Playing with Adrenaline

On Sunday, Linda Parelli taught a lesson with a young woman named Karen and her horse Lily, in front of a thousand or so spectators. Lily tended to become fearful in public environments, and Karen wanted to learn some strategies that would give Lily confidence and help Lily stay calm in just about any situation.

Adrenaline. An important hormone that is used to prepare the body for emergency situations, eg, by increasing the heart rate. It has widespread effects on circulation, muscles and the provision of energy. ~ Spinal Net

Linda coached Karen through a Circle Game in which Karen was to encourage Lily when Lily wanted to go faster, and to stay in neutral when Lily wanted to move with rhythm, relaxation, and contact, which pretty much always included slowing down as she got more balanced and fluid.

I saw a lot of Rockstar in Lily’s language, and I watched Karen tune in to the slightest change in Lily’s gait or demeanor, flicking the carrot stick and string behind her when she started to scramble or speed up, staying relaxed but matching Lily’s energy when Lily caught her balance. I saw when Lily started to figure out the game of it all, when she connected her own speeding up with Karen’s following her around the circle with five flicks of the string. Always five, always in rhythm, always calm but with intention.

“You want to go faster? Great! Let me help you with that!” ~ Linda Parelli

I also watched as Lily started to want to come in and stand next to Karen, and how Karen did not allow Lily too close until Lily was genuinely calm. Then they hung out together for a while. If Lily’s adrenaline came up again, Karen sent her back to the circle. When this happened, it did not take as long for Lily to decide it was better to relax and hang out with Karen than to run around at the end of the line.

Linda talked about why this strategy was effective for this situation at this time. Karen and Lily had a good connection, had been together long enough for Lily to look to Karen for communication and leadership, and had been progressing along in the Parelli Program for more than a year.


Cause your ideas to become your horse’s ideas, but understand his ideas first. ~ Pat Parelli

I have now played this game twice with Rocky. In the first session, in the round pen, I concentrated on reading his energy: how high is his head, how scrambled are his feet, how high is his tail, how much is he looking outside, how tense are his muscles. I also decided to keep going until he was calm, not stop early out of worry that it was too much physical activity. He’ll tell me if he starts to get sore, but I think he has actually been more sound since I stopped stopping us too soon and started allowing him tell me when he has to cool down and rest.

I waffled at first on whether to follow him around the circle like Karen followed Lily or whether just to tag the ground where he sped up. Eventually I settled on just tagging the ground, as I felt like I was making him afraid of me when I followed him around.

I know I was too slow at times, dropped the stick even though Pat wasn’t watching me, missed cues, and was not always clear with my directions. But I no longer expect to do things right the first time just because I saw someone else do it.

The second session, we went into the front arena. Many of the horses get “up” in that arena, because it’s in the northwest corner of the property, and all the draw of the herd is pulling them southeast. I am now confident enough to keep my calm and to enjoy the session, and savvy enough to use the southeast corner as a reward. If he speeds up in that direction, I encourage the speed and ask for something complex, like Sideways Game or Yo-Yo Game. When he really tries hard at something, I take him to the corner and we rest together.

I took the principles of the “calmness circle game” and applied them to other activities, such as a figure 8 pattern, walking and trotting over poles, and a half circle with a turn-and-face pause at cones. All of these patterns included changes of direction to help him find calmness and physical objects to help him find focus. It’s hard to keep staring at the top branches of the trees across the road if you have to look out for poles and cones at your feet.

Sketch: Half Circle Cone Game

By the end, he was comfortable enough to roll (at liberty!) in the southwest corner of the arena, and the arc of his threshold moved significantly north and west from the safe corner.

It helps to have Salsa in there being totally unconcerned about whatever dangers Rocky believes he is perceiving. Salsa gallops around with the sheer joy of being a pony on good footing, rolls, stretches, scratches, and watches us intently. He put some effort into playing with me on-line when I tied Rocky up at the tie rail for a while, but mostly he just wanted to zip around and be scratched, which was fine by me.

Salsa in the front arena

We finished the session with a mosey up to the lawn for a snack, where Rocky got to be at liberty but Salsa did not, due to his sassy “oh yeah? come and get me!” behavior the last time. Jan will be back permanently starting on Tuesday and then Salsa can get back to being a full-time levels partner.

Rocky grazing

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. ~ John Steinbeck

Categories: Leadership, On-Line | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Post navigation

3 thoughts on “Playing with Adrenaline

  1. Great synopsis of the lesson and how we can apply it for use with our our horses.

    Sounds as though Salsa is a great counter-point for Rocky!

  2. horsegirlonajourney

    Salsa really is! He’s innately LBE, no ambiguity to him whatsoever — he’s either engaged with you or he’s not. LOL I think he will become Rocky’s seeing-eye pony if Rocky loses his sight when he’s 20 … LOL

  3. Come to think of it, you may be describing this lesson with Emma Kline & her mare Lil! Here is a link to her blog post about it. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: