Parelli Level 1 - What Do You Learn?

For me, the Parelli Levels Program is THE most important part of Parelli.

It is the ultimate step-by-step pathway to truly understanding how your horse thinks and how you can bring out the best in him.  Naturally and without you even knowing it, the Levels Program will cause you to become who your horse needs you to be so that you may earn the role of herd leader.

This is the first in a series of posts, I'm going to be writing 4 blogs, one for each Level I have completed and share a little about that journey.

So, this post is all about Level 1.  The MOST important Level.

By the time you complete Level 4 you will realize that everything you needed to know you learned in Level 1.  Level 4 is simply Level 1 with excellence.

Here is a very brief overview of my horse experience before I began Level 1:

I got into horses as a very young child (around 2.5 years old) as I needed lots of physical therapy for various balance, strength, and sensory perception issues I had as a child.  My love of horses was born, a passion unlike any other was ignited inside me.

At 14 I had saved enough money to buy a horse and got involved with horses in a very "normal and traditional" way.  I worked at various barns cleaning stalls and riding my horse as often as I could.  Eventually I started volunteering at an off-track Thoroughbred barn and got into jumping.  Between 14 and 19 I learned a lot about how to make horses do things.   There wasn't a horse I was afraid of, nor was there a horse I couldn't find a way to make do what I wanted, whether it was bigger bits, tighter nose bands, or sedatives.  It didn't always feel good but I thought it was the only way to be with horses.

Enter one inspiring woman and her Parelli Levels horse at my new barn, playing at Liberty on a beautiful summer afternoon.  I was awed, dazzled, and totally hooked.

Under her tutelage I began Level 1 with my young, off-track Thoroughbred gelding (I now know he was a Left Brain Extrovert).  He was fast, dominant, pushy, opinionated, and mesmerizing.  He was like a Ferrari and I was in love.

Mocha, my first Levels horse, winning at Emerald Downs in Washington!

Everything he did I thought was beautiful and fancy, even if it was actually dangerous.  My new mentor, Terry, quickly made it clear to me he was not always to be admired, he needed to be controlled.

It was unacceptable for him to drag me along behind him, head braced in the halter and bearing down on the lead rope so that he towed me along like a skier.  It was also unacceptable for him not to stop when I was riding, to buck in the canter, to paw, to invade my space, to bite and mouth me, knock my hat off, head butt me, wiggle and twist, and the list went on.

Mocha being silly, as usual!

Terry loaned me all the gear I needed to get started: a Parelli rope halter, 12' line, and a Carrot Stick and Savvy String.  Gone was my buttery soft leather halter and flimsy white cotton lead.

I now had a rope long enough to hang myself with and a giant, stiff whip that I was sure was meant to trip me or my horse (or poke our eyes out) at any given moment.

With Terry at the helm of my transformation I was ready to become a natural horseman!

Task 1: Understand my horse is a prey animal and I am a predator.  Overcome that barrier by playing the Friendly Game.  He should stand still, relaxed, with his head down, and eyes soft while I flailed around like a loon with my new tools.

This went great for about 10 seconds until he decided that this was all too exciting and stimulating and turned into some kind of African gazelle performing aires above the ground (and over my head) that any Spanish Riding School of Vienna attendee would have been jealous of.

Update:  Impromptu Driving and Yo-Yo Games lesson from Terry - horse should not trample owner or try to eat orange whip or 12' noose... I mean line.

This was a hard thing for me to watch.  Terry had to step in because he was all but climbing on me demanding a piggy-back ride!  She politely asked him to back out of our space but he came forward.  She wiggled the rope firmer and bigger and on he came.

Pretty soon the rope was flying back and forth and she had her stick in the air to make herself bigger.  He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes and inched forward.  She was calm, explaining that what he was doing was known as Opposition Reflex and he needed to learn what the appropriate response to pressure was (respect).

I wanted to tell her to stop and I wanted to hug him.  I felt so bad for him, it looked awful and everyone in the barn was staring.  All of a sudden Terry quit what she was doing.  "Did you see that?"  she asked.  I hadn't seen anything aside from my poor horse getting hit in the face with the rope.  "He thought about going backward."  She then explained about rewarding the slightest try.  It would be mind, body, weight, feet.  His mind had went backward just for a moment.

Within a few minutes he was backing away from her at a Phase 1 or 2, ears pricked, relaxed, licking and chewing.  He wasn't afraid, he wasn't even put out and grumpy/dominant looking.  He was interested!  He was drawn to her!  My mind was blown.

I then got the Carrot Person and Stick Person talk.  If left to my own devices I was a Carrot Person; loving, soft, treats, bribes, and zero leadership.  I knew plenty of the Stick People; bigger bits, whips, lip chains, blaming the horse, and also zero leadership.

The goal for a Parelli student was to be a "Carrot Stick Person", an extreme middle of the roadist.  Knowing how to be as soft as possible but as firm as necessary all while having an attitude of justice.

After that little lesson on backing up I could safely lead my horse without getting run over or drug along.  I could even stand and have a conversation with someone without getting mugged!  I could just send him out 12 feet away and park him in my imaginary box and that was that.

The Friendly Game was a breeze after that, this horse had buckets of confidence around people.  Check.

Task 2:  The Porcupine Game wins the horse's mind, they understand how to have an appropriate response to steady pressure.

This is when I seriously considered quitting Parelli.  My horse hated this Game therefore I hated this Game.  I tried to skip ahead but Terry was firm that I stick with it.  It wouldn't take longer than 2 days she said as I set there pushing against my horse with all my might, trying to find an effective Phase 4.

He would grind his teeth, pin his ears, stomp his feet, swish his tail, and give me the stink eye.  I would sweat and curse and whine and push.  I wasn't rewarding the MIND, I was waiting for the whole dang horse to move to East Asia before I was going to release.

Finally, some days into this Terry came over and asked him to yield his hindquarters with just a light phase but her focus was strong, she was patient, intent, and released as he flicked an ear that direction.  She rubbed, she waited, she asked again, he yielded.  I thought I might hug her and slap her at the same time.  I had been at this for days and it was so easy for her!  I secretly think she may have enjoyed watching the battle.

All part of the learning process I suppose.  It's a steep curve.

Task 3:  Play with the Driving and Yo-Yo Games.  We had this going pretty well, even though he liked to test me in all kinds of interesting ways.  He'd yield super fast, super slow, crooked, he'd go back 12 feet then put just one foot forward and look at me, ears forward, waiting for me to make my move.  I finally had my horse's respect (okay, a little respect) but I definitely had his interest!

Task 4:  Play the Circling Game, he should go out on a Circle and maintain gait and direction all while keeping slack in the rope.

This is where I could see the previous Games really coming in to play here.  I had had a horse before him that I could not lunge, ever.  She'd fly backward and wouldn't ever go on the circle.  I'd chase her tail around, slapping the ground like I was having a seizure and she'd just run backward and keep facing me (basically just what I was telling her to do).

Now, I could see why that had never worked.  With all my previous Games in place I could back my horse away from me, lead his nose (Porcupine Game) on the circle and then swing my stick and string at his shoulder and get his feet moving to follow his nose (Driving Game)... and off he went!

It was so fancy.  I could stand there and he'd motor around while I suavely passed that rope behind my back, Carrot Stick wedged in my belt.  I was sure I was the sexiest thing that ever held a 12' line.  No longer was I in danger of hanging myself with it and as long as my stick was wedged in my belt my eyes were safe from being poked out.

I could disengage my horse's hindquarters and he'd trot in to me.  Yeah, I was good.  I owned that 12' line.

Task 5:  Play with Sideways and Squeeze, looking for relaxation and confidence.  I had buckets of connection and draw, so protecting my space and driving him away really helped with his respect for me; interestingly enough his relaxation would follow that.

We pranced and danced Sideways everywhere.  We Squeezed over logs, between stall doors, under trees, and through narrow gates.

My once dragon-flavored, majestic beast of a horse was now a lot more manageable (still majestic) and safe to be around.  I went from being his rag doll to someone worth his attention.  He galloped to the gate when we saw me (across 50 acres), he nickered to me, for the first time I felt wanted by a horse.  It was so cool.

Mocha, intersted in what I'm reading.

What did I learn?  I learned that my horse could respect me and like me at the same time.  There were such things as boundaries and if I was firm and fair then those boundaries created a lot of draw and connection with my horse.

It finally dawned on me that he was a prey animal and I was a predator, meaning that we had a completely different set of priorities in life.  My understanding of horse psychology tripled and I began to think laterally, to become a problem solver, and to see the fun and inspiration in uncovering challenges and things my horse couldn't do.

Now, these things were pretty basic at that Level for me, but nonetheless I became an "oh boy!" and "how interesting!" person when something didn't go as planned.

Gone were the days that I was sure that my horse's behaviors were just "the way he was".  I now KNEW I could shape ANYTHING once I had the savvy into something I wanted from my horse.  I could repurpose all of his fanciness into useful things that didn't involve compromising my chances of seeing the sunrise the next morning.

Excuse the swimsuit, I was working on some necessary Vitamin D consumption that day.

The Levels are like rungs on a ladder.  Think of the top of the ladder being the thing you want to do most with your horse - a sport, trail riding, hunting, etc.

Each rung before it is a piece of your foundation.  So many people just jump straight for the top of the ladder.  They skip all the steps at the bottom.  You need these.  I repeat, YOU NEED THESE!  They are your foundation!  How the heck are you going to get down if you manage to get to the top of your 50' ladder and things go awry and you have no lower rungs?  You're just screwed.  Things get worse and you have no out, nothing to fall back on and no where to go.

Each rung builds on the one before it.  Level 1 skills set you up to naturally progress into Level 2 and so forth.  As you get into the Levels you discover there are Savvys.  Level 1 only has On Line - just one rung.  Level 2 has On Line and FreeStyle (2 rungs).  Level 3 has On Line, FreeStyle, and Liberty (3 rungs).  Level 4 as On Line, FreeStyle, Liberty, and Finesse (4 rungs).

If you're me, for example, when something goes wrong in your Level 4 Finesse you'll come to realize the rung that needs oiling was probably one in your Level 2 set.  If I had skipped over some of that rung (which I would neevverrr do!) it wouldn't be surprising at all to see it turn up later when I was trying to do something more complex and intricate with my horse.

I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here (I mean, what kind of jerk does that?!) but I really, really mean it!  The foundation, the Levels Program, is everything!

It's so important to do it in order, even if you're an advanced horse person (you'll just whiz through it then!).

You develop your horse by going forward but you fix what's not working by going backward.  If you have all your pieces in place this diagnostic system works quite well and makes horse training simple and fun (however, not always easy - but nothing in life worth having ever is).

Level 1 changed my horse and more importantly it changed me.  It set me on a lifelong path of never-ending self-improvement, of seeing challenges with horses and training (and life!) as "oh boy!" and "how interesting" moments, and of helping me become someone worth the admiration of a horse.

Mocha, my first Levels horse, my greatest love.

If you're on your Levels journey share your experiences in the comments! :)

Also, be sure to give me a like on Facebook and use my Instructor Shop link to purchase all of your authentic Parelli education and equipment!

***UPDATE*** I realize I didn't talk about my Audition and how I passed! Here you go! /myhorsemanship/2016/01/passing-parelli-level-1.html