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

The difference between fear and anxiety

Rocky smilingJust yesterday, I posted a long update about my strategies for working through the anxieties that trailering has stirred up for me.  Today, Parelli posted some video snippets from sports psychologist Dr. Jenny Susser’s talk at the Summit that address this exact topic.

“Confidence comes from preparation and focus…. Fear is a response to an actual threat…. Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat.” ~ Dr. Jenny Susser, speaking at the Parelli Summit 2014

One life lesson that I’m learning from this trailering journey is that I already know how to help myself through the scary stuff, and it’s exactly that: preparation and focus. I can use my information-saturation method, my “pick up the dish and do it” technique, and the deep breathing and all those other strategies to get myself through it. Thus, I’m not afraid of the anxiety itself. (With me it’s mostly anxiety; I cope pretty well with things that are actually happening and only melt down later when I’m swamped by the what-could-have-happened.)

What I call “doing the dishes” is the practice of loving the task in front of you. – Byron Katie, There Is Just One Thing To Do

I do admit to working on the patience part. I mean really, I know I’m going to get through the anxiety and come out the other side a conscientious, able, and calm trailer-er, so why can’t I just skip all the process and get right to that point? Heh. But I am practicing being as patient with myself as I would be with everyone else in the world, so that’s also a good life lesson. “Skipping the process” works when you need to get somewhere fast so you take the car instead of walk, but some things can only be walked to, whether it’s the top of Yosemite Falls or the other side of anxiety.

This very process is about learning a process — I’m about 80% of the way from anxious to calm, and my destination is to learn a process that will get us 100% of the way from home to the clinic and back again. Believe me, if I could skip the trailering and simply teleport Rocky to the clinic, I would! (Now watch me discover unexpected deep-rooted anxiety about teleportation.)

g-qJason: What? What was that?
Alex: Uh, nothing.
Jason: I heard some squealing or something.
Gwen: Oh, no. Everything’s fine.
Teb: But the animal is inside out.
(all humans in the Conveyor room glare at Teb)
Jason: I heard that! It turned inside out?
Teb: (not moving despite being covered in Ludicrous Gibs) And it exploded.

Last night I did a little art therapy with my digital drawing-and-painting app (Paper by FiftyThree) and had a wonderful time festooning Rocky’s trailer with fall colors.

Rocky in festooned trailer

I used all six tools — pencil, fountain pen, marker, pen, watercolor, and eraser — and custom-mixed all of my colors. While I’m sure the product would be better if I had a more advanced iPad so I could get the more advanced stylus and thus more precision in my work, I do not think the process would be improved upon no matter how whizzbang the tech. Real-life art supplies are too messy to use casually in bed, but my finger, a 10-cent stylus from China, and the touch screen made for a wonderfully tactile and soothing couple of hours. At the end of which I was actually looking forward to my next chance to haul Rocky somewhere.

Like Anne of Green Gables, I learned long ago that with great imaginative power comes great responsibility. You must manage yourself so that you don’t react negatively to your imagination (paralysis) but rather respond in positive ways (creativity, delight, interest). Otherwise you’ll drive yourself and all of your loved ones crazy, which doesn’t leave you much time for horses.

Anne never forgot that walk. Bitterly did she repent the license she had given to her imagination. The goblins of her fancy lurked in every shadow about her, reaching out their cold, fleshless hands to grasp the terrified small girl who had called them into being. A white strip of birch bark blowing up from the hollow over the brown floor of the grove made her heart stand still. The long-drawn wail of two old boughs rubbing against each other brought out the perspiration in beads on her forehead. The swoop of bats in the darkness over her was as the wings of unearthly creatures. When she reached Mr. William Bell’s field she fled across it as if pursued by an army of white things, and arrived at the Barry kitchen door so out of breath that she could hardly gasp out her request for the apron pattern. Diana was away so that she had no excuse to linger. The dreadful return journey had to be faced. Anne went back over it with shut eyes, preferring to take the risk of dashing her brains out among the boughs to that of seeing a white thing. When she finally stumbled over the log bridge she drew one long shivering breath of relief.

“Well, so nothing caught you?” said Marilla unsympathetically.

“Oh, Mar–Marilla,” chattered Anne, “I’ll b-b-be contt-tented with c-c-commonplace places after this.”

~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Categories: Clinic Countdown, Reflections | 1 Comment

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