Reflections on why I didn’t ‘stick with’ horses until Parelli

Seth and I talked tonight about the Parelli phenomenon, how Pat and especially Linda have created a vocabulary and a grammar for horsemanship that works so well for me. I said … man, if I’d known about this stuff as a kid, I’d never have fallen out of horses. That is, I collected models and read books and wrote stories and drew horses in the margins of my papers well into college, but my time with actual horses was sporadic and limited.

But then we worked the timeline and compared it to Pat and Linda’s timeline and I realized exactly why I was “away from horses” for so long, and why my experiences left me disappointed, afraid, and with a strong sense of failure. And why getting my first horse at 36 and getting stuck in Level 1 for a year and moving 400+ miles to a Parelli facility has been the right thing at the right time, all along.

What follows is a long “highlight reel” of my horse experience before Parelli and it’s probably boring if you’re not me, but I wanted it here for my own future reference. You have been warned.

Your horse is your mirror – Parelli Natural Horsemanship

I had my first riding lessons when I was 7, in 1978, five years before Pat rode his mule in the Snaffle Bit Futurity and almost won it. Those lessons were amazing, compared to every other lessons I ever had. Three kids were assigned to each lesson horse and were responsible for grooming and tack. The lesson ran from 8 to 12 every Saturday for 10 weeks and broke down into three hour-long sections with half an hour before and after for grooming and tack. The three sections were classroom instruction about horse care, English riding, and vaulting. Can you imagine that opportunity now, when town kids aren’t even allowed to walk through their front doors without helmets, knee pads, and a bodyguard?

A couple of years later my parents saved up enough money to send me for another set of 10 lessons. Pat still hadn’t become (in)famous for the mule but was probably making a name as a bronc rider by this time.

When I was 12, one of the women at my dad’s office mentioned that she kept horses out at her mom’s place, and dad arranged for her to take me with her once a week to ride. We lured the horses from the pasture with buckets of carrots and haltered quickly before they could run away. They had me ride Kiko for 10 minutes, then told me I wasn’t good enough and was going to “teach her bad habits,” and I got “downgraded” to Charlie who was retired and “too old to care.” It didn’t matter to me which horse I rode but at the time, I perceived that I was a burden on these adults, and that every time I rode they were disappointed. I was a nervous wreck, worried I might accidentally break a rule (though no one explained what the rules were) or do something that would make the adults change their minds. Everything I had learned at the riding school — which I know now can be summed up as “confidence” — shattered. I eventually became so frozen with fear of the adults, and transferred that to the horse (who didn’t like me; how could he, as tense as I was?) that I stopped going, because I always felt I was failing somehow, and certainly not riding up to their standards. This was 1983, about when Pat was first meeting his mentors Troy Henry, Ronnie Willis, and Tom Dorrance.

The journey to becoming a Horseman may be one of the most challenging and rewarding ventures you will ever undertake. – Pat Parelli

At 16, I tried again. I had a driver’s license. A lady in town needed someone to feed and muck in exchange for riding. This time, with no adults around to stare, I was able to relax and start to enjoy myself, even though the riding area was about a quarter of an acre and fenced with barbed wire. The town had grown up around the property and the only “trail” was a sidewalk leading to a country road with no shoulder that had become highway-busy. I asked the lady if I could bring some friends out and she said sure, but we misunderstood each other. I let my friends ride the horse (and I kissed a boy in the stall) and she met me at the barn the next day and told me I was fired, as the neighbors had reported “a whole gang of teenagers hanging around.” She made a few other comments that were inexplicable to me at the time. I went home in tears. (Eventually, I realized exactly what she had said, things I’d never believed anyone could think so I didn’t get it at the time. She wasn’t upset at the numbers, she was upset that my friends were Mexican.)

I went to U.C. Davis and took riding lessons on campus from other college kids who had experience with horses but not with teaching. The lesson series was a strict curriculum: walk-trot today, trot-canter next week, trot-jump-canter the next, etc., and woe betide the student who had issues like fear, poor balance, and a lack of fundamental skills.”Heels down!” and “Don’t let him get away with that!” don’t teach much. A couple of bad falls and I admitted to myself that I was horrible with horses, had always been horrible with horses, and that I should do the horses a favor and stop trying to ride them.

Developing as a Horseman is a fascinating, wonderful, and sometimes painful process. — Pat Parelli

A year later — 1991-92, when Linda was struggling with Regalo — I found a small Peruvian Paso breeding farm where I could muck stalls and groom horses and not have to ride, as they were mostly stallions and broodmares. The owner believed that the stallions were fine to ride and play with because that breed had such nice studs, but after two rides on the small one, I knew it was still too much for me. But they had one gelding, Jardinero, who I fell in love with. The owner told me one day “He likes you” and I said “How do you know?” It was the first time I had ever had someone I could ask about how horses communicate with us. It was also the first time I had ever established a relationship with a horse; I spent hours and hours of undemanding time and even played some of the games with him without realizing what I was doing. It was the best horse experience I’d had so far — and he and I paired so well that I had no fear about riding him. Unfortunately, he belonged to a friend of the owner’s in another state, and one day I arrived to find that he had been shipped east. Not long after, the owner had a bad accident that ripped up her back. She sold the horses and moved into town.

I moved to San Francisco in 1993 and found a riding academy in Golden Gate Park; I think I rode there in 1996 or 1997, just before the operation was shut down. They had one fantastic horse and one devil horse — who bit a chunk out of my friend’s shoulder when the instructor told her “just go in and show him who’s boss.” My friend went to the emergency room and I stopped taking lessons there. That particular horse was so unhappy, and the overall environment was not one of safety or respect, that it wasn’t even fun anymore. I began to wonder if this was how all horse operations were and resigned myself to loving horses themselves from afar. This is about the time that Linda started shaping Pat’s message into coherent, newbie-friendly home study courses and spreading the word of what Pat’s mentors called “it” and Pat called “natural horsemanship.”

I was away from horses until 2007  when I couldn’t stand it anymore and signed up for a lesson at a barn in Los Angeles. The instructor was patient, the horses were nice, and I started to find joy in horses again. At 36 I no longer feared adults and I had figured out that as a learner I was supposed to make mistakes. I felt sorrow for the kid I’d been, petrified that any little mistake would make them send me away, and I talked to my instructor about getting a horse of my own.

[Parelli students] have a lot of Try. They can laugh at themselves. They see every challenge the horse presents them as an opportunity to learn. They are focused and not easily distracted. They are goal oriented but not impatient or direct line. Rather than focusing totally on the result, they can take things one step at a time, systematically and patiently building their skills, until the day they can do amazing things with their horse. – Pat Parelli

Then I found Parelli. Here, at last, was a model and a vocabulary for what I wanted most: a relationship with my horse, a method I could follow at my own pace, that honored my ignorance and my fear and helped me mitigate both of them. But Parelli wasn’t available to me at 12; he was still wet behind the ears while I was allowing my fear of “messing up” to keep me from even trying to infiltrate the horsie girls or find a horse to borrow for 4-H. When Linda came on board and turned the Parelli seminars into a bona fide program — and the internet allowed for community, support, materials, and marketing — that’s when the program was right for me.

attitude | knowledge | tools | techniques | time | imagination | support – Parelli Natural Hrsemanship

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