After a break during the Parelli Savvy Conference in September, a woman and her horse in braids and black dressage attire entered the arena and began going through the movements of a formal competition. In contrast to the fabulous demonstrations by Pat and Linda Parelli and their students, the formality and tightly controlled movements of she and her beautiful horse were a surprise. All that ended with the sound of a needle scratching across her music, as she flung off her black jacket and top hat, and removed her horse’s bit and bridle. The music changed to a lyrical, lively piece...and she and her stunning horse went through the movements required at a top level dressage competition with no bit, no bridle, just a string around the horse’s neck. The horse came alive and added enthusiasm to skill, a combination that won a standing ovation.
Later, we received the same surprise from top reining champion, Craig Johnson. Of course, we knew what he could do, and he demonstrated it brilliantly with spins and sliding stops, all in his classic, elegant style. Then once again, off came the horse’s bit and bridle, and off through classic reining movements they went, with only a light string on the horse’s neck. The crowd got on their feet once again.
These were moments that revealed the power of Parelli’s system. It is indeed about the relationship between horse and rider, regardless of the style or discipline of riding.
Pat & Linda Parelli have wowed people for years with their natural horsemanship. Yet they are not only master horsemen, they are also dedicated and inspiring teachers.
"It’s not about what I can do with horses. It’s about what I can teach you to do," is Pat Parelli’s motto, and he, his wife Linda, and the superb instructors they have developed fulfill their mission with warmth and grace.
I experienced a taste of their inspiring ways during a 3-day visit to the International Learning Center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and at their annual Savvy Conference in September.
The Parelli Horseman’s University recently became the first natural horseman’s university in the world to be accredited. I met students of all ages, backgrounds, and disciplines from the U.S., Denmark, Australia, France, England, and Russia. A 65-year-old gentleman who had just gotten into horses, an Australian woman who’d never ridden before meeting Pat, ranch hands of all ages, a quiet Welshman driving a pair of Belgians, and young men and women in jodhpurs all joined together to learn the foundational skills of natural horsemanship: love, language, and leadership.
Pat describes his program as learning to bake a cake. You don’t start with the frosting. You first establish safety on the ground with your horse, developing communication and respect, and doing it all with love. From there, you can move onto "purpose" games, and then expand into every possible discipline you can imagine with your horse’s enthusiasm and partnership.
The horse experience shifts from being one of dominance, control, and fear into unity, cooperation, enthusiasm, and lightness. These are the qualities that are so impressive to see during any demonstration of Parelli natural horsemanship, whether by Pat, Linda, or their instructors or students. That is what is so remarkable about the Parellis and their program. What looks like magic can be taught and learned with consistent high quality and results. And a remarkable number of smiling faces.
During the three days I and a small group of writers spent with Pat and Linda, we observed and experienced for ourselves their inspiring step-by-step program for learning natural horsemanship. Riding, jumping, roping, and reining with nothing more than a slender rope around the horse’s neck, and playing on the ground with nothing at all to "control" your horse except for the love, language, and leadership that you learn through the program is astounding to see.
The program guides you through Level 1, "Partnership," where you start building trust, respect, safety, and communication with your horse on the ground and in the saddle. Level 2, "Harmony," expands on these foundational skills. You begin playing with your horse at liberty (with no strings attached), and delve more deeply into your riding skills. The magic truly begins at this level, and continues into Level 3, "Refinement," where you advance into skills such as flying lead changes, playing with your horse at greater and greater distances, riding confidently without a bridle, and using the strengths of lateral and vertical flexion. The first three levels are your foundation, your "cake," and from there, you can expand into the direction of your choice.
The fourth level, "Versatility," is for people with professional or very focused goals with their horsemanship, and although the first three courses can be accomplished in a year or less, level 4 takes more time and involves personal lessons with Pat and his top instructors. Courses are offered for becoming an instructor, working with difficult horses, colt-starting, and other vocations in the horse world. Check their website www.parelli.com, to keep up with what is available.
Underlying the entire program is a deep understanding of the horse, natural leadership, and superb communication. Our hands-on opportunities involved another Parelli hallmark: fun! For example, we experienced how students often start their day: with a game of volleyball (Parelli rules: hit the ball as many times as you want, any way you want, just get it to the other side... even if it means kicking the ball under the net!) What do you know...we learned to be quick, flexible, athletic, to think outside the box, be aware of where others were around us and what they were doing, and be creative in teamwork...all qualities we would need as good horsemen, and helpful in any aspect of life.
A further hint of what comes with Parelli natural horsemanship is that you learn to play games with your horse. You don’t work your horse. You play with him. And of course, embedded within the games is everything you need to develop the awesome communication and relationship with your horse that we’ve all likely wished for.
By the end of our three days, we had played with horses "at liberty" (no lead rope or reins). The mare I chose had played the games and knew what they were...but she was a big-spirited horse who wasn’t going to give me the leadership role without my earning it. No push-button horse here. Yet though I was relatively new to doing ground work, there I was running around a cloverleaf pattern with my horse right with me...no halter, no lead rope, no strings attached.
I learned how to ask her to side pass down the length of a log, to trot in a circle around me without my looking at her, to jump logs, and to stand on a small platform. I directed her through a cloverleaf pattern while I stood in the center- without moving my feet. All this in a couple hours of Pat and his instructor’s guidance. We all had smiles on our faces when we were done...including my horse.