Naturally Parelli

Like most people (including more than 90% of our readers), I use a computer. I can turn it on, perform tasks pertinent to my job, look things up on the Internet, print in various fonts and sizes, and accomplish my assigned tasks with little


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Like most people (including more than 90% of our readers), I use a computer. I can turn it on, perform tasks pertinent to my job, look things up on the Internet, print in various fonts and sizes, and accomplish my assigned tasks with little thought to the machine or the process. This is how most people use computers. Then there are those people who want to get more out of that machine in front of them. They don’t just want to use it, they want to understand it, to know how to make it work better, faster, and smarter. They are the ones who go into what I call the “guts” or “brains” of the computer and learn to do things to make it a more useful part of their lives. They’re the ones who come to our rescue when we say, “The &#*%*#& thing won’t work right!”

So what does this have to do with understanding horses and learning how to better work with them for our pleasure and theirs? It’s the same thing.

Some people are content to go out, saddle up, and ride for pleasure or pursue one of the many types of competitions we do with our horses. They work hard, and work their horses hard, but they often still wind up with problems that cause them to seek out an expert and say, “The &#*%*#& horse won’t work right. Fix him!” Then there are other horse owners who want to get into the “guts” or the “brains” of the horse in order to work in better harmony with him in the tasks that we choose.

Enter Pat Parelli.

Parelli is the first to say that he didn’t “invent” any of the things he tries to pass along to horse owners. He says that there are people who have known these things he teaches today for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. And Parelli isn’t an overnight wonder. He has been working with and around horses since he was a young man, initially making his living on the rodeo circuit for 14 years. He says that he’s constantly learning, as should all people who work with horses. He’s striving to teach people what he calls savvy, defined as unconscious confidence.

“How do you tell a person doesn’t have savvy, or how does a horse tell?” Parelli asks of his audience. Then he demonstrates walking toward a loose horse while crouched down and holding a bridle/halter behind his back and one hand extended. Laughter ensues from those who have tried that ploy.

“There are many people who come into this program because they are frustrated with their horse, and want him to change. But as they progress, their biggest breakthroughs come when they realize that they are the ones who need to change. There’s a great saying: ‘For things to change, first I must change.’ ”

Parelli starts with a simple thought: People and horses are not the same. People are predators, and horses are prey animals. “The dog and the human want the same things–praise, recognition, and material things,” said Parelli. “The horse wants safety, comfort, food, and play.”

Parelli explains that once a horse knows he is safe, he will “put effort” into staying comfortable and eating. “If he feels both safe and comfortable, then he will play,” he says. “Horses are extremely playful, social animals.”

He added that there are two ways to make a horse uncomfortable–physical and mental. He stressed that punishment doesn’t work on prey animals.

Parelli also has some warnings: “Inside every wild horse is a gentle horse. And inside every gentle or domesticated horse is a wild horse. Never, ever, forget this. You can’t change millions of years of nature’s programming. You can’t force a horse to like you, you have to convince him that you are his friend, his leader, and a part of his herd, even though you look like a predator.”

Parelli explains that a horse is always looking for someone with whom to bond. Part of that bonding includes play. He often challenges his audiences by pro-claiming that while horses can be recreation for us, we can be recreation (play) for them. But first, we have to make the horse feel safe.

In learning about how horses react as prey animals, Parelli emphasizes the animal’s use of the left brain and right brain.

“When horses are in their left brain, they are using the thinking side of their brains. They are calm, in a learning frame of mind, and can think their way through situations and requests. When they are in their right brain, they are not thinking, they are reacting on instinct. They are usually in the flight or fight survival mode where there is no time to think.”

Levels of Learning

In his system for learning, Parelli says he will give students “inspiration and information,” and in return he demands they give “dedication and perspiration.” That isn’t hard to imagine after seeing his students at work/play with their horses; there’s not a pudgy one among them!

There’s an incredible amount of ground work done with Parelli’s system at every level. In Level 1 you learn to play the Seven Games with your horse, learning and teaching him something different with each game. The Seven Games are designed to socialize you and your horse into one herd and are modeled after the games that horses play with each other in the herd environment (see “The Seven Games” on page 44).

A student must master 21 lessons just in Level One, which is known as the Partnership Level. This can be accomplished in 90 days or less by a dedicated student. There are video, audio, and print accessories to help students through the first three levels, as well as a specific set of training equipment (see “Natural Tools” on page 36). Certified instructors are also available for one-on-one or group clinics. The ultimate, however, is a trip to Pagosa Springs, Colo., to Parelli’s International Study Center, where you can bring your horse and take one or more of the courses which are offered from May through October.

Level 1 teaches basic skills and safety. Level 2 teaches interactive skills and fun. Level 3 teaches the fundamentals for excellence, and Level 4 teaches the fundamentals for competition.

Parelli says there are 10 levels in all, and that he considers himself working on Level Eight (“and I’ve got a ways to go”). He says that he’s seen very few Level 10s in his life, mentioning his mentors Ronnie Willis, Ray Hunt, Billy Linfoot, and Tom Dorrance.

When asked if he had ever seen a horse on which Parelli Natural Horse*Man*Ship (PNH) didn’t work, Parelli replied that he has seen a lot of people who have not been able to use this system, but said that he hasn’t had a failure since he reached Level 6. Before that, he admits, there were some failures, but he attributes them to his inexperience in applying the program to the individual horse–not because of the program.

One tip that Parelli gives to his students is that difficult horses are ones for which the opposition reflex works. He defines the opposition reflex as an instinct a horse has that causes him to do the opposite of what a predator wants. “It’s a reaction of self-defense. A horse will have an opposition reflex under the following circumstances: Fear, pain, anger, confusion, misunderstanding, and out of disrespect.”

He says that some examples of the opposition reflex include biting, kicking, rearing, bolting, bucking, pulling back, striking, opposing the bit, swishing the tail, grinding the teeth, laying the ears back, refusing to move, pulling right when you try to go left, etc.

“Most people tend to think that these are vices or signs of disobedience, but they’re actually more related to the prey-predator relationship,” explained Parelli.

Parelli says that his early reputation was built on handling difficult horses and mules. He’s taken feral American horses and wild Australian brumbies through the PNH system successfully.

From Then till Now

“People don’t care how good I am, they care if I can help their horse do better,” Parelli says.

He gave his first seminar in Los Angeles in 1982. “It’s taken me a long time to learn how to teach people to understand,” says Parelli. He likens it to the 1980s movie Karate Kid, where the mentor taught the young student karate moves by doing other things (“wax on, wax off”).

In working with various disciplines, Parelli has found some resistance to his training methods. For example, a Thoroughbred trainer might not want to include jumping obstacles, backing, or sideways movements as part of his racetrack regimen. Parelli uses the following explanation: When your grandmother is going to bake a cake and she lays out all the ingredients, it doesn’t look like a cake. But all those ingredients put together correctly result in a perfect cake.

While Parelli sports a cowboy hat and Western saddle (when he rides with a saddle), he touts PNH as being applicable for everything from miniature horses to draft horses, mules to racehorses. His goal is to take PNH into the world of racing, jumping, dressage, eventing, and reining. He is well on his way in several areas, with top names like Olympic medal winners David and Karen O’Connor in eventing, champion trainer Bobby Frankel in Thoroughbred racing, champion Leon Harrel in cutting horses, and several world champion rodeo riders using Parelli Natural Horse*Man*Ship.

“I want to work with the top people, and it will take (filter down) in the sport,” says Parelli, who has been invited to present at the 2002 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event with the O’Connors.

The ranch in Pagosa Springs is home for Parelli. He bases his operation in the winter on a farm in Florida, and has partnered with William Kriegel on an 86,000-acre ranch in Dillon, Mont., where he keeps about 200 horses. That Montana ranch is called La Cense.

Parelli has traveled and taught extensively, and there are PNH-certified train-ers and distributors around the globe, including Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. PNH-certified instructors are judged on seven critical items: Attitude, presentation, team*man*ship, horse*man*
ship, customer relations, loyalty, and integrity.

Parelli says that he always wanted to be the best horseman he could, but that as a teacher, he wants to create a program that can develop students “as good as I am at half my age.” His other goals are to raise the level of horsemanship throughout the world, and to set new goals for horses and horsemen.

“This program is suitable to every horse,” he says. “It’s universal. It’s like the seven notes work with music.”

The shortfall for most people, Parelli says, is that most don’t know how to get firm without becoming mean or mad. “Tom Dorrance said don’t be gentler than a three-year-old child or meaner than another horse,” Parelli noted.

Young Horses

The mare teaches her foal all seven games by the time he is two weeks old, explains Parelli, who has a special instructor level for those with the credentials to work with young horses. He suggests handling foals right after birth. “The mare needs to teach the foal about horses, and the human needs to help the young horse learn to live in a social condition that includes people.”

He adds that people are better off leaving the young horse alone than doing something counterproductive at a young age. He says that he has stopped using the terms “breaking and training,” and instead is using “starting and developing.”

In working with a young horse, there are five phases: Accepting the human, accepting the partnership, accepting the saddle, accepting the rider, and accepting the bit.

“When Tom Dorrance was on what we thought was his death bed, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to say to me that he hadn’t told me before,” related Parelli, who has started the training of more than 12,000 young horses in his career. “He told me not to knock the curiosity out of a young horse. Then he got better.”

What’s Parelli’s advice for all those who work with horses? Keep it natural. “But they’ve got to know what natural is first!”


The Seven Games are the games that horses play with each other, which Pat Parelli has divided into categories that help owners learn how to play them in a logical order. “These games give you a language to share with your horse, increase trust, and expose the hidden problems between you and your horse,” he says. “They also help fix those problems.

“Most people never ask very much of their horse, or they pretty much do what the horse wants just to keep the peace. They might even have become so used to the horse’s disrespectful behavior that they now accept it as normal. This program will change all that. You will become more conscious of how your horse does or does not respond. You’ll learn how to teach him to respond within a relationship based on love, language, and respect.”

Game #1: The Friendly Game

“This game convinces your horse that you will not act like a predator and that you are friendly and can be trusted,” Parelli explains. “You need to gain his confidence and be able to touch him with a friendly “feel” everywhere on his body. Any areas he is defensive about tell you he is suspicious of you. By using approach and retreat, you can progress to where you have permission to touch every inch of every zone without forcing him to endure it, to where he actually enjoys it. You can then advance to using ropes, sticks, flags, coats (anything you can think of) to help him become braver, more confident, and less skeptical.”

Keys: Smile; rhythm; approach and retreat; desensitization.

Game #2: The Porcupine Game

“This is how you teach a horse to follow a feel and move away from pressure applied with your fingertips or the Carrot Stick (a three-foot whip-like piece of equipment designed for communication, not punishment),” Parelli says. “This game prepares him to understand how to respond to communicative feel (or pressure) from the rein, bit, leg, etc. This pressure is applied with a steady feel (not intermittent poking) and steadily increasing intensity until the horse responds, at which time the pressure is instantly released. It is applied in four phases, with each phase getting progressively stronger (touch the air, the hair, the hide, the skin). Release only when the horse responds. In this way, it’s the release that teaches the horse he made the right move. Reward the slightest try with instant release, rubbing, and a smile. The Porcupine Game needs to be taught in all Zones.”

Keys: Concentrated look; steady pressure; four phases.

Game #3: The Driving Game

“This game teaches the horse to respond by following a suggestion, where he moves without you touching him,” Parelli teaches. “It can be effected at increasingly longer distances as you advance through the program. Again, four phases are important, and as soon as the horse responds, you relax and smile. It’s kind of like ‘constructive spooking,’ but your horse must not be afraid. Learn to drive your horse in all directions using the Zones.”

Keys: Concentrated look; rhythm; four phases.

Game #4: The Yo-Yo Game

“By wiggling the 12-foot line, send the horse backward away from you,” Parelli says. “Then bring him forward toward you in a straight line by ‘combing’ the rope (running it over your open hands). Play the Yo-Yo Game slowly at first, on flat ground. As it gets better, get more provocative and play it on uneven ground, at a faster pace, over a log or pole, or on a longer rope. This is how you teach a horse not to run over you when leading him and develop suspension and self-carriage in his movement. It will also help to counter-balance forward-aholics, improve your stop, and develop a sliding stop.”

Keys: Straightness; responsiveness; imagination.

Game #5: The Circling Game

“Do not confuse The Circling Game with longeing!” Parelli insists. “Longeing sends a horse around in endless circle, and is totally mindless. The Circling Game, on the other hand, stimulates the horse mentally, emotionally, and physically, and teaches him to stay connected to you. It keeps a softness in the line between you and works more mental connection as well as developing a positive pattern or performance pattern of curves and circles. There are three parts to this game: The send, the allow, and the bring back. After you send your horse out onto the circle, relax and leave him alone. Smile and pass the rope around your back, giving the horse the opportunity to take responsibility for maintaining motion on the circle. Do not fall into the trap of clucking him along, as this creates a dulled attitude.

“Do a minimum of two laps and a maximum of four laps, otherwise your horse will get physically fitter, but his mind will go to pot. I use all of the Seven Games to get a horse physically, mentally, and emotionally fit.

“Disengagement of the hindquarters is very important. It’s what you do when you bring him back. (Stopping him out on the circle is not done until the Level 2 Harmony program. You need your horse to think about coming to you at this point.) It is how you teach a horse control–mentally, emotionally, and physically.”

Keys: Three parts–send, allow, bring back; four phases; responsibility for the horse.

Game #6: The Sideways Game

“Note that this is sideways, not side pass,” Parelli explains. “It is about teaching the horse to go sideways equally to the right and left, with ease. Teaching your horse to athletically move himself sideways is important for several reasons: For developing suspension, for lead changes and spins, and as a counter-balance for “forward-aholic” horses (like ex-racehorses). Start slow and right, and use a fence or rail to prevent forward movement. (You’ll learn how to do this without a fence in the Harmony program.)”

Keys: Long rope; Zone 1 and Zone 4; four phases.

Game #7: The Squeeze Game

“Horses by nature are claustrophobic,” Parelli says. “They are afraid of any small or tight spaces because this spells disaster for prey animals. The Squeeze Game teaches your horse to become braver and calmer, and to squeeze through narrow spots without concern. Start with a large gap and as your horse gets more confident, make the space smaller and smaller until it is just three feet wide, like the bay of a horse trailer.

“You can use the principle of The Squeeze Game to teach the horse to jump, go into trailers, wash bays, racing barriers, roping boxes, bucking chutes, or even help him get over cinchiness.”

Keys: Walk backward; start with a large space; four phases, practical challenges and applications

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Written by:

Kimberly S. Brown is the editor of EquiManagement/ and the group publisher of the Equine Health Network at Equine Network LLC.

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