Reflections

This is what level 2 looks like

Sometimes I think Parelli should produce a set of T-shirts for each of the levels, color-coded like the strings, with the Parelli logo and text like “This is what Level 1 looks like.” For one thing, the level 1 red shirts would sure motivate the Trekkies to get to level 2 as quickly as possible. For another, it might help us educate other horse lovers by reminding them that we are all on a journey that has to start somewhere.

Horsemanship is like copyediting: the better you are at it, the less visible it is. – me

This came to mind when I was reading a newsletter by a horsewoman I respect. She cautioned that some of the “games” taught by some horsemen were not safe, like teaching horses to turn and face while longeing, or making (making!) horses back up with their heads high and their backs swayed while someone wiggled the lead rope in their face.

There are reasons we teach our horses to turn and face in the beginning. One is to teach ourselves how to keep ourselves safe by getting those hindquarters out of our space. One is to earn respect through disengaging and yielding the hindquarters. One is to develop a feel for how responsive the horse is feeling in any given moment, so we can take action to make things better for him. Turn-and-face in lower levels helps us set our horse up to make it easier for us to learn how to send him. How to ask for a change of direction. How to engage the horse mentally and emotionally so that he is circling with contact and learns that he can ask questions without getting punished.

But as we move up the levels, and we improve our respect and rapport and communication, we can guide our horses into any gait — including halt and backup, not just forward — without any turning and facing. We learn to send with energy and subtle body movements. We learn how to make it fun for our horses to stick to us and enjoy moving in patterns with us.

There are reasons our horses start out backing up with their heads high and eyes wide and bodies all over the place. These reasons mostly boil down to “because we don’t know how to communicate what we want yet, and we haven’t developed the relationship to a high level yet, and our horse is bracy and nervous about this New Thing.” The better I get at remembering to be light and start with just an energy beam and maybe a wiggling finger, the better Rocky gets at lowering his head and engaging his body correctly as he backs up. The only high-headed, bad-banana backup I’ve had this year was when he was having a huge fit of ignoring me and I needed to give him a “thanks, I needed that!” reminder to get out of my space. By the fifth or sixth step, he had rounded his body and was backing well.

When we are in levels 1 and 2, it’s obvious that we are “doing Parelli.” Even if we aren’t carrying a carrot stick, we stand out with our long lead ropes and our peculiar habit of having our horses put their noses on things they at first seem afraid of. We ride in rope halters and perfect the art of dismounting quickly and safely if we pass our personal anxiety threshold while riding.

By level 3, it is still obvious that we are doing Parelli, but now it also looks like we are lucky to have such a nice, easy horse.

By level 4, though, it doesn’t look so much like we’re doing Parelli. Now it looks like we’re “riding English” or “riding Western” or heading out on trails or casually hacking around bareback on a quiet, soft horse who never gives us any trouble with the trailer, and aren’t we lucky to have found such a well-trained mount.

And that’s just the foundation. When people get into the higher levels — master the foundation and get into the specialization — you really can’t tell they are doing anything other than awesomeness. When Lauren Barwick was the only equestrian at the paralympics who was able to ride her horse on her own during the awards ceremony, without attendants to lead the horse, all the way up to the podium to receive her gold medal, did anyone wonder how she got there? Or did they just assume that she has an easy horse?

I don’t think we need to push Parelli. Pushing is annoying, no matter what you’re pushing.

But if we could “pull” Parelli by what we’re doing, and by being nice to people who ask about it (and not steamrolling them with our enthusiasm or too much too soon!) we have a better chance at helping make the world a better place for horses and humans.

And meanwhile, a set of t-shirts would help remind others that we are in whatever level we are in. Even if they don’t know anything about the program, noting that “this is what level __ looks like” implies that there are other levels and that the person is likely moving up them.

I don’t think traditional riding instructors expect students to be able to post perfectly on their first day, with the horse in perfect collection and balance. I would never criticize an instructor for not insisting that horse and human have expert form in the first few weeks of lessons for a novice rider! Likewise, I don’t know why anyone would think that the Parelli program would encourage us to back our horses more than their bodies can handle, in positions that are bad for their bodies.

If some Parelli students get stuck there, or don’t know what good form looks like and therefore can’t help their horse find it, that’s just because people are people and nobody is perfect. Maybe they haven’t learned it yet, and so they stand out, because they aren’t far enough along in the program yet to cue the horse invisibly and have the horse execute the maneuver with excellence. Home-study students who don’t have access to in-person instruction are bound to take longer to find excellence than those who can take regular lessons. And yet, imagine where they would be if they didn’t have the home-study program to guide them at all?

As for this blog … this is what Level 2 looks like, for me.

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Understanding the Horse’s Mind: Robert M. Miller, DVM, at the Horse Expo 2012

We spent two whole days at the Western States Horse Expo this weekend and feel like we barely saw anything, but we saw everything we most wanted to see (except, alas, the perfect pair of ranch work boots).

Our highlight was Robert M. Miller, DVM. Miller has a lifetime of experience as an equine vet and as a zoo vet, and during his talks would say things casually, like, “my wife and I were on a veterinary safari in Africa…” as if that’s part of real life and not something amazing out of a novel.

First, we caught most of his talk about the connection between horsemanship and artistic talent, which he wrote about in his book The Passion For Horses & Artistic Talent.
He believes that people who love horses also often express themselves in art, without even realizing that their “little hobby” is actually art. He said that the popularity and critical recognition of Western art and cowboy poetry are growing disproportionately to other artistic segments, and he wrote this book to celebrate this and increase awareness of the connection between horses and art.

Jan and I thought that it’s possible that we all have artistic tendencies and that he just happens to be looking at horse people. But the thing about horses is you see their beauty, when they are still and when they are in motion. And to bond with horses you need to open up, and be willing to listen, and to express, and to accept that the default human way might not be the best approach. Miller said that he’s rarely met a farrier who didn’t also do metal art

Then we sat spellbound for an hour for his main lecture of the day, “Understanding the Horse’s Mind.” He is not a showy speaker, but his information is compelling, and his stories are wonderful. I found myself wanting to make slides with photos and bullet-point text for those who can’t learn just from listening. Jan and I can both learn from reading, so we took notes as we listened, and read as we wrote, and have spent the past two days blurting out things like “quick! the 10 essential things to remember about a horse’s mind!” and seeing if we can get them all.

One of the things that made his talk so great was that he illustrated every point with stories from a lifetime of working not just as an equine vet but as a zoo vet. He gave examples from other species to show how horses are different, or how horses are similar but to a different degree, or how horses are the same.

This talk inspired me to buy his book Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands, because he went into detail about what happens in the brain of the horse, not just in the mind. Having read several layperson-friendly books in recent years about neurobiology and neuroplasticity and “the brain and the mind,” we’ve become increasing intrigued by the physical changes in the brain that occur in response to changes in mental and emotional fitness (and, in fact, overall physical fitness as well). Miller says that he wrote this book for people who are already familiar with natural horsemanship, including top-level clinicians, to explain why it works — what is actually going on in the horse’s brain that causes things like the 7 Games to be so effective for horse and human partnership.

For example, one of the 10 things to know about the horse’s mind is that horses are not innately afraid of predators. They are afraid of predatory behavior. Thus, horses can partner with humans, befriend dogs, bond with barn cats. A “dangerous” or “problem” horse with one owner can become an athletic, calm, responsive partner with another owner. Or with the same owner, when the owner changes, as Linda discovered with Regalo.

Jan and I discussed this at some length and realized that when horses drive each other, they exhibit some characteristics of “predatory” behavior. Head low to protect the throat, ears flat, eyes hard and intense, slow stalk that can escalate into a sprint if need be. The other horses might not be “afraid” of the dominant horse’s drive, but they sure can scoot out of the way fast.

Can you guess the other nine of the 10 most important things to know? I’ll share my notes, but I’ll put them after the More link so you can think about it first.

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