Natural Horsemanship Training – Horse Whisperer 101

By Chris, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our two quarter horses to a Parelli Natural Horsemanship training clinic near Glen Rose, Texas. The clinic was taught by three star Parelli natural horse instructor Christi Rains.

This was to be my third Natural Horsemanship camp and my husband’s second. I had taken my other horse to a series of clinics a few years ago, but we stagnated at Level 2 when my mare developed arthritis and I had to retire her.

I had grown up with horses and initially I resisted the trendiness of the Natural Horsemanship movement. My practical side viewed these horse whisperers as mumbo-jumbo – not to be taken seriously. What convinced me to cross over to their camp was watching the Parelli show at EquitanaUSA in Kentucky in 2000. The horses seemed to want to please their owners and were having fun doing it. Sitting in the audience I could sense that these trainers were communicating with their horses in ways I never had with any of my horses.

The show whet my appetite and I decided to take my older mare to a Level 1 course to see what it was all about. After a weekend of training, this mare and I communicated like never before. Mind you, I had already owned this horse most of her life and she was in her early 20’s – the weekend at the Parelli clinic enhanced our relationship and took us to a new level.

Learning to speak “Horse”

One of the things that attracts me to Natural Horsemanship is that it teaches you to use psychology, not brute strength or pain to motivate the horse to do what you want. Horses are herd animals driven by instinct. Find out what motivates them and learn to use it to your advantage.

There are many leaders in the Natural Horsemanship movement. Pat Parelli is clearly the best known, but some of the other well known horse whisperers are Clinton Anderson, Mark Rashid, and John Lyons. In the Natural Horsemanship theory, you become the leader of the horse and learn to read horse body language. When you are the leader the horse treats you with more respect and attention. This doesn’t mean the horse is afraid of you, quite the contrary. You actually grow closer to your horse.

A Clinic as a Bonding Experience

When my husband got his new horse I recommended he attend a Natural Horsemanship clinic with his new horse as a “bonding” experience. My husband is one of the biggest skeptics of all time, so it took some convincing on my part to get him to go, but he took his new horse to a weekend Natural Horsemanship clinic and came out a convert. The really big bonus was that after that weekend he and the horse REALLY understand each other. It’s a great way to start out a new relationship.

Horse Obedience Lessons

Okay, back to the clinic. This was a Level 1 class which is the starting level for the Parelli training series. Even though my husband and I had attended other training sessions, I had a new horse with “respect” issues and wanted to immerse him into the training. The horse was a riders dream once on his back, but his ground manners were deplorable and on more than one occasion the brute had walked on top of me. Because I’m tall, I prefer large horses and this one cleared 16 hands. The problem was he was 16 plus hands with his head in the air not paying attention where he was walking or who he walked over. This was a dangerous situation. It was clear to me I was lower in the herd than him in his eyes and needed to find a way to reassert myself.

The clinic ran for three days – a half day on Friday and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. The initial class was without our horses and gave all the human participants a chance to meet each other. Christi is an amazing teacher who truly loves and respects horses. She is a long time Parelli protegee and has a true gift with horses. She gave us an overview of the training, goals, and an intriguing interactive session on horse psychology and behavior. Then we got our horses and the fun began.

Dealing with Mr. Dominant

Friday we covered the first few games. What was interesting to me, was my horse started out focused on everything but me, but as we went through the games, he started to look to me more. My horse has a very DOMINANT personality – he is definitely king of our little herd and aggressively runs the show in the pasture. Unfortunately, this domineering behavior was applied to humans as well as horses, hence our attendance in the clinic.

When the time came for us to learn the yo-yo game where the horse is suppose to back up when you wiggle the line attached to his halter, my horse stood defiant. I had expected some problems with this horse so his stubbornness to even lift a foot backwards didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Christi immediately understood the situation and took over the line.. For the next 10-15 minutes the class was treated to different techniques to communicating with a difficult horse. There was no abuse or anger, just consistent no-nonsense requests from Christi. Each time the horse responded with compliance (which in this case was him taking a step back, ever so slight that it was) the horse was rewarded. Christi instilled in our brains, “it is the release that teaches”.

After a few minutes of open defiance that included an impressive rearing sequence, my horse softened his eye, lowered his head, and started backing on request. He was like a different creature. His spirit was still there, but it was like he had decided, oh you’re the boss, what do you want?

The rest of the camp went fairly well. Working through the yo-yo defiance was a true turning point. My horse suddenly was tuning into me. Walking back to our pen for the evening, he didn’t step on top of me, but walked quietly behind me. He even stopped a few feet behind me when I stopped. He was more enjoyable to be around, but I couldn’t help but wonder, had someone switched horses on me?

The week after the clinic my husband and I would get up early and work our horses before work. My horse continued to be less aggressive, even to other members of the herd. He was still the top horse in the herd, but now I wasn’t afraid to let my daughter handle him.

The other area where I noticed a big improvement was he was less “spooky” on the trail after the clinic. On the third day of the clinic we had practiced sensitization training. Much of this was basic trail horse training – getting your horse comfortable with flapping ponchos, walking across sheets laying on the ground, tarps hanging from trees, even had them climbing onto raised platforms on request. The week after the clinic I went on a long trail ride and my usually spooky horse was noticeably calmer, and safer on the trail.

Natural Horsemanship = Persuasion with a light touch

So, am I now a horse whisperer? Hardly. The Natural Horsemanship clinics don’t turn you into horse experts, but they do make you have a safer relationship with your horse. I found it interesting that in the three clinics I’ve attended with my horse, most of the attendees were lifelong horse enthusiasts – there were a few beginners, but for the most part we were experienced horse people who were discovering that this method of training fit with our beliefs about horses.

As a woman working with a horse, I learned early on that I couldn’t out muscle a horse. The good thing is you don’t have to use brute force to be successful with horses. Watch a Stacy Westfall video and you can see that even a petite woman can communicate and do anything with a horse. Natural Horsemanship teaches us to use the most subtle signals to communicate with a horse. Horses are incredibly perceptive to our body language and if we learn to use our bodies to speak horse we can tell them what we want better than the biggest spur or twisted wire bit. Less is more with Natural Horsemanship.

On the fence?

I didn’t write this article to twist anyone’s arm, but more to open your eyes that there are many reasons to check out the Natural Horsemanship world. Sure, there is a lot of marketing hype going on, but there is also real substance there. Take a test drive in a weekend clinic or check out some of the books or DVDs on the subject. It’s a powerful methodology you shouldn’t miss.

Excellent Books On Natural Horsemanship

The following books are excellent resources for information on Natural Horsemanship. While each leader has a slightly different technique many of the philosophies are shared.

Pat Parelli books on Natural Horsemanship

While Pat Parelli is very well known in this area, there are other “horse whisperers” who also write on the subject. Comparing and contrasting their various methods can help deepen your understanding of your horse’s motivations and reactions. I’ve seen Clinton Anderson, Craig Cameron, John Lyons, and Mark Rashid in clinics and all of them are excellent.