It’s June of 2003 at Sacramento’s Cal Expo fairgrounds. Out in the arena, five horse-and-human pairs are a confusion of activity. Miniature Horses at the end of long leads bounce over jumps. Bridleless horses of various breeds trot and lope about, spinning and circling through patterns, even bowing. Their riders sit in Western or English saddles, or bareback.
At the center of the action, a petite blonde with a dazzling smile guides a pinto mini over a series of barrels. Most of the eyes in the audience are on her. What is this, I wonder…the beginning of a Parelli Natural Horsemanship seminar, as billed, or a three-ring—make that five-ring—circus?
I remind myself that, glitz aside, this is the program now linked with the brightest names in eventing, Olympic veterans David and Karen O’Connor, as well as reining icon Craig Johnson, winner of multiple futurities and world championship titles.
Could it be, I wonder, that this showiness is simply part of the natural evolution of the highly successful Parelli program, which now reaches across the U.S. and into 10 foreign countries?
Or is it, as some would say, the handiwork of Linda Parelli, Pat’s wife and an integral and highly visible part of the Parelli formula since the early 1990s?
Who is Linda Parelli, anyway? And what exactly is her contribution to Parelli Natural Horsemanship?
For the benefit of all of you who are Parelli devotees—or are merely watching the Parelli machine with interest—we decided to find out.
[MORE WITH LINDA: GET YOUR HORSE IN GEAR]
Sizzle & Substance
It’s late morning and already hot when I arrive at the Cal Expo grounds to interview the leading lady of natural horsemanship. I squint through my sunglasses at the Parelli trailer, a double-decker behemoth that’s both transportation for 12 horses and living quarters for the Parellis’ “equine relocation expert”—or driver.
“Learn the Secrets to Success With Horses!” shouts the almost-three-foot-high green letters across its side.
Linda steps out of the trailer and walks to meet me. She’s even more attractive in person than she is in her promotional literature, with a fit, 5'6" physique and a fresh-scrubbed, surfer-girl air about her. She looks at least a decade younger than her 44 years.
She greets me with a friendly handshake. We escape to the air-conditioned coolness of the trailer, and sit facing each other. In response to my questions, she begins to tell me how she met Pat Parelli and became involved in his program.
Repeatedly, she tells me how much she’s learned from Pat, and that she considers herself his student still. Whenever she explains something, she comes to the edge of the sofa, gesturing expressively with her hands.
Her enthusiasm seems sincere, and it’s catching. Before our interview is over, I’ll be playing “horse” and she’ll be sitting on my back, demonstrating how it is that when a rider turns her head, a horse can feel the movement through the rider’s seat bones (it’s true).
As I exit the trailer back into the blazing heat, I have a suspicion that my research has barely begun. I step into the main exhibit hall of the 2003 Western States Horse Expo and casually drop Linda’s name as I yak with commercial exhibitors. I listen to complaints about the mega-theatrics of the Parelli performances, and tsk-tsking about Linda’s penchant for jumping bareback without a helmet.
“Yeah, all that’s true,” chimes in another booth staffer, who’s listening in. “Still, my mare had all that Parelli stuff on her when I bought her, and, I have to tell you…it works.”
He goes on to detail how his Quarter Horse mare follows him at liberty, backs up with a wiggle of his finger, and repositions herself as he grooms and saddles her, so that he rarely has to move his feet.
“She comes when I whistle, and I ride her with loose reins. It’s a trust thing, going both ways,” he adds earnestly.
I make a mental note and move on. Clearly, there’s something to this Parelli stuff, showy or not. Linda is smack in the middle of it, and to understand her current and future role, I must understand where she’s been.
The Dressage Rider & the Cowboy
Horses and teaching have always been passions for Linda Parelli, born Linda Suzanne Paterson in Singapore in 1959. Riding lessons came at age 9, and her first pony at 12, after she and her family moved to Australia. She continued riding—mostly over fences—all through her teens.
After graduating from high school, she attended university for 18 months with the goal of becoming a teacher. But she found the curriculum unappealing.
“Linda’s a natural teacher, and all they had to offer were traditional teaching methods,” says Yvonne Wilcox, Linda’s sister and the Parellis’ art director. “She became frustrated.”
At about the same time, she was also becoming intrigued by the effectiveness of a skin care product she was using. Determined to work for the company that produced it, she offered to do anything—even type.
Once in the door, she began suggesting better ways to teach consumers how to use the line of products, and eventually became the company’s education director, developing learning materials and conducting classes for skin-care professionals.
“I was fascinated with the learning process and the human psyche, and became a learnaholic myself,” Linda recalls. “I studied various accelerated learning methods, including NLP [neuro-linguistic programming, the study of how the mind and language affect behavior]. My personality was a part of it, too—my classes were fun and provocative.”
In her horse life, meanwhile, she was running into serious problems with Regalo, a hot Thoroughbred she’d acquired. The 16.1-hand gelding was nearly impossible to control.
“He reared, bolted, and was afraid of everything,” Linda relates. “I wanted to event him, but turned to dressage out of necessity. I tried every bit, noseband, martingale, and draw rein imaginable—they knew me by name at the tack store. Nothing worked. So I became an avoidaholic. I simply didn’t ask him to do anything that scared him—and that included cantering.”
As she struggled with Regalo, she began winning in the dressage arena with her other gelding, Siren, an ex-racehorse with somewhat-less-difficult control problems. Still, she was troubled by the resistance and unhappiness she saw among upper-level dressage horses, including her own.
After Regalo broke her nose and friends urged her to sell or destroy him, she turned in desperation to a clinic given by a cowboy from America in September of 1989.
“I figured if he could stop his horse without a bridle,” she says, recalling the Pat Parelli videotape she saw playing in the tack store one day, “he could help me stop Regalo with one.”
At the clinic, Linda was stumped by the first assignment, the Friendly Game, which requires the lead rope to be thrown over the horse's back. But every time she tried to swing the lead rope , he’d explode.
“Eventually, Pat came by and said, ‘Keep going—you’re doing great. I’ve never seen this take longer than two days’—and it was a one-day clinic!” Linda says, rolling her eyes. Still, the encouragement worked.
“My attitude changed,” she explains. “I looked at my horse and said, ‘Well, Regalo, it’s me and you for two days.’ Once I relaxed and decided it was okay if it took two days, my horse changed. He went from being right-brained (emotional, instinctual) to left (thinking). He looked at me, lowered his head, and licked his lips. At that point, I threw the lead rope right over him. And then again, and again.”
It was a watershed.
“I hadn’t realized how little patience I’d had with my horses before that,” she says, recalling Pat’s observations about a horse’s defensive prey mentality. “If something didn’t happen within 30 seconds, I’d get after my horse about it.
"I realized to my horror that I’d been Regalo’s own personal predator!”
Later that day, after she’d ridden her horse with only a halter, she went home “a born-again horseperson,” she says.
Later still, when friends marveled at the change in Regalo and demanded to know how she’d done it, Linda told them it wasn’t what she’d done to her horse, but how she’d changed.
“Your horse is a mirror,” she explains, noting that what you project is what you’ll see in him. “Pat put the fun back into horses for me,” she adds. “And fun requires confidence.”
[READ: LIFTING FEET WITH PAT PARELLI]
An Eager Scribe
When the cowboy returned to the U.S. after his Sydney clinic, Linda bought his video and some equipment and continued to progress “despite the ridicule and criticism of my riding friends.” When she’d run into a problem that stumped her, she’d call Pat, scribbling his thoughts down on paper.
Those notes turned into 20 typed pages of philosophy and how-to instruction, which, over time, became the manuals and pocket booklets for the first three levels—Partnership, Harmony, and Refinement—of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Savvy System.
“There were similarities between what Pat was doing at his clinics, and what I was doing in my skin-care classes,” observes Linda today. “The woman I worked for, Ella Baché, was the Pat Parelli of skin care. She wasn’t selling ‘hope in a jar’—it really worked, but you had to know how to use it. We taught skin care professionals how to teach clients to ‘read’ their own situations, in order to know how best to use the product.
“Pat was saying some of the same things to his students that I was saying to mine. I told him, ‘You need a manual.’”
In 1993, Linda relocated to the states, and in 1995 she and Pat were married. With a three-horse trailer and a motor home, they gave clinics throughout the western states and Canada, traveling north in the summer and south in the winter.
“They soon found their students needed more than the 20 pages of photocopied notes,” says Yvonne, “and that’s when they refined the system to teach the levels in a step-by-step, easier-to-follow fashion.” Today, the Parelli system is a complete, widely used at-home horsemanship curriculum.
Training and certifying Parelli instructors was also Linda’s idea.
“I already had experience training instructors through the skin-care program, so it seemed the logical next step,” she explains.
As the training network expanded, the Parelli method reached farther around the globe. Today, there are 150 certified Parelli Natural Horsemanship instructors, and official distributors of the program in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Two instructional centers—one at the Parellis’ original ranch home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and a second at their new place on “Miracle Mile” in Ocala, Florida—offer courses with Pat, Linda, and top-level certified instructors. The Colorado center has been fully accredited by the Colorado Department of Higher Education as an occupational school.
‘Just’ Fun & Games?
Though there are now countless thousands of Parelli enthusiasts, there are also detractors. For some, the flashiness and old-time-revival feel of the public seminars are too hokey.
“I saw Pat years ago in Sacramento and later in Albuquerque, and he was great—no theatrics, just horse sense,” relates one veteran trainer. “Now his shows have become shows—ridiculous to true horsemen and ‘awesome’ to the John Q public. He still has the horsemanship in there somewhere, but he’s selling oohs and aahs—and that’s not how he originally started.”
“But people want to have fun,” counters Linda. “Since we’ve added the inspirational/motivational stuff to the seminars, we’ve been drawing more people. Part of the showiness is just Pat—he’s a high- energy person who hated school and found it hard to sit still. He vowed that if ever he was in a position to teach, his students would have fun. Some people think you can’t be serious if you’re having so much fun, but they’re wrong.”
David and Karen O’Connor, who’ve linked with the Parellis to bring natural horsemanship to the competitive sport-horse world, agree on this point.
“You have to get beyond the entertainment,” says Karen. “The beauty of the Parelli system is that everything’s broken down. It’s not the only way to become a horseman, but it streamlines the process.
“When David and I met the Parellis, we realized there were similarities between what they were doing and what we’d been doing with our horses for a long time. They’ve just made it easy for anyone, at any level, to learn. If people can’t get beyond the entertainment, they miss out on a lot of wonderful stuff.”
Apart from theatrics, the system’s playful games and extensive ground work are also off-putting to many experienced equestrians.
“I could make a bunch of money with a 900 number,” jokes one all-around trainer. “My secret to success with horses would be just two words: ‘Get on.’”
But Linda points to the method behind the ground-work madness.
“Most riders are at least a little bit afraid,” she observes. “We start them on the ground so they can develop the skills and the relationship with their horse that they’ll need to be successful astride. Then they can easily transfer those skills to riding.
"I myself was fearless as a child, but Regalo taught me about fear. The seven games are a safe, effective way to calm an excitable horse while maintaining your own safety and confidence.”
Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor likes the games for the way they strengthen the horse-human connection.
“The art of riding is all about communication,” he says in the O’Connor/Parelli videotape, The Future of Training/ Eventing. “We must first develop a language with which to communicate, then develop our riding skills, and then compete—in that order. The games help teach your horse to look at you and say, ‘What?’ Meaning, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And then you can say, ‘That.’”
Though Linda stresses her contributions to the Parelli formula have been “on the people-development side, not in horsemanship,” many would dispute this.
“Linda’s expertise is in teaching riders how to use their bodies,” says Craig Johnson, winner of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in National Reining Horse Association events. “She shows you how to get out of your horse’s way, then how to influence him. She’s studied how your position affects everything.
“Certain aspects of traditional horsemanship—such as heels down and toes in; back arched, chin up, and chest out—aren’t functional,” he adds, “because they lock the rider into position. Linda’s goal is to get you to float with your horse, which makes it easier and more comfortable for the horse to do what you ask of him.”
Karen O’Connor agrees.
“Linda’s great on getting a rider’s thoughts to flow from the mind, through the body, and into the horse without what she calls ‘noise,’ or interference,” she says. “She’s keenly aware of body language, and her concept of ‘fluidity’—flowing with the horse—really is wonderful.”
LOPING WITH LINDA-------------------------------------------------------
"Fluidity," says Linda Parelli, talking about her signature approach to riding with feel, "feels like the opposite of how we've all originally been taught. When I began to learn about Pat's program, I realized I'd not been using my body properly in my riding, despite my dressage training. I had to learn to be able to make my legs and body a part of my horse's body, and that meant getting all my joints moving, just like his. I had to understand that I can get my horse properly bent on a circle merely by turning my head, shoulders, and belly button—because my horse will feel it in my seat bones.
"Pat puts it simply—'do what the horse does'—and I've tried to discover how best to help people accomplish that. 'Cantering with your arms' is one exercise I've devised toward that end. It runs counter to the traditional instruction we've all had to 'polish the saddle' or drive with our seats at the lope. I've learned to do the opposite—to lope with my horse instead of pushing—because a horse can't round his back or get light in the front end when you're driving your seat into him. Common problems caused by pushing include refusing to lope, difficulty maintaining the lope, bucking, running off, or simply getting hollow, dull, or heavy.
"When, by contrast, you simply 'do what the horse does,' the difference is evident within minutes. Suddenly your horse can lift his front end, bring his hindquarters underneath, round his back, and give you a lovely, smooth lope.
"Try this: Sit on the edge of a chair in a position as if you were riding. Now 'polish the saddle' in a loping rhythm. You'll feel uncomfortable pressure on your own seat, and you'll notice that you're pushing the chair down and forward... it might even creak and groan!
"Now do the opposite: Leave your lower body alone and 'lope' with your arms—that is, pretend your arms and shoulders are a horse's front legs, and make the same movements a horse would. As you do this, feel your ribs stretch up and forward, and notice the much lighter contact your seat now has with the chair.
"Now try it on your horse, knotting or dropping your reins over the saddle horn to free your arms. (For safety, start in a small, confined area, such as a round pen.) After a week or two of practice, start refining your movement so that your hands move only barely but your ribs, shoulders, and arms are in synchronicity with your horse—and your seat comes along for the ride. At that point, you'll feel no tension, and no driving...just wonderful harmony." ###
The Future of Training?
The Parellis’ program is now expanding toward both ends of the expertise scale. Pat, the self-proclaimed “King of Backyarders,” has opened all Parelli public seminars to 4-H members and club leaders, free of charge.
At the other end of the spectrum are the professional collaborations with show-ring superstars like the O’Connors and Craig Johnson.
“We want to take natural horsemanship into the competitive Western horse world, and develop some thoughts that will help reining competitors, especially,” says Craig of his involvement with the Parelli program.
“The Parellis do such a beautiful job teaching people how to teach their horses. They call that the ‘cake,’ and now we’re working on the ‘icing’—upper level, competitive stuff.”
As an example of what’s in store, Craig points to the Circling Game.
“We’ll be using it, on the longe line and at liberty, to encourage a horse to take responsibility for maneuvers,” he explains. “Ultimately, we want to be able to start a horse on a turnaround, for example, and then be able drop rein contact and have the horse follow through on his own.”
The possibilities are intriguing. Linda, of course, will be central to the development of the new learning materials, especially for the English disciplines.
Will the seminars introducing the competitive-level curriculum be as flashy as traditional Parelli shows? That remains to be seen. Even if they are, they’re likely to attract some serious attention, in addition to wide-eyed gawking. That’s because, as David O’Connor points out in The Future of Training/Eventing, the showmanship is not the point.
“The interesting thing about the Parellis,” he says with conviction, “is that they’re tremendous horsemen.”
Senior Editor Jennifer Forsberg Meyer plans to try Parelli Natural Horsemanship with her neighbor’s 3-year-old black and white tobiano filly. “My neighbor said I can ride her filly whenever I like, but I’ve been hesitant about just hopping on. The Parelli stuff will provide the perfect bridge for me—I can check the filly out and establish a relationship with her before I get on,” she says.