A Problem with Parelli

A big thank you to Brette for sharing a current link to the video from this post.

Natural horsemanship has been a method of which great expansion has occurred over the last 15 or so years. We’ve seen it flourish into a great marketing enterprise for many clinicians who expound on the amazing feats it can accomplish. I have a lengthy background in natural horsemanship thanks to one of my first instructors. Even still, there has always been something which struck me as “not alright” in the way that Parelli came across to me, right from the beginning. I’ve seen Pat’s videos, listened to audio and watched demonstrations in person. As his wife, Linda, became more involved and publicly instructive I felt the same way. Unable to put words to those feelings for a long time I continued my own journey.

I hadn’t thought about the Parelli’s beyond a passing thought for some time, and it was only after being sent this video that my mind began perusing through those old feelings and finally able to put them into words. In the following video you can see Linda ‘demonstrating’ how to correct a supposedly out of control horse, who is blind in one eye, after her owner/handler has failed.

I suppose everyone who watches the video will come away with a slightly different feeling, here are my thoughts on the video and my previous impression of Parelli Natural Horsemanship.

Trust : this horse has not come to fully trust his person. Obviously it is a bigger hurdle because the horse is also half-blind, but it’s obvious in the way he’s searching around him looking for any danger that could jump out and forget his person! he can fend for himself.  He’s distracted, none of the people handling him are providing any reassurance that there is nothing to fear and instead are reacting to his reactions.

In my mind, a method can only go so far. To apply the same practice to every horse in every situation is like saying that all people will respond the same to a style of teaching, environment, motivation, stimulation.. to which we all know that is not the case. That is where many horse training methods fail me because they don’t allow any room for error or individuality, and why the Parellis have no appeal to me.

The Parellis have put forth a system that takes equestrians from one step to another in a very specific and methodical way, leaving no room for wavering. This can be beneficial in the learning process, but it then carries over to expect the same order of progression and results from the horses. If you’re an experienced horse-person you can see where changes need to be made, but given that Parelli is pushed so strongly for beginners and those without a lot of educated experience those horse-people miss that there are areas you need to deviate from at times.

Which leads me to my second observation… of all the natural horsemanship clinicians, and perhaps connected with just how prevalent and wide-spread Parelli’s popularity is, I have never observed a method producing so many dysfunctional horses. Through the years I have been conditioned to naturally shudder when I hear that a horse has been trained using Parelli methods, and now the owner is beyond recourse and needs help because the horse is dangerous. The other scenario is the horse is primarily a pasture potato, the owner has done the 7-games with him, and thinks the horse will make a great riding horse… only to visit the horse and find an animal which has learned how to use his size and strength against people, has no consideration or respect for you, and has zero inclination towards doing work of any kind.

There are happy exceptions, as there always are. I have a few (very few) close friends who use Parelli techniques and due only to their exquisite timing and understanding of the horse do they find a great deal of success with it. Largely because they don’t follow it to a t, can read their horses and are developing a relationship with their horse outside the scope of strict Parelli Horsemanship. Then there are many others I watch and can’t help but think, “they’re going to get killed doing this, or inspire someone else to try this and themselves get killed!”

Don’t get me wrong, the Parellis are a powerful marketing machine. I acknowledge I wish I knew how to market on their level (but not how to market horse training, that’s another topic for another post), unfortunately it shows the inherent weaknesses when money trumps the welfare of their students and horses.

So where does this horse and rider duo fall? I see Linda’s efforts screaming two things; she is afraid of the horse and the horse doesn’t understand her. [Edit : The horse *may* have some understanding of what Linda wants, but the lack of trust trumps her attempts at communication in this style.] Keep in mind, horses move into pressure unless trained otherwise. Even when trained if there’s a hole present the horse may revert to his natural instincts. In this case the pressure Linda is applying is in the front of the horse by shaking the lead, popping it at the horse’s chest, swinging it in front of herself and the horse. What does the horse do? He moves into that pressure.

Eventually she begins to get a half-hearted response from the horse once her efforts become so great that she’s showing fatigue over it. If you’re working that hard something is out of place.

Why is she working that hard anyways? She’s starting at the end result – shaking the lead to get the horse to step backwards. But what if the horse has never been taught to take a step backwards to begin with? Obviously this horse doesn’t know what Linda wants with excessive lead shaking, and if that’s the case then take a step back and fill in the gap. Start somewhere that makes sense to the horse, comes with less effort and you can wean into another step and another if necessary until you get to the end result you want.

If you were given a Calculus problem without ever having learned basic Algebra and given no steps in the learning process would you keep trying or throw your hands up in frustration? I’m in the latter camp.

That is the fodder for my dislike and distrust of Parelli Natural Horsemanship Methods. Being so rigid in your method that you put horse and rider at risk is completely inappropriate for a “professional”.

Erica Franz

I've been riding since I was 9, and in love with horses from the day I was born. Living in Washington with my husband Jason, 2 horses and our 4 dogs.