The Savvy Station

Foundation Before Specialization

bij Parelli Natural Horsemanship op Jun 01, 2022

Foundation Before Specialization

By Dave Ellis, 6-Star Parelli Professional, USA

“Foundation Before Specialization” is a very interesting catch phrase that reminds us that our horses may have a very difficult time trying to do something specific if they have not yet learned the value of following simple requests. 

Imagine being asked to dance a ballroom dance before you’ve even learned which foot is your left foot and which is your right foot.  Or perhaps being asked to construct a box before you know what tools will be needed. 

In the same way, it’s unreasonable to ask our horses to execute advanced skills before they’ve received their foundation. Yet this is not all that uncommon out in the horse world, because we predators value and strive toward the finished product—usually with slight regard for the journey.  Garth Brooks was so right in reminding us that he would have missed “The Dance”. 

Pat Parelli shares Tom Dorrance’s wisdom with us—that horses in general want to please us humans.  This carries on until some human shows him that it’s a poor deal.  To retain our horse’s desire to please us, we can help him by asking for small steps—things that we often refer to as foundation skills—then reward him with comfort by releasing the pressure at the slightest try. 

Your horse will then try again to search for the comfort whenever pressure is applied.  We all know this, yet we often forget that it’s important to our horse that he believes that he has found the answer to the “puzzle”. Doing what seems like simple, elementary requests brought your horse a lot of comfort. And these requests are the foundation steps that will tomorrow yield even finer responses.

Pat Parelli has spent 40 years providing us with a skeleton showing simple things for us that help us become better horsemen.  After achieving Level 4, we will then have the tools at our disposal that will enable us to help our horse in the same way.  Not everyone gets to advance through the Savvy System with the same horse, and oftentimes, we may find our partner in a place in his life where he may not benefit from specialization. 

Many times, we will pick up a new horse and begin the journey again through the levels with him and realize that he already knows what we’re trying to teach him because his mother taught him.  We were the ones learning his language.

So now, we get to play with our new one, easing through the Savvy System, checking all the boxes in a fraction of the time we spent with our initial partner.  When we follow Pat’s skeleton of advancing through the levels on our own with our new horse, we will have adequately instilled in him and renewed within ourselves the necessary foundation blocks to now move on with whatever specialization we wish. 

I just love hearing Pat say that our Level 4 horses and students are the most capable that the world has ever seen, and that we and our horses are ready to study with anyone anywhere and succeed. 

That’s a pretty broad statement, and the 38 years I’ve spent with Pat have proven that repeatedly.

Several times I have acquired nice horses that have been “trained” for a specific sport.  Usually, they are lacking in basic skills, such as: merely following a feel in all five Zones, “Preparing to Position for a Transition”, or—surprisingly enough—yielding Zone Four softly. 

I always—and I mean always—just re-start the horse.  I go slowly and methodically through Pat’s Colt Start program, insisting on “green lights”.  When we emerge out the other end, our foundation is in place and haven’t had hiccups or issues.  My new horse had been through somebody’s starting program that may have been slanted toward a specialty, but completing Pat’s program will have filled in all of the holes left from that program.

All of us become a little enamored with our abilities as we continue to improve through the Parelli Program. Often, we find ourselves glossing over some little things as we bring our newest project along.  A few years ago, I was bringing a nice Atwood mare along to help me compete in a Ranch Versatility competition. 

Catherine from the Atwood Ranch was kind enough to film some of my runs.  I was not as pleased as I expected to be, and I asked Pat to take a look at the videos. You could have knocked me over with a feather when Pat said to me, after watching my spins, “I’ll bet, Dave, that you can’t play the Circling Game for 5 laps without filling in for your horse,” to which I replied: “Baloney, this is my Level 5 horse and she’s good.”

At Pat’s encouragement, I tried it anyway, and was shocked to realize that my desire to do some specialties has caused me to neglect my foundation circling skills.  Sure enough, after two laps, my mare looked at me and seemed to say: “Well, what now?”.  I cleaned up my Parelli Circling Game, and her spins smoothed right out.  Pat reminded me that spinning was merely Circling Zone One around Zone Four—go figure!

I have since found that keeping to the Parelli spirit of maintaining the rapport and foundation skills with my horse has significantly improved my specialization skills.  It has allowed me to specialize with a great spirit and love of my horse and of our abilities together.


Do you want to develop a deeper partnership with your horse? The Levels Program (1-4) is now in the Savvy Club! Join today.

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