horse circles, at least in the recreational world, to hail from the Natural Horsemanship movement, and as a result, many trainers and teachers profess to be doing some kind of Natural Horsemanship or another.  There are more flavours of IT then Ben and Jerry's ice cream could ever come up with!  Let's just say, not all natural horsemanship programs have been created equal, but the fact remains that being kind to your horse has become a popular and well accepted way, and we can only hope more equestrians will get on board with actually walking the talk.

Let's move on to Paragraph 2 - Parelli is a people training program.  You mean we are not really training horses? Any good horseman knows that most horses have people problems, not the reverse.  So Parelli is really about teaching horse owners the skills, communication and leadership qualities they need to develop strong partnerships with their horses.  And yes, the horse learns too along the way.  Here is the kicker:  horses learn 7-10 times faster than we do!  WE ARE THE SLOW ONES.  Which means as instructors, we spend a great deal of time teaching people, and eventually, once they get it, the horse already knows what to do.  That is because it is a NATURAL horsemanship program, meaning that the emphasis is on valuing the horse's nature and that it is designed to make perfect sense in the horse world!  That being said, since horses are natural preys, and we are natural predators, our ways of thinking, doing and responding are innately completely opposite... so we, the slow humans, need to learn to feel, act and play like a horse to be understood.  Hence the people training bit...  We are training horsemen and horsewomen.  This goes way beyond training people to ride, defined as the mere act of not falling off!  In short, Parelli teaches horsemanship skills, or more specifically, the habits and skills humans and horses need to become partners.

Our biggest obstacle to overcome is our own predatory nature which innately guides our instincts, reactions and body language.  Horses can learn to feel safe around us and trust our leadership if we learn to stop acting like predators… which is easier said then done!

The relationship we are striving for approximates that of a mare and her foal.  Through a non verbal language, she guides, teaches, sets boundaries and even disciplines, all in the hopes that her baby will survive and learn to operate in its natural environment.  There is not doubt they share a very strong love bond, even when she has to be firm to be understood, because she is doing it FOR the foal, not TO him.  The foal will naturally follow his dam’s lead, yet remain independent and free to run and play.  That is what we mean by Love, language and leadership in equal doses.

What about the Four Savvys?  These are the four areas of development that make up a well rounded horse and a well rounded horseman.  It starts on the ground, first On Line, then at Liberty.  Horses learn much better when they don't have to carry a live weight on their backs which can cause them to lose their balance, get distracted or confused by conflicting aids.  As it turns out, humans learn way better on the ground too, without having to worry about a 1200 pound live and emotional animal underneath their seat, being bounced around and generally having their brain mostly occupied with balance and safety above all else.  So we teach people focus, feel, and timing on the ground, which helps them develop balance, before they ever get on their horse's back.  In case you are wondering, Parelli students do RIDE their horses, at least, most of them do.  In fact, everything we do on the ground is designed to prepare us and our horse for a successful riding experience.  In the lower levels of the program, ground work is predominent, and riding is more rudimentary.  However, as the students progress through the program, the riding part becomes very prevalent.  First in Freestyle, on a loose rein, eventually without a bridle at all, once the prior and proper preparation has been done.  This helps us develop an independent seat and balanced impulsion.  The horse learns to carry themselves and become emotionally fit, as do the riders.  Finally, in the upper levels, we introduce Finesse, or precision riding, the most difficult savvy because it requires a solid foundation to be graceful and harmonious without creating brace and tension in the horses.  As we progress our riding, we also keep advancing those ground skills to refine our communication skills at longer distances, achieving more complex tasks and some rather spectacular movements On Line and at Liberty.  Just watch someone who has completed Level 4, and you will be amazed at what they can do with their horse!  It's like watching an Olympic skier fly down a mogul hill smoothly and seemingly effortlessly.  It looks easy, yet keep in mind that nobody starts off that good; many hours of hard work and study have been invested in building that kind of skill and harmony.  The Four Savvys are like the four legs of a stool, they give horsemanship strength, durability, stability and purpose.

Parelli students also embrace the fact that horsemanship is a lifelong pursuit and that the learning never ends. While not every student has aspirations of attaining the highest level, all are committed to their horses and to becoming the best human they can be for them.  For many, all they really want is to be safe and have fun on the trail, and that can be achieved in Levels 2 and 3.  On the other end of the scale, some of us strive for excellence and want to have a taste of true unity in its highest form, we want to master the art of horsemanship.  Some of the program's top students and instructors are now winning in top level competition and wowing the crowds with incredible displays of horsemanship.  There is really nothing you cannot do when the horse becomes a part of you - and Parelli offers anyone who wants to know how a pathway, a framework, tools and support to learn and advance to the highest level they want to achieve.  All they need is a commitment to putting the relationship with the horse first, and the dedication required to learn the program as it is laid out.

This is what Parelli Natural Horsemanship IS:

  • A lifelong program to train horsemen and horsewoman who want to build a strong partnership with horses and achieve excellence based on Love, Language and Leadership in equal doses.
  • A foundational program designed to give horses and riders all the basic skills they need to achieve their potential, the set of fundamentals that can eventually lead to excellent performance, in harmony. Think of it as elementary school and high school education which may someday lead to a specialized college diploma.  Would you send your child straight to university?  Same with horses and riders - before they can do dressage, jumping, eventing, cutting, gymkhana, driving or any other sport well, they need to master the fundamentals.
  • A natural approach to horses that uses communication, understanding and psychology rather than force, fear, intimidation and mechanical or chemical means.
  • A way of being with horses, a philosophy, that permeates every interaction, from mundane to sophisticated, on the ground and in the saddle.
  • A program for everyone and anyone - kids, disabled, adults, young and old, novices and seasoned riders, looking for a relationship based approach.
  • A comprehensive and extensive learning system that takes you step-by-step through the skills and concepts you need to become a horseman or woman.
  • An approach that values the relationship and communication with the horse, using the horse's own language and behaviour.
  • A people training program, first and foremost.
This is what Parelli IS NOT:
  • Circus tricks or training.  The obstacles are used to help humans and horses develop puzzle solving skills and engage in compelling conversations; we are not teaching them tricks or automated responses.  We want the horse to keep asking us questions, because in the questions lives the conversation.
  • A method to produced push-button horses or 'robots'.  We certainly never want our horses to behave mindlessly or tune out of the dialogue... that is not natural, that is not a relationship.
  • A quick fix to eradicate problems.  Most horse behavior issues are a result of a poor understanding or relationship with the human.  Horses are generally quite fine in the pasture until we show up!  So taking care of the language, communication and relationship is key - and it takes patience and time to build, rebuild and keep alive, just like any relationship. Confidence and trust are hard to earn, easy to lose.  
  • A 'soft' approach where only positive reinforcement is used.  The leadership component matters a great deal when dealing with such a large and powerful animal.  Horses in a herd can often get quite firm with each other when they establish or reconfirm their own hierarchy or pecking order.  We need to be fair and benevolent leaders, as such it is sometimes necessary to get firm to be understood - providing we always give the horse a choice and he can see it coming.  Being firm without being mean or mad can be quite appropriate - as long as the emotions are kept out of the picture.  The horse knows the difference between a firm phase applied to help them learn and one applied out of frustration or anger.  Negative reinforcement is not 'bad' per say - it just means the stimulus goes away when the horse responds appropriately.  All learning requires some form of pressure, and horses respond very well to the release of a cue at the right moment - it causes them to learn very quickly. Let’s remember that horses are prey animals who value safety, comfort and play above all else, even food.  This is why a scared horse will not eat or drink.  If the human can become that icon of safety and comfort, then provide the right kind of play, horses become very motivated to follow our lead. Providing instant comfort at the right moment with the right timing is much more effective than treats and rewards, although the latter can be used strategically to teach horses to put in additional effort for doing a difficult task.  After all, riding involves various kinds of pressure (the aids - leg, seat, reins) used to communicate to your horse.  Applying this pressure very gradually and slowly, followed by an instant release as soon as the horse responds is how our cues can get lighter over time; in fact, if this is done well and consistently, there will come a time when all the horse will need to respond is a thought.  Horses are consistently exposed to pressure in a human environment – fences, tight spaces, noises, changes, new settings, tack, human contact, etc., and our responsibility as owners and leaders involves teaching them to respond appropriately to different types of pressure.  For example, if my horse’s leg were to get caught on a wire, his natural instinct would dictate that he pulls until he can free himself and run, even if that means leaving the leg behind.  Teaching him to yield to pressure will help him stay safe and healthy in our world.  A horse that has learned to overcome his natural prey instinct and can wait and remain still when he feels a tug on his leg until we can untangle him might have a brighter future in humansville.
  • A program aimed only at recreational riders or people who don't ride!  Indeed it does appeal to many recreational riders, but we also have Olympians and international level athletes using it to develop their horses.  Parelli gives every horse and rider a solid foundation to build on once they choose a sport or specialization.  You also now know that we do ride, and we ride a lot, at least, most of us :-)  And if you are wondering how good you can get on the ground, check out Silke Vallentin, Licensed Parelli 4 Star Instructor, on YouTube.  She may not be able to walk, but she is a great teacher and horsewoman.  Or Lauren Barwick, Paralympian and 4 Star Parelli Instructor, who is paralyzed from the waist down who not only rides, but wins medals at the top of her sport.
What sets Parelli apart:
  • The extensive step by step learning and support system that has been developed over the years and is available worldwide.
  • Highly effective yet gentle tools  that have been developed to enhance the communication between horse and human without causing harm - halters that teach horses to yield to pressure, ropes that provide feel, timing and precision, the famous carrot stick which acts as an extension of your arm, and top of the line saddles and bridles designed with the horse's well being in mind as well as the optimization of the rider's balance and seat.
  • An approach that is tailored to each individual horse.  No two horses are alike, and they all have their own personality, or HorsenalityTM.  We teach riders to understand their horse's Horsenality and unique needs, to read their horse in the moment, and to adjust their training strategies accordingly.
  • We put the emphasis on the mental and emotional first, then and only then, we address the physical aspects of horse training.  Many traditional approaches start and sometimes end with the physical, and the horse’s state of mind tends to be an after thought or secondary concern.  So for example, we may not worry at first whether the horse is ridden or moves in a proper frame or flexion.  We focus on ensuring he can learn to move independently and in self-carriage, in control of his own emotions and impulsion without having to be constantly held back or pushed forward, without fear or tension – which in time will cause him to adopt the desired flexion, posture and frame.  The posture or frame is never forced on the horse, it is an outcome that develops naturally through the levels and can then be refined as long as the horse is calm, connected and responsive.
  • It is an approach driven by principles, not techniques.  The techniques can and will vary extensively based on the rider-horse combination, the situation, the level of training.  The principles however remain steadfast and consistent, and help provide direction, focus and a clear picture of the outcome. Keeping it natural, not making or teaching assumptions, two way communication, mutual responsibilities, the attitude of justice, using body language, teaching humans first, and remembering that we need principles, purpose and time - those guiding principles underlie everything we teach and learn.
I invite you to enjoy a look at Parelli through the years.  You will see some of Parelli's top students with their horses, starting with Linda Parelli, Pat's most dedicated student, as well as others that have now become famous in their own right.

About the author

Geneviève Benoit, founder of VifArgent Horsemanship, is a Licensed Parelli 3 Star Instructor, Level 4 Graduate of the Parelli program, Equine Canada Certified Coach and Certified with the International Society of Rider Biomechanics.
She has been a rider and equestrian for over 40 years and has been teaching Parelli since 2005.
Geneviève has spent over 95 weeks training at both Parelli campuses since 2003, 38 of which directly under Pat Parelli.  She has also been mentored by Linda Parelli.  She is a graduate of the Mastery Program and returns to the campus on a regular basis to upgrade her horsemanship and teaching skills.

For a full biography, go to 

For her introduction video, click below 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Season's Greetings and a Happy New Year! Voeux pour le Temps des Fêtes!

Wishing all of you a fabulous Holiday season with friends and loved ones, and all the best for the New Year. May it bring you joy, heath and success, however you may define it.  Thank you to everyone who has been part of my journey this year, it was an honor to walk with you!  See you in 2016!

Keep it natural!  Naturally yours,

Geneviève Benoit

Je vous souhaite un merveilleux Temps des Fêtes remplie de belles rencontres et de joyeux moments en bonne compagnie.  Que 2016 vous apporte joie, santé et prospérité, ainsi que la réalisation de vos rêves les plus fous!  Merci à tous ceux qui ont fait partie de mon année, ce fut un plaisir de cheminer avec vous!

Que le cheval soit avec vous!  Naturellement vôtre,

Geneviève Benoit

Friday, October 9, 2015

Announcing the third edition of J2S - Your Journey to Savvy Group Distance Coaching Program!

Announcing the third edition of the very popular J2S Your Journey to Savvy Group Distance Coaching Program! 

Stay motivated and progressive through the winter months, with support from a Licensed Parelli 3 Star Instructor and a community of like-minded students.

Registrations are now open, four different packages to choose from. Class starts November 1st! Check out the details in on


This guided distance coaching program was designed to answer many of my students’ and my own challenges with learning the Parelli program at home.  Many of us feel the need to break through the feeling of isolation, have fun, stay progressive, keep the motivation alive and find ways to continue advancing despite weather, facility or time constraints.  The program will provide accountability and consistency, which are key to reaching your horsemanship objectives.  It is built to help you stay focused, stay on track, spark your imagination and inspire new ideas through regular homework, consistent help and support from a Licensed Parelli Professional, as well as opportunities to connect, share and celebrate your achievements with other members of the group.
This is a unique group coaching and support program which does not require you to leave home and allows you to learn under the guidance of a Licensed Parelli Professional; it also provides access to a community of like-minded aspiring natural horsemen and women.  Through homework, weekly group meetings and coaching, you will be able to keep advancing your skills, stay inspired and motivated and share your experience and successes with other students in the program.
Your questions will be answered and you will no longer find yourself ‘stuck’ with no idea on how to start moving forward again.  The homework and challenges will spark your imagination, help you develop your leadership and deepen your relationship with your horse.
It can be done anywhere, anytime and only requires a commitment to learn and the desire to participate (… and an Internet connection).
If your horse is recreation for you, can you be recreation for your horse?

You are not alone!  Join us to stay motivated and get support on your journey to excellence!

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