The Savvy Station

Understanding How Horses Think, Feel, Act & Play

by Parelli Professionals on Jul 03, 2024

Understanding How Horses Think, Feel, Act & Play

By Juli Pivosean - Director of Education, Licensed Instructor & Horse Development Specialist

I love themes. They provide a sense of clarity and continuity. A feeling that many possibly unrelated things are coming together for one unified purpose. 

I hope you've picked up on our overarching 2024 education theme at Parelli—Horse Psychology. If you're a part of our Parelli Community and an avid student of the program, which I believe you are if you're reading this, then you already know the term Horse Psychology. You understand it's important. You know it's what we "do" here at Parelli. But can you define it? Then, once defined, can you live it out in your day-to-day horse life?  

How do we train our brains to override our innate predatory instincts and predispositions and instead function in a partnership frame of mind with our plans, actions, responses, and muscle memory coming from a place of partnership with a prey animal?

I like to remind my students — and myself — that our horses didn't sign up for this program; we did!! Not only is it our responsibility as the leader to cross the prey/predator barrier first, but we also need to make the pathway as safe, comfortable, and simple as possible for the dear prey animals we invited along on this journey.  

This is a great place to start in our quest to decode the meaning of applied Horse Psychology. After all, our #1 Key to Success is Attitude. So, if you're nodding along as you read this, you're already on the right track.

But I still want to circle back around to "the how." How do we apply all these wonderful concepts in our everyday life? Are we practicing what we preach and truly living out this idea of applied Horse Psychology in our daily lives?

This was my question to Pat when we sat down to brainstorm our 2024 Content Calendar, and it has become our focus for this year. 

Now that you know the backstory, I'd like to share a few thoughts I've contemplated since we settled on this theme.  

Let's start with a definition:  

Horse Psy·chol·o·gy


  1. The understanding of how horses feel, think, act, and play naturally. The act of learning how to communicate with horses using principles so that you and your horse develop a true partnership together.

You've most likely heard how Pat opened his first seminar over 40 years ago with this line: "Horsemanship can be obtained naturally using communication, understanding, and psychology, versus mechanics, fear, and intimidation." Without knowing how long-lasting or far-reaching this principle would become, Pat laid the foundation for a worldwide movement that would later be named Natural Horsemanship. I consider myself fortunate to live in an era where natural horsemanship is not only a household term but also a widely accepted philosophy infiltrating more areas of the horse industry worldwide. 

But with greater exposure also comes a great risk of dilution. Many riders and trainers dabble a bit in this and a bit in that, combining programs, some truly natural and some not, to create what Pat calls the banana-flavored enchilada with pickle juice and a cherry on top! Yum!!

Our mission at Parelli is to preserve true horsemanship. True horsemanship is what Pat defined all those years ago. It comes from understanding a horse's innate nature and allowing that understanding to shift our innate nature into a partnership nature. It's believing in an underlying philosophy of what we will and won't do with horses, the tools we will and won't use, and the unwavering conviction that anything is possible if the horse is in charge of the principles and the timeline.  

I'm still wading in the deep, philosophical waters here, but my goal this year is to continue to flesh this out for all of us. To help real horsemanship, in its purest form, be real in your personal life. 

I have one example to leave with you here, and it's a nugget I picked up this week from one of my teachers, one of those beautiful horses out in my backyard currently waiting for me to come feed breakfast. I better quit musing and get moving! I was playing with this sweet (yet intensely unconfident) little mare the other day who is here for a natural start and is still struggling a bit with the confinement of the trailer. I've been following the program, playing the games and the patterns, helping her truly win the Porcupine Game, and investing a lot of time retreating and reapproaching, trying to think as laterally as possible about the puzzle of overcoming her claustrophobia. She's making progress, but it didn't feel enough to me. Fast enough. Good enough. That was my nugget.  

For her, understanding and unconditionally turning loose to me as a leader with the trailer and her as a prey animal inside the metal cave on wheels is just taking a little longer than with most horses. We're not on the wrong track. She's just in charge of the timeline.  

So, I hit the pause button every time I start to question myself. What I need is to just stay in a mindset of understanding. Understand that everything inside of her wants to escape the trailer for this particular horse at this specific time. The fact that she's loading at a Phase 1 or 2 willingly over and over is a testament to her incredible growth as a partner. She's doing so well! So, when she struggles, my first thought isn't how to fix it. Instead, I seek to understand. When I can view the moments from her perspective, it naturally adjusts my response.  

I seek to understand, then watch and wait for her to understand. When I lift my energy and prepare to ask something of her, does she see this change and shift her mind, emotions, and body and prepare to respond? Yes! This is understanding. Now, I decode the challenge of the trailer into micro-steps so that she can say "Yes, I understand" each step of the way.

Here's my challenge:  What is one area of your horse's life where they lack understanding, or you're still tempted to act like a predator? Once you identify it, how can you seek to grow understanding, first in yourself and then in your horse? I would love for you to share what you discover with all of us in the Parelli Community. Be sure to tag me so I can follow your journey as well. 

Applying Horse Psychology and pursuing real horsemanship is a big undertaking. It's my passion, and I believe it's yours, too, so the journey is worth it each and every day. Until next time, may we seek to understand and, in that understanding, become the horsemen our horses always dreamed we would be.  

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