The first time I came across Parelli Natural Horsemanship was when I noticed an advert for a free cd in my daughter’s pony magazine in 2007. It sounded so different from anything I had come across in the world of horses, that I was intrigued and I sent off for it. Well, it totally blew my mind and I instantly decided to buy the Level One home education kit.
Despite the fact that I have substantially disabled legs, I was so enjoying hanging out with my daughter Amber and her two ponies, that I had already decided to find a horse of my own. I couldn’t wait to get started with this radically different approach to horsemanship!
I have always wanted to use working horses on the land, especially in coppice work..
I did not know when I bought my horse, Kissi, that he suffered from deeply buried, intense trauma from his treatment on the ranch in Argentina, before he was imported.
This has taken me on a fascinating and, at times, very challenging journey of healing and discovery.
I still wish to learn to pull and drive with horses, but it will be with another horse, without so much emotional baggage, not with Kissi.
Parelli Natural Horsemanship gave me the tools and information I needed to cope with Kissi, and to help him heal and recover. In fact, I strongly believe we were brought together to help heal each other. We could never have achieved what we have without it.
It is a system being continually developed by Pat Parelli, American cowboy and master horseman, and his wife Linda, Australian dressage and event rider. At its heart it aims to learn the language of horses in their natural element and to use this language for communication and training.
It recognizes that horses have different characters, or horsenalities which require different methods of training, depending if they are left brain or right brain, introvert or extrovert.
Parelli Natural Horsemanship has 4 ‘savvys’ or disciplines.
On line is when you play with your horse in a string halter and a rope, which gets longer, as you gain experience and go up through the levels.
Freestyle is the riding style which is learned first, and can be practised with one rein or with loose reins and no contact. This eventually leads to riding without a bridle.
Liberty is when you play with your horse with no bridle, saddle or halter. This is getting more advanced and you need to have a really good connection with your horse.
Finesse is when you ride with more precision, and with contact with the bit through the reins. All the characteristic dressage moves can be learnt in this savvy.
There are home education packs which come in all the savvys and in 4 levels of advancement... After this comes the ‘mastery’ series.
It is possible to test one’s progress by submitting auditions on film for the different savvys as one progresses through the levels. The audition is 10 minutes long and has to be unedited. It has several compulsory tasks, but you are free to show what you do best from the long, self-assessed checklist of necessary tasks to learn in each level.
There is the Savvy Club with its vast vault of educational articles and videos, its register of Parelli Professional instructors round the world, information about events and clinics and the facility to connect with other members.
I have written about my experiences with Kissi for the Parelli Savvy Club and you can find it under the title ‘A Magical Healing Journey’
Playing at Liberty
First ever Liberty Lesson
Kissi's favourite circling spot
First Liberty weave on a circle
Love our Horses
A Magical Healing Journey
I was horse mad as a child... hacking, jumping, gymkhanas and hunter trials... I couldn't get enough. Then came the day when my wonderful Connemara horse, Lysander, reared over backwards on the road with me, limpet like, beneath him. His new saddle did not fit him properly and I was too young and unknowledgeable to know it.
This aggravated a previous childhood spinal injury, and riding was never the same again. I gradually drifted away and heartbroken, sold my horse.
These injuries locked themselves away, even allowing me to become a passionate windsurfer later in life, with only occasional underlying discomfort. However, in my 30's I started to suffer with intense back pain. The original prolapsed disc had got entangled with my spinal cord. There seemed no choice but to have an operation, especially, I was told, if I wanted to have children.
In 1990 I had the operation but unfortunately it did not go well. I woke up paralysed from the waist down and the prognosis was not good. I went home 8 weeks later in a wheelchair, with the first minimal signs of movement.
I have worked continuously since then to achieve more mobility. Despite the lack of, or severe weakness of most muscles, I gradually became able to walk, albeit very inelegantly and with little balance.
I had our 2 longed for children. But when our daughter, Amber, became horse mad in her turn, I did nothing to encourage it...in fact quite the opposite. Although, if I wouldn't take her, she would get one of her friend's mum to take them. I didn't stand a chance!
So I found myself amongst horses again, remembering the smell, the warmth, and the friendship. It wasn't so very long before I wondered if I would be able to ride again. Well I tried and it wasn't pretty. I was like a sack of potatoes, but somehow it felt good. I realised that I could get to places on a horse that I couldn't go to by foot, so I persevered.
I saw an advert in my daughter's riding magazine for a free dvd about Parelli Natural Horsemanship and sent off for it. I watched it and was hooked. I joined the Savvy Club and sent off for the big old red Level 1 pack. By now Amber had her first pony and I decided that I would like to join her and look for a horse of my own.
There is an extraordinary story about how I was brought together with this horse of mine. Suffice it to say that I was given such a comprehensive and accurate description of him by a clairvoyant- including how he looked, how he stood, how he held his neck and, most importantly, about his level of eye contact with me- that it was impossible to miss him even in the herd of 35 horses where I found him. She said that I would have no doubt when I saw him, and it was true!
He came from a place called the Criollo Farm. I had never heard of criollo horses before but the way Monique described them on her website, and the way she sold them made me curious to go and take a look. She went personally to Argentina to choose up to 50 horses a year directly from the breeders. She encouraged people to try as many as they liked, as many times as they liked, and to take their time until they came back with a big beaming smile on their face, having found their perfect partner. This was such a refreshing change from our experiences looking for ponies in the English equine market, with its less than honest adverts.
So there he was, the only one of 35 horses, all going about their own herd like business, who was just standing there, face on, staring at me no matter how long I sat watching. He looked exactly as the clairvoyant had described him, so he was the one I asked to try.
Well, he was not the type of horse I'd liked when I was younger when I'd liked horses with a bit of spirit. He was certainly not forward going and could not be persuaded to walk up alongside the gaucho's horse who accompanied me.
Heh ho, I thought, you're disabled. Of course you are going to be sent to a calm and placid horse. You will be out riding with your daughter and you need to be safe.
It was in a great location with amazing rides, fantastic gallops through prairie like grass and tracks through mature woodland. I went to ride him several times with the gauchos that worked there. Every time I went, there he was, standing in the field looking out for me. There didn't seem much point in trying other horses because even if I had liked them and decided to buy them, I would always have wondered why I had been sent to this horse Cinco. I knew he was the one for me.
When I had him vetted, Monique was surprised to hear that he was only just four years old not the five years she thought he was. Other than that, there were no surprises so I paid the cheque and prepared to have the first ride on my own horse.
Everything went fine until we had just passed a small piece of woodland. Suddenly a deer shot out behind us and spooked both the horses. The gaucho was prepared for anything and stopped very quickly, leaving Cinco nowhere to go but sideways, tipping me off into the long grass.
The moment the split reins touched the grass he bolted, and I mean bolted, galloping flat out away from us. The gaucho sat with his mouth agape in astonishment. This was Cinco, the safe horse that they tried people out on. He couldn't believe it.
He ran till almost out of sight to the edge of another woodland where he ran straight into a barbed wire fence, turned, and galloped back to us dripping with blood. As I was unhurt and he seemed totally calm again, I rode him back to the farm and saw the shocked reactions to his bloodstained chest and legs.
I could have torn up the cheque and tried some of the other horses, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, by then I was committed.
The photographs from his passport, which arrived several weeks later, show clearly how young and distressed he was on arrival at the port in Italy.
He came to his new home in our recently acquired field in 2007 and met my daughter's ponies Anna and Rosie.
As Cinco lost the last of his winter coat I could clearly see scars from rope burns on all his legs. I had been so looking forward to getting started on the seven games and practice my skills with the rope but there was absolutely no way he would let me trail a rope on the ground anywhere near him. For a long time he wouldn't let me near enough to play the friendly game with either the rope or the carrot stick. This was not remotely friendly to him, nor in any way a game.
He became crabby and depressed.
The incident that gave me an inkling of the kind of challenge that I was really facing, happened one day a month or two after he came to live with us. We were having a barbecue with family and friends in a fenced off area where we kept the camper van. Cinco was tied up as he was unpredictable but Amber's 2 little mares were wandering free.
Suddenly all hell broke loose. Cinco had pulled back and had started running round the camper van, long rope trailing, faster and faster. Panic on! Anna and Rosie belted round after him. The barbecue went flying and people scattered in fear.
I tried to separate Cinco from the mares in a corner and he tried to stop, but he couldn't. He jumped a full size, metal farm gate, virtually from a standstill and galloped up the field, gathering the electric fence up in his rope as he jumped it. At the far fence he turned and galloped down again, shedding the electric fence on the way. Eventually he came to a corner where he whirled round to face the attacker who was chasing him, panting and snorting, lathered in sweat.
It breaks my heart to think of the things he must have endured to be so terrified of ropes.
Now, 8 years later, he is brave about so many things and he tries so hard at all he is asked to do, but his underlying fear of ropes remains. He can still panic if anything, especially a rope, touches his legs without warning, He might crouch down ready for flight, spin or kick out with lightening speed. It is worse still when he steps on the rope and feels the sudden pull on his halter. To this day he can still take off in the middle of a totally calm session when this happens, though his flight distance is much shorter and he now turns back to me for comfort.
Perhaps this is a good time to try to explain my present level of physical ability. It is very difficult to describe how the world is for me, especially as I can appear to be so normal.
During my healing journey, many of my neural pathways have managed to reroute themselves, giving me some muscles which try to do everything and others that are extremely minimal. I miss muscle in my inner thighs and pelvis but more significantly in my calves, ankles, feet and toes. Because of this I lack both shock absorbers and stabilisers. I can nowhere near lift my weight onto my toes and have great difficulty stepping over anything, or standing on one leg. Walking backwards and even standing still is almost impossible for me. I do not feel the ground properly and, in effect, have the balance of a pirate with 2 wooden legs! I am often in pain and I frequently fall.
This presents me with many challenges, particularly as Cinco is so incredibly sensitive.
When I stumble or lose my balance whilst playing online, I send all sorts of unintended requests down the rope. As an introvert he likes to interpret them mostly as requests to stop, or to come to me!
I find it hard to keep my balance at the same time as managing my rope, carrot stick and string, sometimes getting myself into quite a tangle.
But perhaps the thing that gives me the greatest problem is finding a way to be truly neutral. This is, of course, at the very core of the whole Parelli educational programme.. It takes a lot of effort for me to stand still without moving. Even a tilt of the head can tip me off balance. I have to move my feet rather like someone on stilts or crouch down slightly with my legs spread and concentrate, which is hardly neutral.
So, not on the face of it, the best partner for this unpredictable and demanding horse...Psycho, as he became known in our lane of equestrian properties. But I had been sent to him. I had my own healing journey and I was not one to give up. Besides he was so forgiving and loving that I knew it was just meant to be.
I lapped up all the Savvy Club DVD's and magazines, learnt about horsenalities and went oh so slowly for 4 years, knowing nobody else who practiced Parelli.
I am so grateful to Pat and Linda Parelli for their mission to make the world a better place for horses and humans. Without the information on strategies for extreme right brain introverts in their home study programme, I would not have known where to begin to help this deeply traumatised horse.
Since then I have had help from Steph Gaunt and I spent a very productive week with Alison and David Zuend in Devon learning techniques to help Cinco overcome his fear of ropes and to improve my riding skills.
Last year I stayed a few days with Sharon Crabbe and Jackie Evans in the Cotswolds, practising and filming for my level 2 auditions, which to my great amazement and delight I passed...Level 2+ online and Level 2++ freestyle!
There is such magic at the heart of the relationship between horses and humans, such an extraordinary opportunity for healing and transformation on so many levels.
As I continue playing with Cinco, now affectionately known as Kissi, my legs are strengthening and my balance is improving.
I fully believe that Cinco and I were brought together to heal each other, and that the journey will continue... into level 3 and beyond!
I would also like to add an update to my original story, 'A Magical Healing Journey', which is now nearly a couple of years old...
My disability and pain have become more intense over the past year, and I have found myself unable to mount up and ride. I have, however, still been able to continue to progress on line and have a lot of fun with my lovely horse, Kissi.
Recently I started to play at liberty under the guidance of my fabulous Parelli instructor, Becca Holloway. Kissi, still mistrustful of ropes, gave me perfect trot circles the very first time I took the halter off, in a large rectangular arena. He is absolutely loving it and he gives me such a big 'thankyou' every time. Though of course I still have to earn our connection on a daily basis, I think our journey together has created an extra special bond of love between us.
A few months ago I discovered that a lot of the pain that I had thought was the result of my increasing crookedness, is actually caused by the total wearing away of all the cartilage in both of my hips. This is due to the jolting manner that I have walked since I managed to get up out of my wheelchair.
I am now on the list for double total hip replacements with first scheduled at the end of November 2016. This means I can now look forward to more mobility and to the wonderful possibility of being able to ride again. It also means that I may get the longed for chance to progress to finesse. I am so joyfully excited about this!
It seems impossible for me to emphasise strongly enough, how incredibly life changing and enhancing the Parelli programme has been to me, and to others like me around the world.
The fact that the Parelli family have gone out of their way to make their programme so inclusive and supportive to people with all kinds of disabililities, whether physical, mental or emotional, is truly remarkable and awe inspiring.
With the 2 savvy's of on line and liberty on the ground, the Parelli system allows people to achieve mastership without ever even being in the saddle.
Pat's own personal journey with his son Katon, his faith that nothing is necessarily as dark as it may be presented at the time, and that anything is possible, has been a beacon to me in my life and in my horsemanship. Katon's own achievements are totally breathtaking!
'Thankyou' really doesn't seem to cover it but I will say it just the same...
A really massive 'THANKYOU' Pat and Linda Parelli, for changing the world of both horses and their humans, and especially for me!!!