Horsemanship is the skill of managing and working with horses that is developed through experience and knowledge (Goodwin et al., 2009). Natural Horsemanship (NH) trainers are those who work closely with horses and use understanding of equine natural behaviour and herd structure to communicate with them (Fureix et al., 2009; Visser et al., 2009; Kedzierski et al., 2012). Their desire is to reduce force and aversive punishments in training to connect or form a partnership with horses (Birke, 2007). NH is becoming a well-known and common training method that is promoted as being more sympathetic than traditional methods (Visser et al., 2009), a way to increase positive emotions and reduce fear (Goodwin et al., 2009; Kedzierski et al., 2012; Janczarek et al., 2013), as well as improving the horse-human relationship by gaining the horse’s trust, establishing the human’s leadership, and fostering mutual respect (Parelli, 2016).  Also, members of the public and horse enthusiasts are amazed by the effortless relationship NH trainers appear to have with horses, and it is often said that they have special abilities to communicate or “whisper” with horses (Visser et al., 2009; BBC News, 2012; Middleton, 2012; McCrum, 2016), making this technique desirable and increasingly popular. However, results are alternatively due to lengthy training practices involving the use of learning theory (Appendix 1 and 2) (McLean and Christensen, 2017) along with well-timed responses to subtle cues (Goodwin et al., 2009; Fowler et al., 2012).

Furthermore, there are split opinions within the equine industry about the use of NH, as it strays from traditional methods (Burke, 2007). Some critics state that it is overly aversive. Also, there has been recent concern regarding how these trainers interpret equine behaviour (Fowler et al., 2012) mainly in relation to dominance and leadership theories. Therefore, this report evaluates the methods of NH training, focusing on those of Pat Parelli who is a well-known NH trainer.

The Parelli Program

Pat Parelli is a promoter of NH (Kedzierski et al., 2012) who describes himself as having developed his methods over many decades and as being dedicated to teaching as well as helping many people with training their horses and solving behavioural problems (Parelli Natural Horsemanship, 2013; Parelli, 2016). His focus is on educating people just as much as on training horses, and he aims to use this to increase the quality of horsemanship globally (Bayley, 2004). Pat Parelli and his wife, Linda Parelli, have created a system of teaching called HorseManShip which is comprised of four key areas: on line, at liberty, freestyle, and finesse (Parelli and Parelli, 2013). Ground work is emphasised as being as important as riding (Bayley, 2002) and as part this, Parelli has designed a collection of exercises known as the Seven Games.

Evaluation of methods

Teaching people, not horses

As studies have shown a lack of knowledge among novice horse people and professionals alike (Hausberger et al., 2008; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008), it is highly commendable that the Parelli Program aims to improve people’s knowledge so that horses can be trained appropriately and have enhanced welfare. Educating people about horse behaviour will also reduce accidents or injuries associated with horses and reduce the amount of horses wasted due to behavioural issues or poor training (Hausberger et al., 2008; Visser et al., 2009).

Equipment

Pat Parelli promotes the use of equipment he has designed himself (Parelli Natural Horsemanship, 2013). There is a large range available on his website including an “Essential” range which consists of a rope halter, a carrot stick, and various ropes. Because he states that they are essential for working with horses, people may be more inclined to purchase these. All the equipment is based on using negative reinforcement and possibly positive punishment  rather than positive reinforcement and negative punishment. If negative reinforcement and positive punishment are used excessively, this could have negative effects on equine welfare, behaviour, and the horse-human relationship (McGreevy and McLean, 2009; Hockenhull and Creighton, 2013).

Figure 1: A – Pat Parelli’s rope halter; B – Roma Coordinating Headcollar

Figure 1: A – Pat Parelli’s rope halter; B – Roma Coordinating Headcollar

The Parelli Rope Halter

The rope halter designed by Pat Parelli is one of the main pieces of equipment he uses. By applying and releasing pressure through negative reinforcement, Parelli can teach horses new behaviours such as walking or stopping when cued. He states that this halter is not just a training halter, but for all purposes; being especially useful to reduce leaning and pulling (Parelli Tube, 2016). While this sounds beneficial, the rope used in Parelli’s halter is thinner than a standard head collar (Figure 1), meaning the force applied is concentrated over a smaller area.

This may be why horses are often much more responsive when pressure is applied to rope halters compared to regular head collars. This increased response may be what makes their methods seem like an effortless way to build a relationship with the horse or gain control. Parelli also states that his rope halter is unbreakable due to the quarter-inch yachting braid rope used (Parelli Tube, 2016). This seems advantageous to many people; however, large pressures caused by headcollars could cause stress and even damage to horses facial structures. Unfortunately, there is little research into this, but recent studies into bridles suggests that pressures around the poll and nose, which are some of the most sensitive areas of the horse’s head (McGreevy et al., 2017), can cause unnecessary stress (Fenner et al., 2016), pain (McGreevy et al., 2012) and tissue damage (Casey et al., 2013; Murray et al., 2015; Docherty et al., 2016), especially when used inappropriately. If large pressures are applied via the headcollar persistently, it could lead to head shyness, bridling problems, conflict behaviour, and negative associations with the handler in the future (Innes and McBride, 2008; Hockenhull and Creighton 2013).

Furthermore, during the training session the images below were taken from, Parelli focuses on teaching the horse to give in to pressure and become more response to his cues (Parelli Tube, 2014). However, to do this, his methods became increasingly aversive when he used both hands as well as his own body weight to apply a large amount of pressure to the halter, forcing the horse to comply.

Parelli applying pressure to the halter with both hands

Parelli applying pressure to the halter with both hands

Parelli increasing the pressure to the halter by also using his body weight

Parelli increasing the pressure to the halter by also using his body weight

The horse shown in these images is very tense around the mouth and nose, indicating that he is stressed and possibly in pain as the pressure is applied. This could affect the horse’s welfare and lead to fear or negative associations with the handler in the future; this runs contrary to Parelli’s promise of “success without force, partnership without dominance, teamwork without fear, willingness without intimidation, and harmony without coercion” (Parelli, 2016).

As rope halters are marketed by Parelli as the only head collar to use (Parelli Tube, 2016), there is a large possibility for misuse by people who don’t understand the potential negative effects and dangers of using this equipment, reducing the welfare of the horse.  Also, use of rope halters could be contrary to the principles of ethical equitation, which state that only the minimal force necessary should be used to train horses (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). Rope halters should only be carefully used by people with a knowledge of learning theory and who understand how they work in order to not cause unnecessary pain or injuries.

The Carrot Stick

Figure 2: A - Parelli Carrot Stick (Parelli, 2016); B - Shires Lunging Whip (Go Outdoors, 2018).

Figure 2: A – Parelli Carrot Stick (Parelli, 2016); B – Shires Lunging Whip (Go Outdoors, 2018).

The Carrot Stick (shown below) is a flexible, 4-foot stick designed by Pat Parelli for training purposes. Parelli states that it is not a whip, but rather an extension of the body that can be used to guide, communicate with, and support the horse safely, with multiple uses for groundwork and riding (Bayley, 2004). Parelli often uses the Carrot Stick to signal the horse by applying direct or indirect pressure, such as when doing liberty training or working on the Seven Games.

As whips are becoming more controversial (McLean and McGreevy, 2010), this piece of equipment is cleverly marketed as being sympathetic and gentle on the horse, making it sound appealing for many horse owners. However, we can see from the picture above that it is similar in design to many whips, and can be used in the same way: to apply and release pressure through negative reinforcement. Furthermore, if inappropriately used or used by less experience horse enthusiasts, positive punishment could be unintentionally applied and lead to inconsistencies in training.

Training ropes

Another one of Parelli’s essential pieces of equipment is his range of ropes. These come in different lengths, typically 12-foot or 22-foot. While the advantage of using longer ropes for groundwork training, compared to the shorter lead ropes generally used by traditional horse people, is that these allow for more control over the horse as well as being usable for a range of different exercises. Parelli uses them for desensitisation or to apply pressure.

Aversive wiggling the rope to make the horse step back.

Aversive wiggling the rope to make the horse step back.

The Yo-Yo Game is the 4th game out of the Seven Games. It aims to teach the horse to respond better to the trainer’s signals while improving balance, engagement and impulsion, which are necessary to achieve collection (Parelli Natural Horsemanship, 2013). This goal is beneficial as it focuses on working the horse’s body correctly which will ensure longevity and its welfare. However, the method of achieving this may be stressful for the horse as pressure is applied by increasing motion through the rope, which forces the horse to move backwards (Bayley, 2004; Parelli Natural Horsemanship, 2013). The pressure can be increased to where the trainer is violently moving their whole arm backwards and forwards (Parelli Tube 2014). This is clearly uncomfortable for the horse as they throw their head up, pin their ears back and tense up their face and body, as we see below.

However, when the horse complies, pressure is released and some positive reinforcement in the form of scratching the forehead is used (Bayley, 2004; Parelli Tube, 2014). Nevertheless, there are less aversive ways to teach the horse to step back, and the principles of learning theory, along with ethical training, could be applied to improve the horse-human relationship and learner welfare (McGreevy and Mclean, 2010; Jones and McGreevy, 2010).

Building a natural relationship: love, language, and leadership

The phrase “love, language, and leadership” is commonly used by Pat Parelli, and he also suggests that the horse desires these (Parelli, 2010). The idea of having a loving relationship with mutual respect and partnership seems very desirable to horse owners who seek an idealistic relationship with their horse (Hartmann et al., 2017). Parelli uses this type of language frequently to relate better to his target audience. However, the use of anthropomorphic language may lead people astray, causing false beliefs that result in unrealistic aspirations (McLean and McGreevy, 2010), and misinterpretation of equine behaviour. It may also give people reason to use aversive or harmful techniques such as positive punishment (McGreevy and McLean, 2007). Furthermore, very little is known about what emotions horses can feel and whether they can experience love or happiness like we do. Therefore, making assumptions about how the horse thinks is unrealistic and could lead to inappropriate training methods and frustration if the horse does not perform the desired response (Goodwin et al., 2009; McGreevy et al., 2009). To enhance training and welfare of horses, anthropomorphic statements should be avoided (McGreevy and McLean, 2007; Hausberger et al., 2008).

“Dominance and Leadership” is a key concept of Parelli’s training and is typical within NH. This theory involves the idea that mutual “respect” is necessary for good training and to gain a relationship with horses (Parelli, 2016). It comes from the observation that horses create hierarchies within the herd and the belief that trainers should act similarly to how horses act in their natural groups (Hartmann et al., 2017). By mimicking equine behaviour, they think the horse will have increased understanding of the trainer’s desires, leading to better communication and control (Goodwin et al., 2009; Kedzierski, et al., 2012; Janczarek et al., 2013). Parelli states that by gaining the dominant position you will become an effective leader who the horse will seek to follow (Parelli Natural Horsemanship, 2013). However, there is little evidence that horses view us in the same way they view other horses, and new research suggest that equine social structures are much more complex than originally thought, with one leader controlling the group (Hartmann et al., 2017). As dominance and leadership ideas are mainly based on anthropocentric descriptions of interactions between humans and horses (McGreevy et al., 2009), discussions of dominance and leadership may be misleading, resulting in less effective training and reduced welfare (Goodwin et al., 2009). Also, by trying to achieve dominance over the horse, the trainer justifies using aversive methods and punishment. This can be unethical, and can lead to learned helplessness and reduced learning (Hockenhall and Creighton, 2013). Therefore, aversive methods should be kept to a minimum to avoid stress, fear, and pain during training (Hartmann et al., 2017).

While Parelli and his advocates claim their method enhances the horse-human relationship, it mainly focusses on use of negative reinforcement. This seems contradictory, as many studies show that use of negative reinforcement during training can increase stress (Hendriksen et al., 2011; Freymond et al., 2014) and cause the horse to have negative associations with the handler (Innes and McBride, 2008). However, there have been studies done comparing sympathetic methods (NH) with traditional methods of training. These studies found that NH methods reduced stress in horses (Visser et al., 2009; Kedzierski et al., 2012) as well as completing the training more quickly (Janczarek et al., 2013), highlighting the potential benefits of NH. Nevertheless, no research has been done into the Parelli methods; therefore his training may have different results. Further research should be done into the pressures caused and emotional responses to his training.

Conclusion

There are many horses with problem behaviours, resulting in a large amount of horse wastage. Therefore, the Parellis’ aim to improve horse-human relationships by providing training and education about horse behaviour is admirable and could enhance horse welfare. However, likely because their teaching is aimed at horse owners, their ideas are often based on anthropomorphic viewpoints that can be misleading, as they do not reflect the horse’s true behaviour and social relations; in particular their teachings about leadership and dominance theory are problematic. These ideas and methods are often seen as desirable to horse owners due to seemingly effective and effortless results; however, Parelli’s methods are based on learning theory and well-timed responses to subtle cues, giving the illusion of willingness and partnership from the horses he works with. While there are benefits to the Parelli style of NH, care needs to be taken when following his work that behaviour is not misinterpreted, and pressure cues are not aversive. The use of positive reinforcement and negative punishment could also be incorporated more to improve his methods, and areas of his work that are overly aversive or stressful toward horses could be highlighted by using advances in equitation science. By expanding our knowledge of equine behaviour, cognition, and learning theory, we can create more ethical training practices that enhance the horse-human relationship and the horse’s welfare.

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This article was adapted from a second year project as part of Writtle University College’s B.Sc(Hons) in Equine Behavioural Science undergraduate program. To learn more about this course and Writtle’s partnership with IAABC, visit their website.