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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, 3 January 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 

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