His brand of natural horsemanship has worldwide appeal for people with a passion for horses.
He isn’t just a horse whisperer. at Parelli is arguably the most successful horse whisperer of all time. The global guru of horse whispering, you might say. His message of the benefits of a horse-human relationship based on love, language, and leadership has won his method legions of fans who are passionate about horses.
He didn’t invent horse whispering — Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt, Troy Henry, and others espoused natural horsemanship methods before him — but Parelli adds a business savvy unprecedented in the horse-training world. He has his own TV show, The Horseman’s Apprentice, which appears on RFD-TV in the U.S. and Horse & Country TV in the U.K. He has campuses in Pagosa Springs, Colorado; Ocala, Florida; the United Kingdom; and Australia, and nearly 400 certified Parelli instructors worldwide. Over the past two decades, 200,000-plus riders in more than 40 countries have studied Parelli Natural Horsemanship either on campus, or via a Parelli book or DVD — and that includes Olympic athletes, movie stars, and royalty.
What’s the strong appeal? Parelli’s method combines in-depth equine psychology with common sense communication techniques to make horse and rider complementary partners. “My whole thing is to do it with the horse’s nature in mind,” Parelli says.
As much an animal behaviorist as a horse trainer, Parelli specializes in teaching skilled horsemanship, which for him means training riders to truly understand their horses. Instead of “breaking,” there’s gentling. Instead of dominating, there’s partnering. Instead of rider chasing after horse, horse comes to rider. It all begins with groundwork, specifically “the Seven Games,” or foundational exercises. But whatever the exercises, games, or techniques he’s employing, Parelli’s got one common denominator: “The No. 1 key is passion.”
Parelli seemed destined for an equine career. Born in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, he began working in stables at 9. By 17 he was competing in rodeo bronc riding, winning the Bareback Rookie of the Year title in 1972 with a buck-off average of just 4 percent. He got out of rodeo in his 30s, when he founded the American Mule Association. “I got into mules because I was too poor to own a horse, and too proud to ride a cow,” he says. It was in working with mules that he developed his love-language-leadership approach: loving the animals, learning their language, and becoming their natural leader by providing safety and comfort.
Soon he was on to horses. In 1982 he founded the Parelli Program and launched Parelli Natural Horsemanship based on four keys: relationship, understanding, communication, and trust. Then in 1996 he set up Parelli headquarters in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, which has grown to include nearly 70 employees and its own tack, equipment, product, and apparel lines. Parelli and his wife, Linda, who partners with him in life and business, opened a second U.S. campus in Ocala in 2002, where they spend October through April.
Parelli took time out of his demanding schedule to talk with C&I about natural horse people, the romance of riding, and why it’s more about heart than muscle.
Cowboys & Indians: It’s been said, “Parelli is the bigger brain, not the bigger bit” approach. True?
Pat Parelli: True — and the bigger heart.
C&I: What makes people so passionate about horseback riding?
Parelli: I think there’s only two kinds of people in the whole world: horse lovers and the other kind. You don’t have to be a horse owner to be a horse lover. There’s something special about horses that evokes a special feeling in human beings. The Latin word for horse is equus, and roughly translated that means “equal us.” The horse gives us what we don’t have, and we give the horse what they don’t have. They give us the strength, the speed, the jump, and the power. We give them the intellect.
C&I: More and more people are discovering they have a real passion for horses. What type of people become horse people?
Parelli: Well, I think there are several types of horse lovers: the natural ones, the normal ones, and then there’s the nuts, the nuisances, the nervous, and the “knockers.” The natural ones just have the propensity that horses understand them. I’ve found oftentimes people who are really good with people and dogs are not good with horses because dogs and people are predators and horses are prey animals. People who are good with cows are oftentimes good with horses — like cowboys. The “knockers” feel like they have to show the horse who’s the boss and want to knock the horse around to get their way.
C&I: What’s the difference between the natural ones and the normal ones?
Parelli: Normal horse lovers oftentimes care about human values like winning. World champion, Kentucky Derby champion, Run for the Roses — the horse isn’t going, “Oh, my God, I did it!” That’s a human value. What keeps the normal horse world going is rules and regulations.
C&I: Whereas the natural horse lover doesn’t care so much about awards?
Parelli: For the natural, there’s no prize, no ribbon, no buckle, no trophy that could pay them the dividend of the feeling they get that only they and their horse know. That’s the difference.
C&I: Horsemanship has a particular meaning for you.
Parelli: Yes — my definition is to have the skills that horses and humans need to become partners.
C&I: Is that what the romance of horsemanship is about?
Parelli: I think there’s a difference between romance and reality. People have this romantic thought that they’re going to ride off into the sunset and have this best friend and it’s going to be really easy. That all this stuff with horsemanship is simple. But it isn’t easy. We have to learn to work with horses and to play with their nature. The reality is we get in there and realize we have a long way to go.
C&I: You coined the term natural horsemanship, right?
Parelli: Yes! My goal is to get you to understand your horse’s natural tendencies and make instinctual decisions. Natural horsemanship — it’s natural to the horses.
C&I: How would you sum up your philosophy of horse training in a nutshell?
Parelli: It’s about synergizing with the horse’s energy and bonding with it — not trying to dominate the horse. Horses are natural followers looking for a leader, but when it really gets right, it can be 51/49.
C&I: What are some of the horse’s natural tendencies?
Parelli: The tendencies of horses are to feel safe and comfortable, to have fun, and to forage for food. Our tendency is to want to control them.
C&I: Explain your concept of “Horsenalities.”
Parelli: Horses are either confident or unconfident. Most horses are unconfident. Horses are either right brain, being instinctual, or left brain, being thinkers. They are extroverts or introverts. Most of the time the right-brain horses are instinctual and flight-reactive. The left-brain horses are oftentimes thoughtful and dominant.
C&I: What are some of the main equine behaviors that you build your method around?
Parelli: Well, some of the top behaviors people have trouble with are horses that don’t want to be caught, horses that don’t want to load into horse trailers, horses that won’t stand still, or pull back, or buck with the saddle, and on and on.
C&I: What are “the Seven Games”?
Parelli: They are like the games horses play with each other to establish dominance. One is the game of friendship. Two is “my teeth are sharper than your teeth” — where people use their fingers as a tool. Three is “my feet are quicker than yours,” or the driving game. Four is the Yo-Yo Game, or “follow me, but not too close.” Five is “circle around me.” Six is yielding in a lateral fashion — if a mare is galloping with her foal beside her and she spooks to the right, the foal should, too. Seven is squeezing into somewhere narrow — like getting the horse to go between you and a trailer.
C&I: Natural horsemanship seems to be the pervading current philosophy. Any idea how much breaking of horses still goes on?
Parelli: Statistically, it’s still 80 percent the old way, what I would call a chauvinistic approach worldwide. There are about 20 million horses in the world. We’ve made a dent — now about 20 percent of humans are approaching their horses in a more natural way.
C&I: What countries are at the forefront of natural horsemanship?
Parelli: The U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K., and other European countries. Everywhere, people who lead with their hearts are starting to be very attracted to this message.
C&I: Ever since Robert Redford played the horse trainer modeled on Buck Brannaman in The Horse Whisperer, that term has been widely thrown around. To you it means ...
Parelli: It means bonding with the horse easily. Many people have taken it to be almost magical or supernatural.
C&I: A perfect day with a horse for you is ...
Parelli: When I can put my arm over the horse’s neck at the end and say, “Was it as good for you as for me?” and he agrees.
C&I: And how does he agree?
Parelli: By not rushing off.
C&I: So a perfect day isn’t getting on a bucking bronc anymore? What made you get out of rodeoing?
Parelli: I got older and fatter, and the ground came up quicker!
C&I: Do you follow rodeo today?
Parelli: I went to the NFR this year. I admire Ty Murray, and Clint Corey from Washington. But I don’t really have the time to follow rodeo now.
C&I: You headquarter in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and Ocala, Florida. I saw a photo of you in Florida galloping in chaps, cowboy hat, and Western saddle. Are you the only one in Western gear there?
Parelli: Actually, it’s amazing that in and around Ocala, there’s 1,600 horse farms in that county with 300 training tracks! Cutting horses, reining horses, all the Western sports on top of English and racing.
C&I: I’m sure you run into some big names there. You’ve coached some stars in riding — Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under, for instance. Any other famous folks?
Parelli: Yeah, sure. The Queen of England; Ronald Reagan; Robert Duvall; Bruce Boxleitner; Julie Krone, the female jockey; Bill Casner, the former owner of WinStar Farm.
C&I: Besides studying with great horse trainers, you’ve also studied top motivational businessmen like Tony Robbins and Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s. How does human motivational work help horsemanship?
Parelli: Learning to be the best me I can be is really what horsemanship is all about. So it’s about accelerating our proficiency in ourselves.
C&I: You’ve said that 80 percent of all horse owners today are recrea-tional riders, and more than 70 percent of all horse owners are female. Is the horse world changing?
Parelli: I think the horse world is growing. More recreational riders, more females, and it’s more about our hearts than our muscles. Putting the relationship first resonates with more riders today.
C&I: Of all the famous horse trainers out there these days — folks like Buck Brannaman, Clinton Anderson, John Lyons, Chris Cox, Monty Roberts — Pat Parelli is the most ...
Parelli: The most passionate!