Horse Sense

Broke: bad for hearts and wallets, good for horses. While untamed mustangs are breathtaking running through the landscape of a National Geographic special, most riders want a mount that's a bit less spirited--that is, a bit less likely to kill them. Buying a broke horse doesn't guarantee a trouble-free horse, though. Like dogs and boyfriends, even a horse that has had some training from a previous owner may still be a mischievous, stubborn, ill-mannered beast. And when your equine pal won't get in his trailer, lies down when you want to saddle him or spooks at a squirrel, you'll wish you'd had the horse sense to buy a pet gerbil instead.

But until you find a gerbil large enough to ride, you still have a horse problem on your hands. No problem, says Pat Parelli, once you understand how a horse thinks. Parelli, who has been working with horses since his youth and teaching "natural horsemanship" since the early 1980s, stresses the importance of understanding that the horse is a prey animal and its instincts are to kick, buck, bite and flee to ensure its own safety and comfort. See, you don't have a bad horse; you have a perfectly natural horse. "If all I did was teach you to think like a horse and truly understand their psychology," Parelli says, "you'd have the keys to be able to do whatever you want with horses, and to win their hearts." Once the horse understands that you don't intend to kill and eat him--once you break down the predator-prey barrier--you'll get along much better.

We've always fancied horses (and the occasional unicorn), so naturally, one of our youthful crushes was The Man From Snowy River. We would rewind that memorable scene over and over--Jim Craig thundering down a steep incline, completely one with his horse. It was beautiful; he looked nothing like the wobbly sack of potatoes we resemble on horseback. Our initial summer camp thought: How hard could horse riding be? A bruised groin and a week-long feeling of bowleggedness proved how "easy" horse riding could be. We need some skills. Enter Linda Parelli, Pat's wife. Pat and Linda met in Australia when Linda, a dressage rider (think jodhpurs and braided manes), was seeking help with an uncontrollable Thoroughbred. Pat Parelli's method, based on partnership and harmony between rider and steed, worked wonders with Linda's challenging horse, and she was a convert.

In this weekend's Parelli Natural Horsemanship seminar, she will demonstrate the concepts of "Riding with Fluidity," or learning how to lessen your chances of a sore butt and back. The husband and wife team will begin the two-day workshop with "The Possibility of Change," a segment in which local problem horses are first exposed to the Parelli Program. Parelli students will also demonstrate different levels of the program through exercises and games with their horses. The program relies on not only training horses but training humans to have the "savvy" to understand horse psychology and how to communicate with the horse--whether on the ground, on the horse's back or "at liberty" (the horse is riderless and unbridled). The Parelli Program asserts that "Horsemanship does not need to be mechanical or forceful, nor does a person need to use fear, intimidation, anxiety or pain to train horses." Plus, who knows--equine psychology may come in handy next time you need to deal with your ass of a boss, your mulish mother-in-law or that stallion you call your boyfriend.