Focus on the Friendly Game
By Pat Parelli

Game #1 in the series of the Seven Games with Pat Parelli

The Friendly Game while mounted.


This is the first in a series examining the Parelli Natural HorseoManoShip (PNH) Seven Games and their role in establishing leadership as well as building a language between you and a horse... any horse.

The Friendly Game is number one of all the Seven Games because nothing else beats a good first impression. When you want to meet someone, how would you first approach him? I like to think about introducing myself to a horse as positively as I would another person.

Unfortunately, most horses are commonly assaulted and abused during a first introduction. People trap them, force them into squeeze chutes, tie them up, tie them down, tie up a leg, blindfold them, throw a saddle on, jam a bit in their mouth, get on and ride the buck out of them.

Let's consider another scenario: a horse that has already been ridden. Most of the riders he's encountered just saddle up and get on, as if no preparation was needed. Then they kick him to go, pull him to stop and yank him around to turn. If the poor horse misbehaves or objects to being ridden this way, then out comes the armory of gadgets; The gadget that will shut his mouth, tie down his head, hold him in a frame or provide more leverage in order to correct "bad" behavior and have the horse submit. But, hey, it's normal, so very few people ever question it. Yet with a little session of the Friendly Game, so much of this forceful, mechanical equipment and the militaristic attitude that goes with it can be avoided, creating more positive results.

Think like a horse
Life as a prey animal is scary keeping vigilant watch every moment just to survive. To become our partners and quit acting like prey animals, horses need to overcome their innate fears and skepticism. The first step in helping them do this is proving that I'm a friend no matter what.

I believe if people could see things from the horse's point of view, and if they knew of an alternate way to get results, they would choose it. Horses don't need to be forced to behave. They can become our willing partners -- naturally.

The PNH Seven Games were developed as a result of observing how horses communicate with each other. This system teaches you what kind of games to play, and in what order and for what purpose.

Game #1, the Friendly Game is without a doubt the most important of the Seven Games. Play it with your horse first, before anything else, and then continue to play it before, during and after each of the other Seven Games. You can play the Friendly Game with your lead rope, with a PNH Savvy String, with a PNH Carrot Stick, with a plastic bag on the end of a stick, with a saddle pad, or with your bare hands -- use your imagination.

Play the Friendly Game from the tip of your horse's ears, inside his mouth, down all his legs to the end of his tail. There is no part of your horse's body you should not be able to be 'friendly' with.

The importance of being friendly
To emphasize the power of the Friendly Game, let me give you an example of getting on a horse that's never been ridden. All this involves is being able to play the Friendly Game at a high level.

I have two focuses in mind:
1. I can see the finished result. I'm on the horse's back, happy and relaxed, and the horse is happy and relaxed.
2. I'm going to ask for permission every step of the way, and not make assumptions. I'm going to prove to this horse beyond any shadow of a doubt that I am friendly and trustworthy.

I start by rubbing the horse in a pleasurable way wherever the horse will allow me (remember you can use your rope or your PNH Carrot Stick to every part of his body and remain safe). I begin with areas he is comfortable with and gradually move to the ones he feels more defensive about. These are the "Wait a minute! I don't know you that well yet!" spots. I take note of those areas and use them to measure how far I'm progressing. When the horse is no longer defensive, he is telling me that he trusts his body in my hands.

From there I increase my movements to see how much the horse can stand. Some horses are okay as long as everything is slow and quiet. These are horses that people learn to sneak around. I like to do the opposite and make a lot of commotion because that technique will actually help sensitive horses from becoming scared and flighty.

I hold my horses on a loose rope so he has plenty of room to move around while I swing ropes, skip around, jump up and down and stagger around. The horse may be upset at first but will gradually learn that he is safe while you are doing all those crazy things. The whole time I am making a commotion, I have a smile on my face with non-threatening, relaxed body language. Pretty soon the horse is convinced that I'm harmless, no matter what is going on around him. During this process a horse can get pretty upset until he figures out he is not in danger. My experience and savvy level allow me to understand when to approach, how much to approach and when to back off. To leave the horse feeling scared is just not fair so I persist through the process, approaching and retreating, until the horse becomes confident and can relax.

The Friendly Game in the saddle
Once I feel the horse is making mental changes and begins to look at me differently, lowering his head and relaxing his muscles, only then will I take the next step and ask permission to jump onto his back.

Being on his back requires a new level of Friendly Game and desensitization. But since I started on the ground, most of the work has already been done. Within a very short time the horse will allow me to lie on his back, kneel on it, stand on it and slide off his rump. Only then will I fork my legs over his back because that position is actually the most vulnerable one for me.

This entire process involved nothing but the Friendly Game. If I get this right, everything else will come quickly and easily because I've earned the horse's trust. While I've been insistent, at no time have I been invasive and not asked the horse's permission. I never act like a predator. Horses are amazingly adaptable animals and are very quick to make changes, probably quicker than any other living creature. Once you have your horse's trust, he will be ready to take on new challenges.

Making a good first impression with a horse
- Hold the lead rope far away from the halter snap, at least 3 feet, and relax.
Don't even look at the horse and don't ask for anything just yet. Most people grab a horse short, right at the halter or snap of the lead rope and hold tight. They want to immediately lead, tie or longe him, often without any introduction or permission to do so. To do the opposite will impress the horse; he will recognize the difference.

- Learn to give the horse a soft look.
Smile and have a relaxed and friendly body language. Sometimes when people are a bit scared this is hard to do, but it will earn you big points. Direct eye contact can feel very threatening to a horse; you'll notice that a lot of horses will not look at a human. They'll look away when you make eye contact. As a horse becomes more confident he'll actually be able to look at you, ears forward and with bright interest.

- Make your time together fun.
Horses love to rub, scratch and chew on each other. Learn to rub a horse like another horse rather than patting him. Find his itchy spots. Be sensitive to areas that he feels defensive about and use an approach and retreat method to help him gain confidence about you touching 'that spot.' Above all don't be impatient. Work progressively until you are able to touch, stroke and rub him everywhere, even under his tail. You can't force the horse's trust. You need to gain permission by being friendly.

- Realize that much of what you already do is the Friendly Game.
This could include feeding, watering, grooming, offering carrots or just visiting with your horse in the corral. Horses will often fall in love with their grooms and learn to resent the rider because all the rider does is demand performance. The Friendly Game is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship with a horse, and is the foundation of all we do in PNH.

- Become more provocative; escalate the Friendly Game.
Once you can touch a horse everywhere, use the Friendly Game to desensitize your horse to potentially startling situations. These could be things like swinging ropes, rain coats, saddle pads, umbrellas, bikes, rolling balls, Frisbees, balloons, people running, jumping, skipping, stumbling, climbing up fences, and noises such as people clapping, bags of cans, cars and trucks. Use your imagination to come up with new variations of the game. Use your imagination to help your horse understand that new things are not threatening. Once he's convinced, the fear will disappear. He will start to take notice of how you perceive potentially frightening things. If he respects you and you don't show any fear, he'll follow your lead.

Punishing your horse
Punishment and reward do not work on horses. Punishment often carries with it a human attitude of anger or displeasure and the horse perceives this as predatory behavior. Also, punishment usually comes too late and the horse cannot associate it with the unwanted behavior. Even worse, some people punish a horse for misbehaving when, in fact, the horse is really just scared out of his wits and acting on instinct.

Pat Parelli

What does work with horses is positive and negative reinforcement. I like to use the analogy of an electric fence. The shock is negative reinforcement. It has no emotions. If a horse touches it he gets an instant message that this is a mistake and he can only blame himself. When the horse takes his nose off the electric fence, he gets instant relief. Using this kind of reinforcement will cause behavior changes. Punishment, on the other hand, will ultimately cause a horse to become resentful or turn the situation into a game.

There are two kinds of positive reinforcement: rhythmic motion (rubbing) and neutral (a release or doing nothing at all). There are two kinds of negative reinforcement: rhythmic pressure and steady pressure.

If a horse tries to bite you and you turn to slap him, he's usually ducked away and won the game. Instead, when he reaches to bite, flap your elbow just at the same time, preferably while not looking at him. If he hits his nose on your arm, then he realizes he ran into something instead of thinking that you attacked him. This is negative reinforcement; the horse needs only to run into something once or twice before the behavior will change.

Positive reinforcement should also be immediate for the horse. 'Reward' often comes too late after the fact, and the horse won't make the connection to his desirable behavior. You need to recognize the slightest try your horse offers and release at that moment. Stop whatever you were asking him to do and let him rest. Because you quit asking, your horse will know that he did something right.

The Friendly Game can be played simply by offering the horse a release and relaxation. You don't even having to touch the horse; just taking the pressure off will let him know he was right. Another way to show positive reinforcement is to rub the horse. This will become especially important when playing the Porcupine Game (Game #2) and many of the other six games.

Too much of a good thing?
Kindness without control spells disaster. There are many incidences where people pet and feed their horses, offer lots of kindness but get no respect from the horse.

These horses have learned that people are not dangerous. So they try to dominate, push, resist, nip, chase or drag people around because in horse society, the pecking order is very important. After helping your horse overcome his innate fears, if you don't show yourself to be the leader, then the horse will think that's his role. This is where games #2 through #7 of the Seven Games become valuable.

Don't neglect the Friendly Game even if your horse seems gentle enough. Don't rush through it either, thinking that all you need to do is get your horse to stand still. The Friendly Game is the savvy secret that horsemen use to gain a horse's trust and to continually reinforce that trust and love. Once you earn the trust, you can begin to ask your horse to yield to pressure, bringing us to Game #2… the Porcupine Game.

The Seven Games:
Friendly Game
Porcupine Game
Driving Game
Yo-Yo Game
Circling Game
Sideways Game
Squeeze Game

Want to know more? You will find more detailed information on the Friendly Game, and any of the Seven Games in the Partnership program, part 1 of Pat Parelli's Savvy System. Call Parelli Natural HorseoManoShip at 1-800-642-3335 or visit for a free brochure.