It takes something to get a 1,000-pound horse to do what you want it to. That "something," says professional horseman Pat Parelli, does not mean forcing the animal into submission--but rather persuading it that you both want to do the same thing.
Parelli, who prefers to be called a horse "behaviorist" rather than a trainer, is illustrating his point this weekend at a horse-and-rider improvement clinic at El Rodeo Stables in Brea. More than a dozen riders are taking part in the clinic, which is designed to teach them to communicate with their horses through understanding and psychology instead of force and fear.
"I want you to understand your horse, but more so, the horse wants you to understand him," Parelli tells his students. "He can't speak English and you can't whinny, so you have to communicate with each other through the same body language."
That eliminates the need for mechanical training devices such as severe bits, martingales and draw reins, he says. "When most riders start having trouble with their horse, they go right out to the tack shop and buy him a new bit. That's the wrong thing to do. You should work on your leadership abilities instead."
Parelli has demonstrated such abilities far and wide--including the 1984 Olympics, where he gave a riding exhibition aboard a mule. In a "Look, Ma, no hands" style, he put the mule through its paces without a bridle.
From his northern California ranch, Parelli travels to clinics throughout the country, usually with his stallion, Salty Doc, in tow to demonstrate his philosophy.
The 33-year-old horseman and the stallion are so attuned to each other that Parelli guides the horse through intricate riding movements without a bridle: flying changes of lead, backing, 360-degree spins and a sliding stop from a full gallop. He uses subtle riding cues and imperceptible shifts in his body weight to guide the horse.
Judy Cunningham and Mike Black of Garden Grove, who have watched Parelli perform his magic and have participated in two of his clinics, organized this weekend's event in Brea.
"I'm really sold on Pat's methods. He can show you how to be safe around horses and still treat the horse with courtesy and kindness," Cunningham says. "He has ways of solving problems that always make you feel good. Once you start thinking that way, I find the horse responds better and becomes a more willing partner in the process."
Cunningham came around to that way of thinking when she watched Parelli work with a "problem horse" she had brought to one of his clinics. The big thoroughbred mare, which belongs to Black, had been "acting crazy" for six months, she says.
"Pat told me the problem wasn't in the horse's mind--it was in her back," says Cunningham, who on Parelli's advice brought the mare to a muscle specialist.
"Now she's like a different animal," says Cunningham, who is riding the mare in this weekend's clinic.
Parelli acquired his horse sense from masters who, he says, came from an era when "people had a horse because they needed one, not because they wanted one." He learned on the range with old-time cowboys and also studied the classical principles of dressage master Alois Podhajsky. To Parelli, horsemanship is horsemanship, no matter the style of riding.
Riders participate in his clinics with just about every type of horse and tack imaginable: quarter horses in Western gear, German warmbloods in dressage saddles, Morgans in saddle-seat tack, thoroughbreds in hunt-seat saddles. Inevitably, the results are the same.
"A really well-trained horse is one that anybody can ride," he says. "The horse's performance should adapt to the rider's ability. If you can drive a Chevy, you can drive a Rolls."
But just as people need to acquire horse sense, he says horses need "people sense." In their own environment--the open range--horses can perceive danger and know when to flee. But when they are brought into man's environment, Parelli says, riders must teach them what they should and should not fear. Too often, he says, they fear man.
Through what he calls a "controlled catastrophe," Parelli teaches the horse to trust man and teaches the rider to save himself from injury.
First comes the horse sense part of the lesson: Parelli stands on the ground and shakes a flag at a horse, which predictably spooks and tries to run away with the rider. He tells the rider to tighten one rein, pulling the horse into a circle so that it cannot run away.
Then some people sense for the horse: Still standing in the riding arena, Parelli holds the flag until the horse eventually becomes curious enough--and trusting enough--to reach toward it with its nose. Once the horse touches the flag, it is patted and reassured by the rider. Parelli shakes the flag at the horse again. This time the horse doesn't flinch.