Standing on the Shoulders of Giants


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
news I
Standing on the
Shoulders of Giants
heHorseCourse project began four
years ago, taking two horses into the
local prison on the south coast of Dorset
in the United Kingdom and working
with violent young offenders to improve
their life chances. However, I started
work on the content many years before that.
As a Parelli student I was struck by the opportunity that Parelli presents for self-development.
Coming at it as a complete layman, I was curious to
see whether I could leverage this potential to help
26 | Savvy Times February 2015
people who don’t respond to speech-based therapies
or education. When I heard the statistic that over
70% of young offenders return to prison within a
year of release, that seemed a good place to start. An
inspired senior manager at HMP Portland saw the
potential of my ideas and we set to work on a pilot,
which proved far more successful than either of us
had expected: our latest results show a 70% drop in
negative behavior inside prison, and a decrease of
27% points on reoffending.
Over the ensuing years, a handful of Parelli Professionals joined me, and the project spread to other
prisons. We now also work with schools, social
services, mental health services, drug & alcohol organizations, etc.
With success has come the demand to replicate
– training others to provide the same program. So
I have had to think hard about the ‘active ingredients,’ including pondering what it is in the Parelli
Program that lends itself to fast and effective
human interventions.
As Pat Parelli says, horses are born followers. Crucially for our program, they will only follow proven
leaders, and the Seven Games give us a context in
which to prove ourselves worthy of that position.
Horses desire the very qualities in their leaders that
will serve us well to develop in ourselves if we want
to live successfully in human society. The un-wordy,
practical way we coach helps people try out and feel
the solution, rather than talking themselves into confusion! (See adjacent chart)
Our ReStart program takes seven hours of 1:1 work,
though we often work 2:1 for 14 hours so that people
get more dwell time. A pass at Level 1 is the horsemanship goal, but the bigger goal is teaching Level
4 techniques so that participants are practicing life
skills such as focus, calmness, and assertiveness,
rather than learning motor skills without real communication. We use a few charts to aid learning and
reflection, but there is no written work or psychoanalysis. We don’t talk about the past – we simply
build skills within a horsemanship context and make
sure participants understand that they can take
these into real life. We usually run courses intensively across five consecutive days so that new skills
become habits, rather than weekly sessions, which
might demand a more cognitive approach to change.
This lines up with the Parelli approach of repeating
patterns seven times to set a positive habit.
The THC Star overleaf reflects the areas we work on
through specific games, patterns, and challenges with
our Parelli-trained horses. Our evaluations indicate
that positive outcomes are achieved in the process,
such as increases in hope and confidence, reduced
disruptive behavior (including crime), greater engagement in education, training and work, and (not
surprisingly) better relationships.
Working within Parelli demands more of us
than simply getting our horses to comply – we are
Horses become calm, connected, and
responsive with leaders who are:
Calm vs. Anxious
Assertive vs. Aggressive
Effective vs. Ineffectual
Empathetic & Connected
vs. Disconnected or self-obsessed
Gentle vs. Rough
Focused vs. Distracted or dithering
Clear Communicators vs.
Nagging or confusing
Playful vs. Dull or lacking confidence
Responsible vs. Blamimg
Trusting vs. Micromanaging
Planners vs. Lacking in purpose
encouraged to work on the relationship, strive for
our horses to become calm, connected, responsive,
and even exuberant. Parelli leaves us nowhere to
hide, no room for equivocation – at Liberty, all that’s
left is the truth. In the context of TheHorseCourse,
this translates into practicing Level 1 tasks at a Level | 27
4 standard. Rather than teaching “horsemanship”
per se, we are using horsemanship as a context in
which to learn and practice pro-social skills, whilst
holding a huge (horse-shaped) mirror to the gaps.
It is not good enough to safely lead the horse; can
you lead your horse at Liberty in Zone 3 with
perfect connection?
I believe that the success we are having as an organization stems from an obsessive attention to this
detail – working with high-level horses who give big
rewards for good leadership, but who are not push-
challenges that our horses can’t figure out until the
participant manages to communicate really clearly.
In their natural state, horses constantly ask questions, and how they react tells us what answers they
are getting. This “mirroring” effect is one of the cornerstones of equine-assisted practices worldwide.
However, if horses are handled carelessly for a
period of time, they become dull, and their feedback
becomes less and less sensitive, immediate, and
honest – they will shut down to survive, ignore
pressure because it has become commonplace,
button compliant, or drilled to perform patterns.
It feels pretty good to get a horse to touch a barrel
with his nose, but almost magical to place a hind
foot on an invisible marker from 12 feet away. Conversely, “push-button” horses rob the participant of a
genuine achievement; we have to constantly change
it up to keep our horses asking questions. What was
once tricky is now too easy. One of the challenges of
facilitating the THC program is coming up with new
and disregard focus because it cannot be relied
upon. Their brilliant natural qualities are diminished through exposure to our ‘white noise.’ Parelli
provides a solution. As we go up through the Levels,
we become quieter, smoother, more focused. We
emit less ‘white noise’ – and so our horses are able
to maintain their natural sensitivity, feel confident to
express their opinions, and offer instant feedback on
our leadership/herd-member qualities. It is critical
to maintain our horses’ sensitivity if they are to be
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relied upon in sessions. I am often asked whether
the horses get sour with this work. My answer is that
they won’t if you are doing it right. Working alongside your cherished levels horse makes you extremely
demanding and particular as a THC facilitator; you
don’t want to see your horse tolerate bad handling,
and so you teach Level 1 tasks at a Level 4 standard.
This is perfect – the participants are practicing excellent focus, excellent feel, excellent timing, excellent
leadership – and as Pat says, only perfect practice
makes perfect.
horsemanship – offering the same leadership, the
same strategies, the same feel, balance, and timing
to our students as we do to our horses. In this way we
help students become ‘ready to learn’ - or in Parelli
language, ‘calm, connected, and responsive.’ Then
we are extremely progressive and extremely particular (without being critical) in order to build skills
as rapidly as possible. The better the horseman, the
better they will facilitate TheHorseCourse – which
is why we only train Parelli Professionals or Level
4 students.
We also find that it is really important that the
horses get to be real horses – with lots of time out as
a herd in big enough spaces to properly relax, play,
and chill with their friends.
Before we can work on participants’ skills, we
often have to deal with difficult behavior. THC is facilitated by horsemen – our model does not require
a psychologist or educator to be present (although
they frequently attend to observe and take part in
reflection and handover). We work directly from our
Through the concepts behind Horsenality, Parelli
provides a set of strategies to get the best from ourselves, our horses, and – in my line of work – our
participants. Linda created the system of quadrants to help us recognize which horse has ‘turned
up’ today, and to choose an appropriate strategy to
engage the horse or to reduce problem behaviors.
At THC, we have taken this further, using an “Observation Chart” for humans, which shows the four
quadrants in a traffic light system. For each area | 29
(Right-Brain Introvert, Left-Brain Extrovert, etc.),
there are red, amber, and green areas. In our work,
we aim to build a full set of green behaviors, so that
our participants are confident and able to flex their
style from bonding, to active and focused, to playful
and experimental, to analyzing and planning.
Where amber or red behaviors show up, we quickly
employ the appropriate strategy to reduce them.
Over the length of the course, we aim to help the participants learn how to recognize the first signs that
they are going amber and which strategies will help
them manage themselves back to green.
Just as we would work on approach and retreat
with the horses, we do the same with participants,
moving them physically backwards from thresholds,
reading their body language rather than asking how
they feel. We flex our style according to what shows
up, in every minute of every session – helping our
participants stay calm, connected, and responsive
as learners. Strategies we might use with a tense,
reactive horse work equally quickly with an overactive child – “let me help you,” changes of direction,
pattern interrupts, and so on. Again, as Parellitrained horsemen, we are very well-placed to observe
body language and choose an appropriate strategy.
Without this foundation, my job of training facilitators would take years rather than weeks.
We get resounding feedback from a wide variety
of people and their associated workers about the
benefits of our way of working with Parelli-trained
horses; with the help of academics and evaluators,
we are likely one of the most evidence-based equineassisted programs in the world. Independent senior
academics have analyzed quantitative and qualitative evidence that TheHorseCourse programs are
effective; in prisons we saw a 27% point reduction
in reoffending (in a small but statistically significant
sample). With support from the Charities Evaluation
Service, we will soon be publishing recent evidence
around working with young people referred to Children’s Services.
Our aim is to build a robust evidence base and to
carefully replicate the program. With the help of the
Parelli community, we hope this can be a worldwide
Pat Parelli set about creating a training program for
people because he saw horses having a tough time.
30 years on, he and Linda have put together an astonishing body of work and created a following that
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includes some of the most impressive horsemen in
the world. Parelli offers a clear and comprehensive
approach that lends itself perfectly to equine-assisted practice.
The longer I do this work, the more I appreciate
the value of standing on the shoulders of giants. I’ve
never seen myself as a follower of doctrine; I was
raised to question everything, look outside the box,
experiment and think critically – but when I find a
box with so many pearls within, I keep coming back
to it. I still question and feel free to debate, but I am
at the same time grateful. Standing on the shoulders
of these giants is indeed a perfect place from which
to envision the particular quest I am drawn to – how
horses can help humans.
As with all innovation, the biggest thing that slows
us down is funding. The equine-assisted field as a
whole is poorly evidenced. We have made it a priority
to collect outcome data as we go along and to publish
results. We are at a point now where we have proven
that this program is extremely promising and ready
for “roll-out.” This is where you can help.
We are currently fundraising £100,000 to continue
the work and the replication. Along with helping 100
individuals turn their lives around, this will produce
a really strong ‘study group’, big enough to prove to
government funders that what we are doing really
works. We will be able to give our newly qualified
facilitators hands-on experience and a head start in
setting up projects to help people in their own areas.
This in turn will enable more Parelli Professionals
or high-level students to train and, we hope, establish
Parelli as the leading foundation for equine-assisted
interventions. ST
Please donate at
TheHorseCourse is a UK charity, established
in 2010 to provide horse-powered interventions,
which reduce ‘social exclusion.’
Currently there are 10 trained THC Facilitators,
all Parelli Professionals or high-level students, and
17 more are partway through the training process.
See our website for more detail or to donate.