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The 8 Principles of Natural Horsemanship

presso Pat Parelli su Aug 16, 2023

The 8 Principles of Natural Horsemanship

By Pat Parelli

In December of 1981, my mentor, Mr. Troy Henry from Clovis, California, suddenly passed away. I had been studying with him for five years. He had changed my attitude, led me to knowledge, and shared the tools and techniques, the timing, and the imagination real horsemen used. Whether they rode English or Western or had race or polo horses, it didn't matter. These were guiding principles. 

In January of 1982, one of my good friends and clients, Dr. RM Bradley, asked me to come down to North Hollywood and put on a seminar. I had no idea what a seminar was, but I was willing to try it. So on the weekend of March 1st, I went down to Southern California and put up eight signs around the round corral to keep myself organized and describe what I had learned during my five years with Mr. Henry. I'd learned many techniques and different things, but what I’d really learned were guiding principles. And those principles are simple.

Dr. RM Miller wrote a series of articles in the Western Horseman entitled New Look at Old Methods. It's true that these principles were so old they became new again. The phone started ringing off the hook because people reading Western Horseman latched onto the philosophical aspects of the article. These eight principles have guided me for the last four decades, and I'd like to share them with you. 

1. Horsemanship is a Natural Phenomenon

It's interesting to me why the ultimate prey animal would allow the ultimate predator to even touch them, let alone put a halter or a saddle on, let alone ride them, use them in sports, in warfare, and all the things people have done with horses for centuries now. There has to be something about horses being attracted to humans in addition to humans wanting to be around horses. There is a symbiotic and synergistic possibility in this relationship. I've heard many people protest, saying riding a horse is not good. There are also many objections to the way most people train horses. I agree because most people train horses using mechanics, fear, and intimidation. This is a military approach. It's a traditional approach. Most books, rules, and regulations about how to do things the right way with horses come from this type of approach, and unfortunately, it’s the poor horse who suffers.

However, if we put the relationship with the horse first, we can understand he's a prey animal and that safety, comfort, and play are the most important things in his life. This is quite different from humans who value praise, recognition, and material things. By understanding these differences and innate needs, we can have a natural and real relationship with a horse based on love, language, and leadership. This leadership uses communication, understanding, and psychology to cause the horse to want to be our partner. That’s Principle Number One. It is a natural phenomenon, but we need to keep it natural. 

2. Make No Assumptions

Principle Number Two is don’t make or teach assumptions. I have often heard, "Yeah, my horse all of a sudden, for no reason, did such and such." Well, horses are like computers. They may never do what you want, but they always do what you tell them or what you program them to do. For example, if you trot your horse back to the barn every time you ride, you’ll teach him to assume that you will go fast when you turn his nose toward the barn. Little things like this are the basis behind this principle. Remember, whenever you hyphenate the word 'assume,' it turns into ass, you, and me. 

3. Communication is Two or More Individuals Sharing and Understanding an Idea

This is Principle Number Three. If we pat our leg and our dog comes to us without us saying a word, we have shared an idea that he understood. Talking is only one little piece of communication, and oftentimes with horses, humans are guilty of trying to talk to their horses rather than communicate. Horses have long bodies; they are perceptive to danger, people, places, changes, and things. We can learn to communicate with a horse if we learn their language, so those instincts turn into being perceptive to cues in communication.

We have to have long-body logic. We have to be able to know how the horse sees the world. We have to realize that not only does he have an eye on each side of his head (bi-lateral vision), but he's also got a fisheye lens. On top of that, he's got a trifocal lens, and he moves his head up and down to use different parts of the lens. He also has a horizontal iris that does not dilate in and out like ours. This is how he sees and perceives the world. And this is also why people get frustrated when their horse doesn't cross the little creek, and they're kicking and spanking and yelling, saying, "Can't you see it's only two inches deep?" And the horse goes, "No, I can't see it." They see the world differently than we do. We have binocular vision and great depth perception. They have great peripheral vision. To communicate and cause our ideas to become theirs, we have to understand how they feel, think, act, and play in this world we've invited them into.

4. Horses & Humans Have Mutual Responsibilities

Principle Number Four teaches us that there are mutual responsibilities in any partnership, whether with your employer, employees, spouse, or horse. This is an important principle. Right now, we're going to talk about our mutual responsibilities with horses only. It’s our responsibility not to act like a predator, to learn to think like a horse, to have an independent seat, and to learn the natural power of focus. These are the four responsibilities of the human.  

The horse's responsibilities are to not act like a prey animal, to maintain gait, maintain direction, and look where he’s going (ultimately, to stay connected with us).  This starts early on in a horse. When a foal is born, the first thing he does is connect with his mother. Their relationship and their bonding are incredibly strong. There's no lead rope in the world as strong as this bond. They stay connected, maintain gait, and whatever their mother does, they do too. They synchronize with her mentally, emotionally, and physically. When you have true harmony with a horse, he turns his life over to you as the foal does to the mother, and he synergizes with your thoughts, feelings, and energy.

5. The Attitude of Justice is Effective

In order to truly be able to use love, language and leadership in equal doses, we will need Principle Number Five: the attitude of justice. In our partnership with horses, there has to be a leader and a follower. It's going to be close to equal and will land near to a 51/49% leadership balance in the end. As a leader, we have to be sure we are as gentle as possible but as firm as necessary, not more one than the other. Whenever we do get firm, we need to do it without getting mean or mad, in other words, without getting emotional. Whenever we're gentle, we need to do it without being a big sissy. You can be passionate with your horse. You should be passionate with your horse, but your horse should also believe, as my mentor Tom Dorrance taught me, that you put your heart in your hand, and you touch your horse with your heart. 

Another guiding principle that comes under the attitude of justice is causing the undesirable thing to be difficult and allowing the right thing to be easy and harmonious. First, as the leader, we have to know what the right thing is. What I have shared with you in the Parelli Levels Program is a blueprint of the right thing: positive patterns on the ground and in the saddle. These are skills and tasks that every horse owner should ubiquitously know and understand and share with their horses, in a similar way to how car manufacturers make vehicles. The gas pedals are on the right side, and the brakes are in the middle. If you have a clutch, it's on the left. Even in countries where the steering wheels are on the opposite side than here in America, they still put the gas pedal and the brake and the clutch in the same order.  In a similar way, in the horse world, some things need to be standard procedures, regardless of our interests or disciplines.  This is why I created the Levels Program.  

6. Body Language is a Universal Language

Horses are fairly non-verbal animals compared to humans and dogs, who are predators and pack animals. People who are really good with dogs are not very good with horses. Why? Because we're opposite species — prey animals versus predators. To cause a prey animal to understand us, we have to know how they see the world and how they feel about things. What is so amazing in the horse/human relationship is that horses have now been categorized as one of the animals that sympathize with human emotions, just like dogs.

Once they establish who the leader is, they will synchronize with us just like when they were little foals.  As a foal, when mama was relaxed, they were relaxed. When mama got nervous, they were nervous. When mama started going somewhere, they got up and went with her. This is synergism — mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual. This is natural to the horse. So when the human gets nervous or scared, so does the horse. When the human stays calm, this helps the horse.  We have to control our energy through time and space to control the horse’s energy through time and space.  Ultimately, we have to understand the importance of body language, so we can develop this language to help our partnership be the best it can be. 

7. Horses Teach Humans & Humans Teach Horses

Principle Number Seven was one of the biggest lessons I ever learned.  Because I was such a good rodeo rider, I used to always put myself in a position to give young horses the first rides. That worked out okay, but as soon as I started wanting to do more advanced maneuvers like lead changes, slide stops, or anything else, I didn’t know what I was doing. 

Mr. Henry said to me one day, "What are you trying to do?" And I said, "I'm trying to teach this horse how to do lead changes." And he goes, “That's like the blind leading the blind. That's green on green. You don't know what you're doing, and he doesn't know what you want.” So he put me on some schoolmasters — horses who knew how to do flying lead changes, slide stops, and spins. What a big lesson. As soon as I could feel what I was after, I better understood how to teach it to the horse.

As the saying goes, “Green on green makes black and blue, but gray on green makes broken bones.”  Most people do not realize this. Every horse knows what you know, and they know what you don't know, but most people don't know what they don't know. I see this all the time. Humans get frustrated or in some kind of trouble with a horse because they do not have the leadership or skills necessary to communicate and negotiate with that horse. I have been trying to provide a living example of this principle for the last four decades. It's simple but not easy because we have to learn to think like a horse.  

8. Principles, Purpose, and Time are the Tools of Teaching

Principle Number Eight brings it all together. We've been talking about our relationship with the horse in a very principled way so far, but in order to balance it all out, we also have to add a purpose. 

When I first started learning how to develop horses to a higher level, I noticed two things.  Many people who had a purpose with horses didn't appear to have many principles with horses. Often they'd be cowboys and could kind of yeehaw around and get a horse to do something. Then I met horse show individuals that were very principled, and the horses all behaved well but they couldn't help anybody get something done on a horse. I like getting things done with horses. I've driven teams of horses, done some logging, driven different carriages and stagecoaches, even with six horses in front of me, and used saddle horses to go on pack trips and work cattle.

Nothing is better than getting a job done with a horse if the principle is ahead of the purpose. This comes from understanding that principles, purpose, and time are the tools of teaching. 

Time is an important thing to the horse. I've never seen one wear a wrist watch, and every horse I've ever met lives in the moment. Human beings often live in the future or the past. From a horse's point of view, there are at least four moments in a second. Often horses realize the human is asleep at the wheel, and from one moment to the next, the horse sees something, gets scared, and is out of there.  As horsemen, our goal is to stay present with our horses and to invest the time needed to build a solid relationship.

If we want to have a synergistic and symbiotic relationship with our horses, we must understand principles, purpose, and time are the tools of teaching. Take the time it takes, and it'll take less time. 

These Eight Principles of Natural Horsemanship have kept me on track for more than four decades. 

Thank you, Mr. Troy Henry for sharing them with me, so I could share them with you.

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