Parelli and Marketing

In past weeks I have noticed a lot of negativity whenever Parelli Natural Horsemanship is mentioned on blogs and forums. For all the apparent success of PNH as a business, it is somewhat surprising to me that so many people have difficulty saying anything good about it. You’d think that with a program as popular as PNH, the negative comments would be a small minority. But perhaps the disparagers are small in number and just have loud voices.


I don’t really want to talk about the quality of horsemanship of other businesses. I have my views, just like everybody. However, I am more curious about the venom people have for horsemanship businesses because of marketing strategies and success .


Parelli is arguably the most widely known and used system of horse training in the world. There are others that have a large following too (like John Lyons, Monty Roberts and Clinton Anderson). The thing they have in common is the power of their marketing machine. Irrespective of what you feel about the horsemanship they teach and promote, a lot of effort, time, hard work, skill and expertise has gone into making them household names (at least in the houses of horse people).


This is important to consider. These guys and their marketing power should not be dismissed frivolously. They are an important and valuable force in the horse world.


It’s easy to see why they are important when you consider their popularity and influence on people and horses throughout the world. But why are they valuable when there are many other training approaches available that are as good or perhaps better?


They are valuable because of their popularity. Very many people have been inducted to the idea of looking for better ways to train and interact with their horses because of Parelli and others. For a lot of folks, these trainers were the first introduction to considering the horse to be little more than a machine. Up until Parelli splurged onto the scene, ordinary weekend riders could never dream of becoming trainers and skilled horse people. Before Parelli most average riders had few choices about where to get help with their horse problems and where to learn better horsemanship skills. Most training was focused on competition and horsemanship was just something you absorbed along the way if you were lucky.


Even people who came through the systemized approaches to training (eg PNH and Lyons) and left in search of a better understanding of horses and how they operate, were only able to succeed because the program system encouraged them to think differently. An awful lot of horse people who came to study the teachings of Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and others, have done so because Parelli etc got them searching for a better way. I know that many people who come to my clinics were once enrolled as PNH students or informally followed the Parelli, Monty Roberts, John Lyons or Clinton Anderson systems.


For years, one of the first questions people asked before sending their horse to me was “do you use natural methods?” In the minds of the average horse owner, so-called ‘natural’ methods are the preferred choice for starting and re-educating horses. Whenever people strike a problem with a horse they inevitably go searching for a trainer that fits the ‘natural horsemanship’ profile. The concept of natural horsemanship is so widely held as a better approach, even though nobody can adequately define what it is. I believe this is largely due to the marketing success of Pat Parelli and others.


In fact, I think it is probable that programs like Parelli and other mega-marketers have done more to benefit horses and horse people than Dorrance, Hunt and the rest of us clinicians combined. They simply have influenced far more people to keep searching to be better with horses. For my money, this is a good thing, no matter my views about the horsemanship they teach.


So when people argue they don’t like the training programs that are very good at self-promotion and marketing themselves, I wonder if they are considering how many people have gained from those programs that would otherwise still be using brutal equipment and brutal methods. You may not think very highly of the methods they use compared to what else is available, but it’s hard to argue that many horses are not better off since the words ‘natural horsemanship’ became a normal part of the average horse person’s lexicon.

Puff's Antics


Fifty Shades Of Green

During a lesson at the clinic in Canberra last weekend, Alex asked, “When is a horse no longer a green horse?”


It’s a good question and worth thinking about. The reason it is a matter that deserves consideration is that we tend to think of horses in terms of green or educated, novice or advanced. We use these terms to describe the degree of education of a horse and whether we like it or not, it can influence how we approach a horse’s handling and training.


There was some discussion about when a horse is no longer a green horse among the clinic participants and fence sitters.


One person said that when a horse is broken in, it is no longer green. Another person thought that when the basics are established, a horse is no longer green. Somebody mentioned when a horse is ready for competition and yet another commented about after a certain number of rides.


It is clear that there is no obvious and definitive meaning to when is a horse no longer green. There are many views.


A while back a trainer in the US called Warwick Schiller asked me when did I think a horse could be described as being broken in. I joked that when the owner had run out of money a horse was broken in. However, in truth my real definition is a little less clear. I told him, “A horse is broken in when I can put a schmuck on it and expect things will be ok.”


By that definition, there are an awful lot of horses being ridden for years that are not broken in. I use this definition because it relates to the mindset and comfort of a horse about being ridden. Being broken in is not about what a horse can do when ridden, but what a horse feels about being ridden. A horse that has no trouble inside it about being ridden will learn to tolerate a schmuck rider. But a horse with trouble inside has its survival instinct closer to the surface and is less likely to tolerate bad riding.


If I take that same attitude to the question of when is a horse no longer a green horse, it’s a little easier to define green-ness.


It’s not hard to argue that a horse is green (novice) at anything it does not know or do well. A horse may not be green in regard to some aspects of its work, but when learning new things, it must be the colour of a tree frog.


If we consider that in training we are always teaching a horse new things, we could reason that every horse is green at something. Therefore, there is no such thing as a horse that is not green.


I think this is a good definition to have because it reminds us to be absolutely clear in everything we do with a horse. It encourages patience when a horse makes a mistake. It encourages compassion and empathy when a horse experiences trouble.


However, the downside of this is if we think of a horse as always being green, we can fall into the trap of never trying to push the boundaries of comfort. In order for a horse to learn and become a better riding horse we need to push the comfort zone into the uncomfortable zone. The comfort zone is not an area where much learning takes place. But if we can avoid that trap, thinking of a horse as always being green is unlikely to ever be a mistake.


Of course, it can be argued that there are different shades of green. It probably comes down to a personal view of where each of us consider the line of demarcation exist between novice and educated.


For me, I think a horse can be performing at an advanced level, but still be considered green. Take for instance, a horse that can spin correctly according to the standards of reining competition or a polo horse that is playing at international level or a show jumper that is clearing 1.6m. These horses may be highly educated in their field, yet still not be solid in the basics of being a riding horse. I can recall seeing a Grand Prix dressage horse cantering out of control sideways through the gate of the arena when the judge approached with the blue ribbon in hand. To me, that horse was green because despite being highly trained to perform dressage movements, it was not well-trained to be a riding horse.


Now to turn our attention from the horse to the rider, when is a rider no longer a novice rider? Can we apply the same standard or definition to riders as we might to horses? Is there such a thing as an educated rider?


It seems to me that, like a horse, a rider is always a work in progress. Neither a horse nor a rider is ever finished learning. If this is true, then maybe there is no such thing as a rider that is not green. What do you think?




Regulating a horse’s speed seems to be one of the most common issues that come up on a regular basis at clinics. Either people are lost on how to get their horse to move with more energy or how to move with less energy. It appears that putting the forward in a horse or taking it out is a perpetual mystery to many people.


I want to make it clear from the beginning that in my opinion, forwardness/impulsion is a state of mind. It has little to do with how fast or slow a horse is moving. A horse could cover the ground so slowly that it is overtaken by the shadow of a tree and still be forward. Alternatively, it could be moving so fast that it breaks the sound barrier and yet still not be forward.


Forwardness is the ability to move freely without feeling hindered by a desire to hold back or a necessity to flee.


For a horse to be forward it has to feel comfortable inside. Emotional comfort is a pre-requisite for a horse to be forward, as it is for most things to be of quality. If it is comfortable it’s thoughts are available to be directed by the rider.


When a horse is forward it not only focuses on the rider, but it yields to the rider to think forward. This can only happen when a horse has soft thoughts towards following the feel that a rider presents. If the thoughts are hard, there is a worry about being forward that can either lead to a resistance to move the feet or a desire to take flight and move them too much. Either way, hard thoughts lead to a separation of a horse’s feet from its thoughts.


When a horse is reluctant to move forward with freedom, then the solution is to direct the horse’s thought to be in front. Sticky feet are the result of a horse’s thoughts being behind it, rather than in front where the horse is being asked to go. Nothing will improve until there is a change of thought.


However, don’t confuse dullness to a rider’s leg with a lack of forward. They are not the same thing. Dullness is the result of a horse tuning out (insensitive) to the feel of a rider asking a horse to move. Lack of forward comes from a horse’s worry to yield to being asked to move forward. More often than not, this worry comes from anxiety or confusion caused by the pressure a rider uses, rather than an actual fear to move.


With a dull horse, you might have to use varying amounts of pressure to create a new, more sensitive meaning to the pressure to go forward. On the other hand, when the lack of forward stems from worry about the pressure, it is wise to keep the pressure small, but persistent - and reward well for each small try.


When asking a horse to move results in a flight response, it is mostly associated with fear. Horses that mentally separate from the rider and are hard to slow up, don’t know how to yield to the pressure of being asked to go forward without evoking an adrenal response. Too many riders try to slow the feet without calming the mind. When a rider applies the reins to give them braking power to slow a horse down, more often than not they build more anxiety into a horse. A horse that feels the need to leave will only be made to feel worse when told by a rider that it can’t leave. That’s why so many horse jig-jog (or worse) when heading home on a trail ride.


The best approach for a horse whose mind is way ahead of its feet is to bring the feet and the mind back to the same place, where the rider is. There are various approaches to doing this, but one of the easiest and less risky ideas that work for many horses is to direct the horse’s mind to a different place than where it is going. Rather than tell a horse to stop going so fast, try using the reins to tell it to go some place else like to the left or the right or to circle. It needs to be a small enough turn or circle in order to get a horse to want to slow its feet. When the feet slow, leave the horse alone to speed up again if it wants, then turn or circle again before it leaves in a hard way. Try to be ahead of the thought to leave. The better the timing the quicker the change will come about.


The change of direction encourages the horse’s mind to keep focus on the rider. At first it may take a lot of work and seem like there is no progress. But in small increments, the horse’s thought will focus on the rider in a stronger way and stay for longer. Eventually, a horse will not feel the need to leave and its forward will be soft and free. But it takes practice and consistency.


Like most things relating to having a horse go well, forward is all about a horse’s soft focus (as opposed to hard focus), which is determined by its emotions. Once again, emotions drive behaviour. Is there a behaviour where they don’t?

Things I Don't Know How To Do

Years ago a woman came to a clinic with her thoroughbred crossbred gelding. She had owned him for about 5 years and had been battling all those years with teaching him to slow down. He ran manically whenever she asked for anything more than a walk. She held the reins tight like a handbrake through all her rides, but still the horse wanted to run fast.


She told me that if I couldn’t fix her horse, she was going to sell him for one that was quieter and more sensible.


On the second day of the clinic we swapped horses. I rode her horse and she rode one of mine. It only took a few moments to convince her horse to trot and canter without rushing. Meanwhile, she couldn’t get my horse to go. She kicked and kicked, but my mare just ignored her and wandered around like it had nowhere to go that day. I rode the mare and she immediately woke up and was working like she had been taught.


I told the lady I couldn’t fix her horse, but if she was willing I would try to help her horse by fixing her.


One day I got a phone call from a mother asking if I made house calls to assess horses for purchase. She was shopping for a horse to suit her teenage daughter whom she said was ready to graduate from pony club to open competition. She was looking for a horse that would take her daughter all the way to be nationally competitive. The girl had been riding for six years and mum made it sound like she was ready to go to the Olympics if they could only find her the right horse. They had an open cheque book and wanted to find the horse that would make the daughter a success.


I lied and told the lady I didn’t offer a pre-purchase service, but wished her luck.


A fellow asked me to help him with his horse that had begun to buck. The bloke had been thrown a few times and decided being buried in the sand had lost its glamour. If I couldn’t fix the horse, it was going to get a bullet.


When the horse arrived the first thing I did was check its back. It was very reactive to the touch. I then asked to look at his saddle. From the back of his truck he pulled out a medieval torture device that looked a little like an Australian stock saddle in very bad shape. There was no way this saddle could not be hurting the horse. I asked how long he had been riding in the saddle and said he used it on all his horses for the last 20 years. He told me he had owned the bucking horse for 18 months. Then I asked when did the horse start to buck and the answer was about 6 weeks ago.


I told him that the horse deserved a medal and not a bullet. If he had been tolerating that saddle for 18 months and only began to complain 6 weeks ago he was a special horse. I told him I couldn’t fix his horse. But maybe a few weeks rest, plus a good bodywork therapist and a decent saddle maker could.


In all three of these examples, people put the onus of getting along with their horse on the horse. In the first example, paying enough money for a horse was going to guarantee a novice horsewoman became a successful competitor. In the second, training was going to stop the horse from expressing how badly it felt about the rider. And in the third, training was supposed to make the horse ignore its pain.


I don’t know how to make a horse that feels bad, behave well. I don’t know how to make a horse feel okay about bad riding. I don’t know how to make a horse in physical pain, pretend it’s not.


I just don’t know enough to fix everything.

How can I help a horse feel okay about John Wayne's riding?