Pat Parelli's Mission is Simple but Powerful
by Cynthia McFarland
This article was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
If there’s one thing Pat Parelli understands, it’s the horse. His mission is simple but powerful: to share that knowledge with every horse owner out there.
Pat’s life has centered on horses since his earliest memories. From his fist horse, a grade mare rescued from a cali-fornia slaughterhouse, he was determined to learn everything possible about the amazing animals that had so thoroughly captured his imagination.
Free-spirited and competitive, he caught rodeo fever while still in high school and went on to win some 25 buckles over a career that spanned 14 years. The 1972 bareback rookie of the year, Pat rode 98% of his horses during his rodeo years and went seven years without ever getting bucked off.
Successful in reined cow horse events throughout the 1970s, he showed a number of good horses and also made headlines riding some remarkable mules, including thumper, on which he won 50 of 52 reining or reined cow-horse classes. Pat even founded the clovis mule days event and organized it for several years.
But it was not the rodeo arena or the performance world that would make Pat Parelli a household name among horse owners.
In his early days as a horse trainer, Pat’s greatest frustration was handing a good horse over to an owner who, despite his or her good intentions, lacked horsemanship skills and knowledge. He realized then that teaching people—not horses—was the way to ultimately change the horses’ world for the better.
Since his first clinics held in 1981, his system of Parelli natural horse-manship has literally spread around the globe, using psychology and communication in the form of love, language and leadership. Teaching people how to be successful with horses without fear, force or intimidation, his program has reached horse lovers around the world—from backyard first-time owners to Queen Elizabeth herself.
Although Pat notes that some 80% of horse owners world-wide do nothing competitive with their horses, the remain-ing 20% are into performance and many compete seriously, some at the highest levels.
For those riders who choose to compete, Pat encourages them to always put the horse—not the event—at the center of their focus. We caught up with him on a recent afternoon to discover his thoughts on the performance world, and to learn how riders can pursue those goals naturally.
A lot of people own horses and ride because they want to compete. What is your outlook on the performance world from a natural horsemanship perspective?
“To be natural with horses you have to put the principle before the purpose. Where people get in trouble is becoming too time—and goal—oriented. The date of an event becomes imperative even if the horse can’t catch up.
“A lot of people make the process look like the product, meaning they train the way they envision competing. For example, if they ride dressage, then they train as if they were riding a dressage test. A lot of people try to start with the fundamentals of performance when the horse is still having con?dence issues. He still hasn’t really decided that riding is a fun thing to do.
“One of the things tom dorrance said is that we have to ‘be particular without being critical.’ The higher and loftier their goals, the more people tend to be critical.
“With Parelli natural horse-manship, we follow the formula we’ve created. We take care of safety issues ?rst. Then the ‘fun’ things come second. The pursuit of excellence is third and the fundamentals of performance are fourth.
“The first steps are the ‘cake,’ learning the sport is the ‘icing’ on the cake, the candles are tuning up before the event and the day of competition is when you light the candles. Parelli puts more emphasis on building the cake than the icing and the candles. If you’ve ever been to a wedding and seen a cake that is beautiful on the outside with extra thick icing, but when you have a piece it doesn’t taste good, then you’ll understand why we put so much importance on the cake itself.
”How do you look at the performance world today as opposed to how you looked at it back when you were training horses instead of people?
“Back then that was the only world I knew, so my horizon was much shorter and my scope much narrower. Now i can see what the whole horse industry is about. This perspective gives me more purpose, principle and patience to give the horse what he needs. I always say that any goal is possible as long as the horse is in charge of the principles and the time line.“
If I was still training performance horses, I’d still emphasize teaching horsemanship before sportsmanship. If I were to be a sport trainer, I think I’d have to be more of a personal coach. I would put about 75% of my effort into being a coach and only about 25% into training the horse.
“My advice to anybody who wants to be an equine professional is to realize that it’s not a horse business, it’s a people business. You need to help people and become an aid to them rather than a crutch.
”What do you see different in the performance world today from how it used to be?
“The number one difference is that most people today who are riding in competition are people who just got into horses as adults. Some of them have only had a horse for two or three years. A lot of the trainers are ex-youth show ‘stars’ who’ve gotten jobs as assistant trainers and have only ridden finished horses. Back in my early days, we rode every nag that came along!
“I have to say that the level of talent in the horses is much higher today than it used to be. Some of the horses that are considered discards or ‘throw away’ horses today would have been top of the heap back in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, I see a higher and higher attrition rate today in many sports, including dressage, reining, cutting, and working cow horse events. More and more horses don’t make it or are used up by the time they’re four or five years old. With Parelli, our horses are just getting started by the time they’re four and five. We’re looking for partners for life. Magic is a great example. She’s 15 this year and I’m competing on her in cutting and roping off her now, too.
“We put about 1000 hours of foundation training on our horses before we start the sport training. Our concept is having horses that are not worn out mentally, emotion-ally, or physically. My job is to deliver the training in such a palatable way that the horse feels like the luckiest horse in the world, like he’s living his dream through our partnership. I see a lot of horses in the performance world that look like the unluckiest horses in the world. They’re depressed and not having any fun at what they’re doing.
”How does someone know they have the right horse for a specific discipline? How do you suggest they choose the right horse?
“There are four elements to success: talent, skills, dedication, and luck. You need all four to succeed at the highest performance levels.
“If I’m looking for a competition horse, I ask questions of the horse. For example, if I’m looking for a cutting horse, I would ask: are you innately a cow horse? Will you let me help you? Are you a show horse?
“The answer has to be yes to those three questions in order to have a successful competition horse. If the answer is yes, then we’re on our way. If the horse doesn’t really like the sport enough, he’s not going to take the rigors of training very well.
“The reason you want a ‘show horse’ is an important one. I’ve had horses that were really good cow horses and trained really well, but when they got to the show, they were 20% less the horse there than they were at home. I’ve had other horses do well at home but do really well at the show. I understand this because I’m the same way; I’m a really good horseman at home, but I become a super horseman at a seminar. When it’s lights, camera, action, I turn into super Pat! Not all horses are that way, but that’s the kind of horse you want if you’re going to compete.
”Some Parelli students have serious performance goals. How do you approach that with them?
“I recommend that they follow my program through level 4, no matter what sport they are interested in. Then I encourage them to find a Parelli-friendly trainer of high caliber in their particular sport, someone who’s in congress with us philosophically, for example, David and Karen O’Connor in three-day eventing, Walter Zettl for dressage, Craig Johnson in reining, or Darren Simpkins for cutting.
“We can help you with the cake and then let the other professionals help you with the ins and outs of sport training.
“You also need to be realistic and realize that reaching high level performance takes time. We live in an instant gratification society, but you have to take the time it takes; there’s no way around it. A lot of people want to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there!
”Once they get to that level, is there a big difference between how Parelli students pursue performance fundamentals and the way the rest of the horse world pursues them?
“When you get to the fundamentals of performance in our program it looks much like any other professional program. When you get to high level performance, such as reining, cutting, dressage, there’s very little difference between our program and other world class competitors. We just spend more time on foundation (cake) and fundamentals than on sport training.
“Our whole idea is to get the horse to have so much dignity and exuberance that he becomes a competitor for life. Then you don’t have to get another horse because you’ve burned him out.
“We believe in equine partners for life, students for life, and even employees for life with the people who work with us. We’re most known among recreational riders for safety and fun, but we’ve had numerous professionals who’ve used our program to win in various disciplines.
“Some of our students have been people like Darren Simpkins from Australia, who showed Reys Dual Badger (dual rey x lip-shy) to 2006 ncha horse of year honors. Hall of fame jockey Julie Krone is another Parelli student who was at the top of her field and is now studying with us. Bob Duncan, formerly the head starter for the new york racing association, has been a Parelli student for years and brought natural horsemanship principles to schooling thoroughbreds in the starting gate at New York racetracks. Lauren Barwick, who is considered the number one-ranked para-equestrian in Canada, is a Parelli student and is planning to compete at the next paralympics to be held in China.
”If you could change one thing about how performance horses are typically trained and prepared for competition, what would it be?
“The one thing I would change is to up the minimum age for horses in performance—whether it be racing, showing or any other competition event—by 18 months. So for example, instead of a horse coming four years old in a competition, he would have to be five and a half years old.
“I would also add in ‘longevity awards’ to horses that are still competing successfully as they age. I would reward horses that are competing well when they are older, such as into their teens, and give them huge praise, recognition and material rewards.
”What do you want the future to look like in terms of performance/competition for horses and humans?
“I’d like to see more horses taken to top levels of performance, but in such a provocative and natural manner that the horse doesn’t even know he’s being ‘trained.’ It should be just like a child learning to talk; one day they say their first word and the next thing you know they’re having a conversation. It’s just a natural occurrence and that’s the way it should be with horses.”