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NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP History & Western Performance Sports by Pat Parelli



Pat Parelli

Pat Parelli

All throughout history, people have used horses for transportation, for work, and for sport. We’re naturally competitive, so it makes sense that racing was probably the first “sport” involving horses – even at a walk, we like to be able to say, “My horse is faster!” From there, it probably transitioned into jumping – “My horse can jump higher than yours!” Using horses in warfare was the next development; with that came the building blocks of dressage, and frankly, true horsemanship in general. To have a horse that would respond in the blink of an eye, even in a stressful situation like war, was incredibly valuable. It stems from a great Greek general named Xenophon, who said something to the effect of, “We must treat the horses with respect, so they will be our partners.”

The next development, at least in certain parts of the world, was using horses for cattle. These techniques were brought to North America by the Spanish, who moved throughout Mexico and what is now California, and who eventually created something called the California Vaqueros. Now, these Vaqueros were renowned for their high level of horsemanship; I was fortunate enough to meet a few Vaqueros as I was growing up in California, including Arnold Rojas, author of These Were The Vaqueros.

To wrap up this history lesson, let’s focus on what all these people, all these horsemen, had in common: ambition. If we really want to do something great with our horses, we need to start with ambition, whether it’s to have a horse be a perfect partner in wartime, while handling cattle, or anything else.

But ambition alone isn’t enough. It has to be tempered with principles. When people get ambitious, sometimes it moves them towards their principles, and sometimes it leads them away from their principles. After principles comes patience, and after patience comes an understanding of sequence. For example, when you start building a house, you need to know the proper sequence. If you start building the roof before the foundation, well, you’re going to run into some trouble.

With that in mind, the question for us becomes this: what relevance does the Parelli program have in Western Performance sports?

Pat Parelli and Quarter Horse stallion, Peppy

Pat Parelli and Quarter Horse stallion, Peppy

First, I like to think of it as bigger than the Parelli program; I like to think of the Parelli message, which boils down to this: 1) putting the relationship first, 2) foundation before specialization, and 3) getting you and your horse hooked on never-ending self-improvement. In addition, it’s important to point out that the Parelli program is a foundation program. We are not a reining horse program or a cutting program or anything like that. What we try to do is build a great foundation, no matter the discipline that interests you.

In fact, it’s when you reach these disciplines – both Western and dressage – that the foundation becomes essential. To be successful at this point, the horse must be confident, curious, sensitive and responsive. It takes a great, solid foundation to achieve those four qualities at a high level.

Now, on to the Western Performance sports. It’s generally accepted that there are three major sports: reining, reined cow horse, and cutting. You can include all the roping sports as well; these are the sports that I consider traditional “Western Performance” sports. Regardless of sport, if a Western sportsman wants to be able to achieve straight lines, circles, lateral moves, and tight, quick moves, he needs to perfect his reining technique. To achieve this naturally, without knocking the try out of the horse, is a win-win: the rider is rewarded with results, and the horse feels like the luckiest horse in the world.

The next sport is reined cow horse, where the rider performs a reining pattern and then take a cow down the fence. A cow is brought into the arena after you perform your reining pattern, and you do your best to keep the cow up against the fence. Really, you’re training the cow, from the beginning, to respect your horse’s presence and to turn away from him. So you go back and forth, staying in front of him. Once you feel you can control the cow, where he’s turning when and where you predict, you get behind him and send him down the long end of the arena, get in front of him, turn him around and bring him to the center of the arena to circle him. When this sport was developed, in the 18th and 19th century, this was a very practical skill, particularly the ability to circle the cow at the end. Similar to reining, these maneuvers take time and a solid foundation.

There’s a bigger umbrella term that cutting falls under, and that’s “ranch horse versatility.” Ranch horse versatility is the ability to cut and sort cattle, picking an individual out of the herd, being able to drive a cow to a specified location. It’s a very practical skill, and as we noted earlier, humans are naturally competitive. Is it any wonder we’ve turned ranch horse versatility into a contest? Cutting generally involves a very specialized horse with a strong play drive; when you select a cow, they understand. You can drop the reins, and the horse will hold the cow himself. You just need to make sure to hang on!

These days, they’ve combined these events into a sort of Western Performance trifecta. It’s called the Bridle Spectacular, and it combines all three: reining, reined cow horse, and cutting. My son Caton and I recently participated in one of these events; my horse, Slider, and I won reserve champion in our division, and Caton was the champion in his division as well. There’s another competition where roping is added as well; I’m very interested in this, so keep an eye on Parelli Connect for updates in the future!

To conclude, these Western Performance sports are fascinating to me, and witnessing how “foundation before specialization” applies to them is very exciting. Once you’ve got that foundation, the opportunities are limitless. As is the case with any competition, success in the arena is important, and without experience, it’s difficult to achieve that success. It’s only been over the last two years that Caton and I have been able to participate and compete often, but we’re both getting better. Plus, competing just adds more fuel to the fire of ambition – to learn, to succeed, and to demonstrate that the Parelli message has a place in Western Performance.

Pat Parelli, coiner of the term “natural horsemanship”, founded his program based on a foundation of love, language and leadership. Parelli Natural Horsemanship allows horse owners at all levels of experience to achieve success with their at-home educational program. Together with his wife Linda, Pat has spread PNH across the globe with campuses in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. Newly launched in 2011, provides an online social forum packed with training tools, step-by-step to do lists, video and more. Log on today for your FREE 30-day trial at



This article was published in Performance Horse Digest Volume 8 Issue 12

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