How does Parelli help dressage?
This is my most commonly asked question.
Let me start by saying that I started my studies with Parelli Natural Horsemanship not thinking that it would have any influence on my current dressage training. The reason I am now doing what I am doing is because my horses have shown me that it works. In this space I’d like to just make a few points that I hope will help you understand how this makes sense to me. Like anything in life, approach this with a healthy dose of openness, skepticism and uncommonly good sense.
The mental emotional state of the horse IS a concern of dressage.
Two-thirds of the adjectives used describe the mental/emotional state of the horse. Three words speak only of the body. Even the word ‘athlete’ implies desire, for if not it would say ‘slave’. Even if you knew nothing of dressage or natural horsemanship it would make sense to put two-thirds of the emphasis on mental/emotional concerns. In my experience most dressage riders can speak volumes on how to develop suppleness, looseness and flexibility in their horses, but fall silent when they need to come up with equally specific and sophisticated strategies on how to develop confidence and keenness, let alone ‘happiness’.
The difficulty lies in increasing our awareness of what such qualities of confidence, attentiveness, etc look like. If you are an experienced dressage rider, think of how sophisticated your eye is to see suppleness; to feel where a horse’s stiffness is rooted, to know how to develop flexibility. Imagine having that kind of sophistication in discerning the difference between confidence (sure of himself) and bravery (scared but doing it anyway). Between keenness (with desire) and obligingness (don’t want to do it, but doing it anyway). Imagine having as many tools to develop these qualities in your horse as you do suppling exercises.
Parelli Natural Horsemanship has given me these tools.
Most of the problems that we have in dressage have nothing to do with dressage.
The real science and mastery of dressage is the gymnastic development of the horse. Dressage riders are masters of improving a horse’s biomechanics, long-term physical development, coordination and balance. This is challenge enough, but add on to it a horse that is unconfident, disrespectful, afraid, unresponsive, unwilling, explosive, ‘spooky’, or out of control. Often these are considered qualities of a horse’s character that cannot be changed. What I have learned is that they can. Just as my training in dressage enables me to make unbelievable changes in the physique and ability of a horse, my training in Parelli Natural Horsemanship enables me to make unbelievable changes in the mental and emotional state of the horse. When we are able to create and preserve a horse’s willingness, responsiveness, confidence and calmness, we are creating a horse that will be Ready, Willing and Able to achieve Mental, Emotional and Physical Collection. This will be the situation where we will be better able to get on with the real art of dressage.
When I observe dressage lessons, or training, or when I think back on my own past experiences with students or horses in training, the biggest problems that I encountered could often be boiled down to something very very basic; an emotional horse, or that when an aid was applied there wasn’t an immediate and positive response. Only a small percentage of the problems were actually dressage problems; such as a perfectly willing and responsive horse that simply needed to become stronger or more coordinated
Too many times lower level students are taking dressage lessons, and are feeling incredibly inadequate and frustrated. This is because they aren’t really ready. They really just need to learn to ride and unfortunately for most, their dressage trainers are giving them what they want instead of what they need. It is not a fun situation for anyone. Wouldn’t it be better if that student could wait and come back for dressage lessons after they were able to feel totally safe and confident on their horse?
If they were able to go, stop, turn, isolate and maneuver the forehand and hindquarters, back up, have greater emotional fitness, knew how to solve behavioral problems and had a willing, responsive and responsible horse that rarely needed more than 4 ounces of pressure anywhere to motivate them? Oh, and imagine if they had a seat that was effective and independent enough to be able to do all of this bareback and bridle-less?
A student with this level of the real basics would be a dressage trainer’s dream. They would make progress easily and rapidly and without the frustrations common to dressage training.
And for all of you experienced, advanced dressage riders: Have you ever had a really talented horse that could clean up at the lower levels almost ‘without even trying’? Have you ever had that same horse get to the upper levels and shut down, explode or have chronic tension issues? Early in the training we can often ‘cruise’ on the raw talent of our horses. The quality of their gaits, and the level of their ability is so high, that they are often scored highly even when we, as riders barely feel in control. We can be ‘successful’ with this horse until we get to the upper levels when for the first time, the horse finally feels the demands. We think that ‘suddenly’ the horse can’t take the added pressure, when in fact it’s been building under the surface. Imagine if, when the horse was young, you were able to lay the foundation for the emotional fitness he will need later under the greater physical demands.
Natural Horsemanship is not just ‘Western’…
…It’s just that the cowboys were the ones out their observing the horses in nature! There are many western riders who are far from natural. Being natural is a state of mind and an attitude. It doesn’t matter what you want to end up talking to your horse about.
The Parelli program is ‘nondenominational’. No matter what outfit you want to wear, or how you want to dress your horse or what you want to be able to ask your horse to do, you must first have a relationship, then a language and then create a desire for your horse to want to listen to and follow you. Simply put, you must have Love, Language and Leadership. I can’t think of an equine sportsman who would say they don’t want to have this. The question is: “what does it look like to have this?” Often we think we have love because if our horse comes to get cookies from us, we think we have language even though we are still using more aids to get less result instead of the opposite; And we think we have leadership if we are able to puppeteer him through his paces.
Really, it’s just time to get over this. It is not western, it is not English, it is just what is in your heart.
It’s not just for backyard riders.
Yes, many people who are attracted to this information are recreational riders. Why? Because they are trying to have fun. Safety and fun are the top priority. They want their horse to love them because that is the important part. On the other hand, sport riders don’t necessarily have the same priorities. Getting your horse to certain levels becomes more important; whether they are truly safe or fun doesn’t quite matter as much as ‘getting it done’. And the better a rider you are, the more out of control or difficult your horse can be and you can still ‘get it done’. Often very talented riders can get to top levels on horses that are truly mentally ill. I believe those horses would perform better if they were mentally and emotionally stable; but if not then the real questions are: ‘what are our judging standards?’, or “why are we doing this if we don’t actually care about the horse itself?”
I also believe that ‘fun’ is looked at as not important, or something that would actually work against you achieving your very serious goals. And yes, there are times for a very strong focus, a very clear picture and a very high standard. But ‘fun’ to me doesn’t mean we are always giggling and frivolous. It means that it feel so good we want to do it again and again. Horses are incredibly perceptive to emotions and feelings. To them there is nothing worse than an angry, frustrated predator on their backs. Deep focus and true harmony feels close to bliss. I would say bliss is fun. Successfully controlling my horse to do something that neither of us thinks feels good is not fun.
In dressage don’t we want the horse to ‘appear to do of his own accord what is asked for by his rider’? Pat Parelli describes it as “causing our ideas to become the horse’s idea”. Horses are motivated by safety first, then comfort and then play. They won’t play unless they feel comfortable and safe. By safe I don’t mean that they know their stall door latches securely, I mean that they are sure their human will never act like a predator and will constantly prove that they are a confident, calm leader that understands how they think and feel. By comfortable I don’t just mean warm and dry, but I mean that they are sure of what is expected of them and always have a way to find comfort or release. Horses will put in huge physical efforts to try to eliminate pressure. This is how we train them! This is how we cause them to try hard, this is how it can become a game to them, a game that THEY win, not us. We just set it up, he has to find it. They win because they feel pressure from us and they play the game of what do they do to make their human take the pressure off. Then they are having fun because they know what to do! And they will put huge efforts into getting us to sit quietly during their efforts and leave them alone.
When you look at it like a game, it becomes fun. I have more fun when my horse and I both feel safe. The bigger the range of what I can do and still feel safe, the bigger the range of what can feel comfortable, and the bigger that range, the more things can feel easy, and yes fun. I am proud to say that I have fun playing with my horses. That doesn’t make me less clear about my goals or less effective in my communication to my horse. I think dressage is fun. Don’t mistake that if I am wearing jeans and galloping bareback and bridle-less in a field singing to my horse that I am not doing something that will make my horse better at dressage, remember running free is our horse’s dream! Or if I am laughing while my horse attempts to get all 4 feet on a pedestal that I don’t also know what he is learning about balance, patience and coordination. Also don’t mistake my lack of expression when I am concentrating deeply to find the best positioning for my horse in his half-passes that we are not thoroughly enjoying ourselves! If it stops being fun, something is going wrong.