Parelli Natural Horsemanship: what’s the verdict?

  • This month marks the 35th anniversary of Pat Parelli’s first seminar. H&H talks to the trainer himself and finds out what others make of his methods

    A worldwide phenomenon, Parelli has become synonymous with the term ‘natural horsemanship’. American husband and wife Pat and Linda Parelli have developed their method over 35 years, with thousands in the UK using the programme to develop their horsemanship skills.

    This month (March 2017), marks the 35th anniversary of Pat Parelli’s first seminar.

    As with all training methods that differ from the traditional way most horse owners were taught as children, Parelli can divide opinion. H&H talks to Pat himself and finds out what other trainers make of his methods.

    What is Parelli?

    Parelli Natural Horsemanship’s goal is to help raise the level of horsemanship worldwide for the benefit of horses and the people who love them.

    “My wife Linda and I have created a programme which has a central philosophy of communication, understanding and psychology, that can help everyone with their horses in a safe, ethical and effective way,” Pat tells H&H. “We do things with the horse and for the horse, whereas other people [often] end up doing things to the horse.”

    The Parelli programme is a people-training program focused on the study of horse behaviour and horsemanship skills. The programme spans Four Savvys, or areas of development, through four distinct levels of skill improvement.

    What does Pat think are the biggest misconceptions people have with Parelli? “I don’t think people [always] understand how horses feel, act and play,” he says.

    “We’ve all been taught that the proper way to do things is the way that the military has taught us — which side to get on, how to adjust the bridle, how to use the reins and all that sort of thing.

    “So what we now call the traditional thought of horse handling or riding is very far from how it would be done if the horse designed it. I guess the biggest thing is that people who think like people have a lot of trouble understanding real horsemen who think like horses,” he says. “In the future I think natural will become the new normal.”

    What do other trainers make of Parelli?

    On the plus side…

    Intelligent Horsemanship’s Kelly Marks says many riders unhappy with the negative aspects of traditional horsemanship first find their way into natural horsemanship via Parelli.

    “Parelli is a multi-million dollar business and has superlative marketing, so has raised the profile of natural horsemanship hugely. People trying their methods for the first time quickly discover the benefits of ensuring you can move your horse forwards, backwards and sideways from the ground in terms of its behaviour.”

    Jason Webb, of Australian Horsemanship, agrees Parelli is unrivalled for its ability to combine horsemanship and business acumen.

    “I think [Pat] Parelli is a very good horseman who has been extremely successful in opening people’s minds to a different way of training their horses. He is an excellent businessman who understands his target audience and has built a brand that is recognised worldwide.”

    International dressage rider Laura Milner says she had a go at Parelli when she was first starting to ride as a 12 year old.

    “There were lots of aspects to it I enjoyed. It’s a fun way to start out building a relationship with your pony,” says Laura.

    Gary Witheford, a natural horsemanship trainer who works predominantly within the racing industry, agrees the system works well for leisure horse owners looking to build a strong one-to-one relationship with their horse.

    “While it doesn’t suit commercial operations looking to achieve results quickly, I’ve seen it work well for owners who buy a young horse and focus on developing a long-term partnership.”

    Eventer-turned-trainer Tracey Dillon says there are many elements of Parelli which are useful.

    “Like many natural horsemanship methods, it brings together aspects of basic good horsemanship.”

    Kath Pinington, another eventer-turned-trainer, agrees that Parelli has been very successful in packaging together natural horsmenship into a step-by-step programme.

    “While I’m happy to pick and choose the elements of natural horsemanship I use, other people prefer a formal program and this is where Parelli comes in,” says Kath.

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    On the negative side…

    Kath’s concern, however, is that this approach can lead some people to become reluctant to crossover into other training methods.

    “For me, one system can’t suit every animal; each horse has its own route. I think some people using Parelli are less adaptable or open to other ways of training,” says Kath.

    Tracey Dillon also has concerns that Parelli, like any method when taken to extremes, means people become reliant on the system instead of using their own common sense.

    “I believe it is never safe to have a horse behind you where you cannot see the minute nuances of emotion as they occur, for example,” says Tracey.

    Expense, however, is the issue raised by most trainers. The Parelli Home Study Four Savvys Levels (packs 1-4) DVD box set course costs around £520 for non-members, for example, with the Parelli Horsemanship Essentials Western Riding Kit costing £404.53 for non-members.

    “Ideally you would always want to see any system of training be readily accessible to owners and riders, without cost becoming an issue,” says Intelligent Horsemanship’s Kelly Marks.

    Gary Witheford agrees, saying it is “a very expensive system if you progress through it as recommended”.

    However Pat tells H&H: “Our corporate mantra is to provide this programme no matter where you live or what you can afford. Everything we do is money back guaranteed.

    “And because of the digital age that we live in, everyone can have access [to the training methods] for a lot less [than if they were being trained directly by Pat].

    “The alternatives are, number one: take your horse to a trainer and then add those bills up, or number two: live with your nightmare and do nothing about it,” he says.

    “There’s a huge disparity between people being horse owners, good riders and horsemen. We save people decades because all of a sudden somebody says ‘Ah, why didn’t I learn that when I was a teenager or child.'”

    Gary adds: “I also think many owners who have a specific problem — say loading — just want a quick, effective fix for the issue, rather than being told they need to work through all the modules.”

    Laura Milner says this approach inevitably means Parelli is a time-consuming method. “Not everyone wants to train that way, particularly if you are more results focused.”

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