Parelli Principles on the Trail
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Mar 15, 2023
Tom Pompei, Licensed 3-Star Parelli Professional
There are many versions of trail riding, depending on how you like to ride, what part of the world or country you’re riding, and even your riding companions. What picture comes to your mind when I say riding on the trail? My vision is enjoying steep, rugged terrain, beautiful mountains, and scenery, with a horse maintaining gait, maintaining direction, watching their own feet, and being a partner all on a loose rein. These great things happen when you apply Parelli principles on the trail regardless of what type of trail riding you prefer, from competitive events like endurance to recreational rides with friends.
Have you ever had a horse that taught you the lesson you needed to learn? For me, on the trail, that horse was Spark. He came to me with some ugly habits and skills associated with trail riding, mainly dangerous herd separation issues. He would race out of control up to the horses in front of him if they ever got more than a few feet away, especially on culverts. It was a rearing, bucking nightmare if you tried to slow him down. If another group of horses passed us going the other way, he’d buck and spin to try to get to them. I realized he was connected, just not to me. I remember my friend asking me on those first rides, “Remind me again, what attracted you to this horse?”
Advancing through the Parelli Levels Program was the answer with Spark. I eventually got my partnership so right with him that he would connect with me whenever he worried about the herd leaving. We became a herd of two. Preparation is key: I want to have the foundation so strong with my horse that 90% of the ride is on a loose rein, relaxed, confident, pain-free, and ending with both my horse and myself thinking, “Man, I’d like to go out again tomorrow!”
How do you know you’re ready? If you can stop on a loose rein, ride confidently at a fast gait in an open area, and your horse is calm, connected, and responsive, you are ready to apply your principles out on the trail. Remember, if your quality is a 10 out of 10 at home, it’s likely to be an 8 out of 10 with distractions. That’s still a B-. But if you’re a 7 out of 10 at home, you’ll be a 5 out of 10 with distractions.
Are you winning all Seven Games out on the trail?
Friendly: Have you used retreat and reapproach enough for your horse to relax and for your horse to trust you’ll not push them past thresholds?
Porcupine: Is your horse yielding and turning loose to steady light cues like leg yields?
Driving: is your horse responding to suggested pressure without pushing through?
YoYo: Can you stop on a loose rein and play with downward and upward transitions on the trail? How about with a horse in front of you?
Circle: Does your horse maintain gait and direction and watch his feet while acting like a partner on the trail?
Sideways: Can you leg yield on the trail? Watch out for that tree!
Squeeze: There are many squeeze opportunities on the trail. Squeeze games are a huge pattern to have solid, so if your horse gets worried, he knows to check in with his human.
One definition of confidence is ‘having a plan,’ even for the unexpected. Exposure and experience with connection are critical skills to practice and develop before you venture out on the trail.
More Information: Hit the Trail DVD or the Ride Out DVD in the Ultimate Behavior Series.
Don’t Make or Teach Assumptions on the Trail
As a Level 3 Parelli student, I was trail riding along a ledge trail. I came across a fallen poplar tree about the diameter of an arena barrel, blocking the entire trail with no safe way around. I’d been jumping barrels in my Parelli journey, so why not? I backed up to get up enough speed to clear the jump. My horse Spark stopped halfway. Front feet over the fallen poplar, back feet not. We just stayed there for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. Helicopter with a sling? I got off and was able to back him off the tree without harm. Right then, I learned a lesson about making and teaching assumptions. We’d been practicing half jumps, and I assumed my horse would know the difference.
The answer was to be better with my focus. Far away focus means maintaining gait and direction and watching your feet. Therefore, jump over. My focus was down on the poplar tree, and he did a half jump over. They were no more making or teaching assumptions for us.