The journey to level 1

Reading through older posts in this blog, I noticed that I’m often having breakthroughs or new understandings or deeper appreciation about leadership, patterns, refinement. Oddly enough, this comforts me. It feels like progress!

Undemanding time

One of the refrains of the Parelli program is that “it’s all Level 1.” It’s one of those simple-but-not-easy truths: that as you develop your skills, expand your repertoire, increase your knowledge, you realize more and more that the 7 games are really it, if you follow the 8 Principles while you do them.

8 Principles of Horsemanship

  1. Horsemanship is natural.
  2. Don’t make or teach assumptions.
  3. Communication is two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea.
  4. Horses and humans have mutual responsibilities.
  5. The attitude of justice is effective.
  6. Body language is the universal language.
  7. Horses teach humans and humans teach horses.
  8. Principles, purpose and time are the tools of teaching.

~ Pat Parelli

Level 1 with increasing excellence means more than just refining your body language or never releasing on a brace. It means returning to the center time and time again. Balancing rapport and respect. Equalizing language, love, and leadership.  Thinking like a horse, acting like a partner, putting the relationship first.

It means being aware.


The more I think about it, the more I understand that horsemanship is awareness. Without awareness there is no adaptation, but there is a much higher chance that you or your horse will get hurt.

Rocky expresses his opinion

With awareness, you can be in the moment with your horse, connected, responding immediately when he needs more leadership, more friendly game, less energy, less pressure. With awareness you can keep your fingers out of the halter knot and your toes out from under the hooves. With awareness, you can correct yourself quickly when you fall back into the gross motor skills of level 1 level 1, and right away return yourself to level 4 level 1 by practicing energy management and refined body language.

Horsemanship is the habits and skills that humans and horses need to become partners. ~ Pat Parelli

When things go pear-shaped in our lives, we naturally fall back into the habits we’ve practiced over and over again, enough times to carve deep grooves into our brains. We literally develop brain ruts to help us go on auto-pilot when we need to, to stay safe, sane, alive.  We especially fall back into those ruts when we’re in the throes of fear or grief.

But we also fall into those ruts when we stop being aware — when we’re just wiggling the rope somewhere between a phase 2 and a phase 3, without starting with phase 1, because that’s the amount of wiggling it took last time, and anyway you’re not even thinking about it, you’re just on auto-wiggle because you’re talking to someone else and your horse has crept up or you’re thinking about what you “should be” doing instead of at the barn or you’re ruminating over past events or thinking 5 steps ahead about saddling, mounting, and riding out the gate.

Rocky looks left

The longer we cruise-control down a rut, the more conscious effort it takes to climb out and practice new, improved habits. The good news is that if we can apply that conscious effort consistently, we can create new ruts, and cause awareness to become our default. We can become aware of our awareness without having to devote so much constant effort to bringing ourselves back.

With awareness, you can have focus. With focus you can have clear communication. With clear communication you can have leadership. With communication and leadership you can have partnership.


The hard part, for me, isn’t having awareness — it’s having the confidence to trust my awareness. My self-image still believes I’m a complete newbie and that if I “have a feeling” about something it’s probably not right because I’m so new to all this.

Erin: Think back. Has there ever been a situation where if you had followed your intuition with your horse, it would have made things worse?

Me: [stunned speechless}

Erin: [smiles]

Me: … No.

Yet in a fortnight I will celebrate 7 years with Rocky. That means 7 years of being around Parelli and 6 years of living on a ranch dedicated entirely to natural horsemanship. I have immersed in the materials, attended Parelli events, traveled to the Summit three times, and acquired a Parelli pre-school graduate from Atwood Ranch and a rescue pony spotted by 5-star Parelli Professional David Lichman. I volunteered for the Parelli Education Institute for 6 months. I’ve even attended lectures by Dr. Robert M. Miller and demos by John Lyons, Chris Cox, and Linda Tellington-Jones. I’ve written this blog, because writing helps me understand things. Plus all the books and videos and conversations and and and and and.

And, even in those months where life got crazy and I barely saw the horses, I saw the horses. Even when I couldn’t get out to play with them, I could glance out the window and enjoy their existence — and study their herd dynamics — on a daily basis.

Rocky looks right

With all of that plus my opportunity to get out there at least once or twice a week for actual practice, you’d think my self-image would catch up with the reality that I am truly on the journey, not just toeing the starting line.

I make the same number of mistakes when I’m not second-guessing myself as I do when I’m unsure. The mistakes I make when I’m confident, though, are where the learning happens. And it’s where the horses are more comfortable. They know that if they keep trying they will get through to me and I will change, when I’m not distracted by a thought train of self-doubt.

Aspiring to level 1

About a year ago, I had insights about being particular without being critical. Before that, I blossomed under the idea of purposeful engagement. Five years ago I wrote about “the magical fourth session” — complete with an original pen-and-ink illustration! — showing that I was learning the power of patterns even then.

Just a couple of days ago I included the power of patterns, leadership, refinement, and measuring in millimeters in my list of clinic take-aways.

It’s all level 1. And then you build on it. And then it’s all level 1, again….

Horsemanship learning cycle

Categories: Reflections | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Themes from the clinic

Clinic at Atwood Ranch

As I let the clinic experience sink into me, and select what to remember (learning, BFOs, special moments) and what to discard (    ), the following themes appear over and over again.

Remember that these are my words and my notes; this is my interpretation of what the clinicians said and did, what Rocky did, what I felt, and so forth. 

Zone 1 for refinement

I got a wonderfully fluid, precise, smooth Figure 8 pattern when I learned how to direct Zone 1 instead of Zone 3. Circle games also improved in quality when we learned “put your nose on that line.” The idea was that in levels 1 and 2 we are learning and practicing the gross motor skills of the games, and to progress we need to remember to refine.

Phase 1

When did I lose my phase 1? I don’t know. But I’m committed to finding it again. To the point where I was walking around my client’s office this week and stopping, turning, and backing up my imaginary horse with a Dolly Parton stance (shoulders back and chest out) and one finger.

Wait until I have his mind

His body can go where I’m directing, but it makes no difference until I have his mind. Auto-pilot is neither safe nor calm nor responsive. I did many, many switchbacks while leading and many, many turn-and-face-and-backups while leading, to help Rocky stop looking at everything else and try to focus on me.

Rocky at Atwood Ranch

Simple things done with excellence

Pat’s list of 12 things to do with excellence do not include fancy maneuvers. It’s simple things, like how you approach your horse, how you walk away from him, how you halter, how you lead. The one-rein stop and the 9-step backup. Everything else builds on that, so when we get sloppy with our simple things, the rest of it falls apart too.

Measuring threshold progress in millimeters

Rocky’s backup has become less and less straight over the past months. In the clinic we practiced backing the horses to the rail. If that was easy, we picked an obstacle and backed them to the obstacle. The clinicians explained that when the hindquarters veer to one side, that’s a threshold, and to retreat. We were to measure progress in millimeters. Each time the horse got a millimeter closer to the goal, it was a success.

I had to be 75% of the way across the width of the arena before Rocky could back up straight toward the rail. The area was 150 feet wide, so that’s about 112 feet away from the rail.

The strength of draw toward the other horses

Rocky looked everywhere but me, most of the weekend. He bonded fast and strong to one of the LBI mares, Chica, and to one of the Atwood geldings, Stretch, but was willing to choose any of the other horses as his leader, rather than choose me. Including the young horses in the pasture across from the arena and the black-and-white paint half a mile away on the crest of a hill.

Atwood horses

Phase 4 can be persistence

Pat talks about being polite and passively persistent in the proper position. Something fell into place for me with the trailer loading on Monday morning to come home. I did the tap-tap-tap / rub-rub-rub method, with the handle of the carrot stick on Rocky’s back. When he thought about forward he got rubbed, and when he thought about backward he got tapped. I didn’t get harder, stronger, louder, slappier. Just persisted, and that was effective. And yet somehow for a long time I have been getting bigger for phase 4, which offended Rocky and did not improve our trust. The clinic reminded me of Linda’s comment that phase 4 is what’s effective, not necessarily a harder smack — a fly can get a big response from a horse — and Pat’s comments about the connection between effectiveness and justice.

The power of patterns

Rocky was up enough for long enough for me to see clearly that patterns are a powerful way to soothe, to focus, to calm, to relax. For both of us! Because when I was worrying that I didn’t know what to do with the RBE at the end of my rope, I didn’t have to think up “what to do” if I chose a pattern. I could instead read Rocky and try to adapt for whatever he needed in the moment. The patterns I remember being effective in were falling leaf, traveling circles, figure 8s, even the simpler yo-yo and 180 turns.

It’s all about Leadership

Everything — every struggle, every meltdown, every hour that Rocky didn’t look at me — came down to leadership and my lack of it. He didn’t see me as a leader and therefore he didn’t feel safe, he didn’t offer trust or obedience. We had moments on Sunday where I got better and he tuned in for longer periods, measured in milliminutes.

Both days he was more attentive when I was in the saddle than when I was on the ground, perhaps because by the afternoon he had looked around enough to satisfy himself. Perhaps because I was focusing so hard on having focus. Perhaps because in the riding he got to move his feet longer distances and in straight lines, because we were all following the rail and didn’t have to stick to a particular station in the arena due to the other 9 pairs being at their stations.

Rocky at Atwood Ranch

Categories: Events, Learning Experience | Tags: | 2 Comments

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