By: Pat Parelli
This last year, three of my personal friends were injured in horse accidents while hunting – bucked off, dragged, crashed into trees… broken jaw, collarbones, fractures, bruises. I have 65,000 students around the world and hardly any of them get injured with their horses. Why does it sometimes have to take an injury before people decide they want to teach their horses to be safer and more responsive?
Horses are prey animals. They think differently, they react under pressure rather than reason, and most of their reactions are based on survival instincts. If a horse thinks his life is in danger, he’ll do anything to save himself, even if it means jumping off the edge of a cliff! Horses don’t think about the consequences, they live in the moment. I can hear it now… “What do you mean a prey animal? My horse is so quiet, he’d never do anything like that.” You just don’t believe it can happen until it does. That’s what happened to my friends. Inside every wild horse, is a gentle horse, and inside every gentle horse, is a wild horse. Some have more wild horse than others all the time, but sometimes you find that wild horse in your gentle horse just when you don’t want to.
Calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic
In the mountains, hunters depend on their horses to be calm, smart, brave and athletic. Unfortunately, a lot of people ride them as though they are motorbikes or machines. They just want to switch them on and go, without any problems. Horses though, are a little more complex than this, given that they have a mind of their own. When your ideas and the horse’s ideas are different, that’s when you start to have trouble.
So how do you get your horse more dependable? How do you have him act more like a partner instead of a prey animal? The answers are simple. The hard part is, I can teach you what you need to know… you need to do it. Now, before you go, not after the accident. Preparing your horse is an investment in your safety, a lot like taking operating lessons on guns and trucks before you use them.
Understand your horse’s view of the world
To a great extent, you already understand horses because you hunt prey animals. You know prey are highly perceptive to danger, to people, places, changes and things. They fly from fear, and they are gregarious to the herd. Prey animals seek safety within a herd and they are more inclined to run away when they perceive danger. However, if cornered or trapped they will fight for their life. Horses are awesome creatures. They say that even a grizzly bear is no match for a stallion on the fight. But, most people are not injured by aggressive horses. They are injured by frightened ones.
Horses are interested in four things, and in this specific order:
(1) Safety (2) Comfort (3) Play (4) Food
Many people use punishment or food to try to train or control a horse. Neither is truly effective. Punishment doesn’t work because it affects the horse’s perception of safety. Food does not work unless you have the other three in place first. Most people don’t.
Fact #1 – You are a predator. The horse is a prey animal. The original deal for the horse is not one that makes him feel safe. He is naturally skeptical of you and your intentions. This is why horses get scared so easily when you are in a hurry, or when you want him to go into a trailer or a confined area surrounded by rocks. They are not naturally inclined to trust you and this is what has to change.
I have a system called the 7 Games which does two major things. First, it convinces the horse that you would never hurt him, even if you could. Second, it creates a “language” so you can communicate your wishes and have your horse understand them and respond willingly. Most horses do not really understand what you want when you pull on the reins or neck rein him to turn. Even kicking him to go is not really effective or desirable for the horse. That’s why there is so much resistance, it’s got more to do with mis-communication than with disobedience. When things don’t work, most people get more forceful with the horse, but unfortunately the results get no better. It would be like yelling at a person who does not speak English. It’s not that they can’t hear, they just don’t understand you.
Game #1 The Friendly Game
This game convinces the horse that you are Friendly and he does not have to be skeptical or afraid of you. Instead of baby sitting his emotions, we expose the horse to all kinds of stimuli until he overcomes his fear. Let me add, that fear is natural to prey animals. They live in fear, every day, all of their lives. What we need to do is learn how to deal with it. We need to get him through his fears quicker and safely, and even more importantly, prepare him well enough so what used to scare him doesn’t anymore. The key here is how he perceives you. If you are cool, calm and collected, if he already believes he is safe with people, if he thinks of you as his leader, he will be more confident, cool, calm and collected himself. This first game teaches the horse to trust you, and to be desensitized to frightening noises, sights and movements. The rest of the games teach the horse to respect you as a leader and to understand exactly what you want. In the Friendly Game, we throw ropes over and around the horse, with rhythm, over and over, until he can stand still and not be afraid. We put a torn plastic bag on the end of a stick and swoosh it around, not touching the horse at first, until he quits spooking. Consistency and rhythm are two important ingredients. The most important ingredient is the look on your face… it should be relaxed and friendly, no matter how the horse reacts. The other thing to remember is that horses learn from getting comfort. If you quit when the horse is scared, you’ll teach him to be scared. If you keep going while he’s scared, allowing him to drift around on a semi-loose rope, keeping him facing you… and then stop when he stops, you’ll teach him to be brave. He’ll realize that standing still and being calm is what works, as opposed to doing the prey animal thing of running off. He’ll start to look to you for how he should react in different situations. If you are calm and relaxed, that’s how he will be. If you are tense the horse will be tense. You need to be his example, his leader.
Game #2 The Porcupine Game
I give these games funny names so you’ll remember them and the concept of them. The Porcupine Game teaches your horse to move away from pressure. It can be pressure from your hands, the reins, your leg or the bit. Have you ever had a horse step on your toe and when you try to push him off he leans on to it more? Horses instinctively push back against pressure. You have to teach him to yield from pressure rather than push. A horse would not lean against a cactus or a porcupine quill. You need to learn to use your fingers the same way, with phases of intensity, and in different areas of his body. You start very softly, then push gradually harder and harder until the horse makes a move. Stop, rub that spot and start again.
Press on his nose to get him going backwards (this tells you if the horse will be easy to stop or back up)
Press on his neck to turn him (relates to neck reining especially)
Press on his hip to turn his back end away from you (maneuverability)
Press on his ribs to teach him to move sideways (maneuverability)
When you move the hindquarters, bend his head towards you a bit with the halter and lead rope or reins. Be consistent by starting with a light touch (phase 1) and your horse will become light and responsive in return. I have found that people with hard, quick and forceful handshakes have horses with hard mouths and dull sides. The horses are bracey and pushy rather than soft and responsive. By changing the way you touch your horse, you’ll change the way he responds to you. The best kind of hands to have, are ones that close slowly and open quickly. Most people have just the opposite. They close quickly and never open!
Game #3 The Driving Game
Constructive spooking! Horses actually move away from pressure without contact more easily than from pressure with contact (Porcupine Game). It’s relatively easy to move them away by waving your hands. This game achieves the same thing, but without fear, and being more specific about which end of the horse you want to move. As with the Porcupine Game, we use phases of intensity, the object being to teach the horse to respond with minimal effort on our part. Phase 1 might be wagging a finger, phase 2 pushing the air, phase 3 doing it more vigorously and phase 4 slapping the horse using the same rhythm. You can also drive your horse by swinging the end of your lead rope towards him. Again, the moment the horse tries to move, you quit and rub him. This reassures the horse that this is communication, not fear and intimidation.
Make sure you can drive your horse four ways:
Move him backwards
Move the front end away
Move the back end away (bend the head towards you and stay out of kicking range)
Move him sideways
Game #4 The Yo Yo Game
Just like a yo-yo, the horse has to back away from you and come forward when you ask… in a straight line. This game balances your horse’s whoa and go and can come in very handy out in the woods. By wiggling the lead rope, you build rhythmic pressure in front of the horse until he backs up to the end of the line. Leave him there a moment or two, then reel him back in. Allow your hands to slip and slide as you reel him in, getting gradually more grip on the rope if he is resistant. If he stands still and leans back on the rope, you do the same. When he makes a move forward, release instantly and start again. It won’t take long before your horse sees your hands start to move and he walks toward you.
Game #5 The Circling Game
Teaching your horse to walk or trot around you in a circle can have several benefits. First, you can make sure your horse isn’t going to react badly to the cinch or saddle. It is not unusual for a horse to get cinch bound after doing nothing for several months. It can also help you send a horse around and over a difficult blockage on the trail, without you having to try to ride him over it! To do the Circling Game, “Drive” the front end away from you until the horse is facing the direction of the circle. He’ll start walking or trotting around you. Just stand still, in one place and let it happen. Pass the rope around behind your back. If he stops behind your back, turn and send him again. This is a respect issue. You’re asking him to ” keep moving until I tell you otherwise.” When you want him to stop, draw the rope towards you and then “Drive” his hindquarters away from you so he comes straight in. As you can see, this game builds on games 3 and 4, giving them a purpose.
Game #6 The Sideways Game
Sideways is a maneuver you’ll use most when opening gates and maneuvering your horse’s position. It’s something a lot of horses are resistant about and they need to develop as a skill. Once they get it, sideways becomes so easy you’ll wonder how you functioned without it. Stand at the “drive line” of your horse, where his withers are. Drive his head and neck away a little, then his hindquarters… head.. hindquarters… head… etc. He’ll start to even out until he’s traveling completely sideways. Make sure you offer him plenty of rope, especially if he is resistant about his hindquarters moving over, you want to stay out of kicking range in case he gets upset. If he does react badly, ignore it. Keep passively and persistently at it and relax as soon as he gets it. My ropes are 12′ in length. This gives the horse lots of room, keeps you well out of range and still gives you some rope to swing for your “driving” action. If your horse needs even more space, and you need a longer extension of your arm, I recommend you use a stick with a thin rope on the end of it. I call it a Carrot Stick & Savvy String so people don’t use it like a whip. That helps you drive your horse even better.
Game #7 The Squeeze Game
Horses are naturally claustrophobic. They avoid tight spaces because that is where predators have an advantage. This game is the best way to teach your horse to feel safe in confined spaces. Whether that means getting into a trailer, under a tent, into a grove of trees, dealing with the cinch, or accepting a dead animal on his back, the Squeeze Game helps the horse to cope, mentally, emotionally and physically. First, ask your horse to squeeze between you and a fence. Stand about 10 feet away and gradually make the space smaller and smaller. Then squeeze him over jumps, under low hanging branches, under tarps, over tarps, over water and into a trailer. You keep your feet still and plan his path to go straight by you. Ask him to do the task until he is relaxed about it. Also, approach and retreat, works very well for building confidence. The more you force an unwilling horse, the more resistant he becomes because he is scared and untrusting. If you back him up and start over, he actually gets braver.
Prior and proper preparation
Most people don’t think they have the time to do it right, but then they always have to take the time to do it over and over and over. This is an investment in your horsemanship safety and your horse-human partnership, do it right the first time. If you don’t want to put time into your horse, to properly prepare him prior to the trip, you should take a motorbike or a jeep. Horses are not maintenance free, and there’s a certain amount of consideration you need to put into them before taking them up the mountain.
Set yourself up for success. Check your horse out with these 7 Games and you’ll know very quickly if he’s safe or not. If he’s still giving you trouble after the second session, you might want to choose a different horse for the trip. An hour of two on day one, half an hour or so on day 2, and then a few minutes each day is all it will take to improve your chances of an injury free trip. All the events and adventures should take place hunting your prey, not with your equine prey animal. Savvy gives you Safety. So savvy up and happy hunting with your partner!
The 7 Games is available on video from Parelli Natural HorseManShip office in Pagosa Springs. Call 800-642-3335 or directly on (970) 731-9400… or drop in! 52 Talisman, just near the new City Market store west of town.