From Parelli and Natural Horsemanship to classical dressage and showjumping, I’ve a pretty open mind but is it helping or hindering our progress?

My first encounter with “natural horsemanship” was over 6 years ago when my previous horse, Harley, became difficult to load and I turned to google for ideas.  I saw Monty Roberts doing join up and then found some Richard Maxwell videos from his sessions at Your Horse Live.


Speaking to fellow liveries I discovered a deep divide; from the traditional lunge lines combined with a broomstick up the bum and an attitude of “horses just need to get used it”, to,  “it must be the horses decision”  and a wide range of techniques that increases the chances of the horse “deciding”  to load.

Today I still sit on the fence. In the 14 months I have owned Abbey I’ve done join up, spend hours doing groundwork, ridden bareback & bitless and trained her more traditionally for dressage, showjumping and cross country.

Abbey will back up on the wave of a forefinger or waggle of a lunge line, move her quarters when I point to them, move her shoulders out of my way, ‘park’, come forward, go out on a circle in both directions and move up & down transitions with the opening of an arm and a “cluck”.  (She’s yet to lay down!)

Why? I’ve found them all useful.  Day-to-day being able to move Abbey around makes my life easier, when we’re faced with a scary object or Abbey gets stressed I find I can get her attention back on me more quickly and I find it liberating to be able to hop on and go.  (Particularly when my saddle was away being adjusted).  At the same time, Abbey will get the more  traditional ‘no’ and if that doesn’t work a short, sharp smack if she steps over the line.

I find some of the NH schools explain horse behaviour in an easy to digest way, it makes and helps me ‘see’ the world the way Abbey might.  I think it helps us develop our relationship.

But it’s a constant battle. I find myself neither fitting into the Parelli club nor in the groups of girls that have taken the more traditional route through college or have grown up surrounded by old skool equestrians.

The part that intrigues me the most is how much overlap there is between the approaches.  For my aunt, who’s been around horses for donkeys years, some of things I’ve picked up are normal ‘horsesense’ – it makes me realise that, for some of us amateurs, the packaging, the marketing and the accessibility of the different training schools is really important.

Though, like many, I still resist the marketing.  Parelli, for example, has to be admired.  The company has managed to make a piece of rope worth £35 and a plastic stick £30!  The first series of videos is £135…..and they are selling lots of them.

While I am happy to pay for advice, there is a limit and the Parelli kit is well and truly over it! I also object to the ‘you’re either in or out attitude!

I have, and do, use Parelli techniques, and natural horsemanship as taught by Monty Roberts and Richard Maxwell.

But here’s my problem…..we’re getting to the point where Abbey knows a lot of the basic ‘games’ or ‘maneuvers’ and sometimes there are different instructions for the same thing (backing up for example, I can either waggle my finger, the rope or point at her chest with a stick).

As I introduce more and more maneuvers from different disciplines we’re starting to get confused.  I went to teach her rein back the other day and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to teach her to Parelli/Western style, (simplistically it’s legs forward and weight back) or the classical dressage instructions of legs and weight back.

I don’t have a western saddle or compete in western classes but I do do dressage, so I went for legs and weight back.

It got me thinking, though, I need to be more consistent with my ‘asks’. As we do more this potential confusion is only going to get worse I am going to need a shortlist of instructions (and to stick to them!). So here it is:

  • Back up : finger/rope waggle
  • Move quarters: point to hip
  • Move shoulders: point to shoulder
  • Go out onto a circle: point away and tilt head
  • Move parallel: (facing her stood side on) arms out and gesturing towards her
  • Rein back: legs and weight back
  • Park: ‘stop’ with hand
  • Come to me: drop head and gently real in the rope

In the future I would like to teach her to move over towards me, for that I’m going to reach over and tap her bum and shoulders with a stick.

I’ll keep updating this list as Abbey learns more moves!