The Best Horse Camp Ever - Parelli's Horsemanship Experience Week

The students led our horses in from pasture for the week.

Pat, with Cash, explained to us what we were in for, and how he was going to help us achieve savvy, and get us to "stretch our envelopes"…

We selected our horses for the week. (My criterion was 'Only a barefoot horse will do.')

My pick, Fancy, proved to be a great teacher for me. She was VERY savvy.

We all survived volleyball first thing in the morning… right after breakfast… stretching that envelope…

Bonnie showed us how it's done on Mighty Bucky

Pat answers Jeff's question during a lesson and demonstration.

Pat shows how to be safe on the trampoline (take off your hat).

We learned about saddling and unsaddling the savvy way (yes, we were allowed to ride with saddles!)

We learned about the Seven Games; Linda D performs the Circling Game from a chair.

Pat and Cathy; Pat is helping her with one-rein riding under the coverall.

Pat K and Dan are working on perfecting their one-rein riding.

Pat demonstrates and explains early training with Chinook and her newborn foal.

Neal Pye, instructor, demonstrates the turn.

Mary and Dan; we were all learning to ride with 2 reins (the savvy way) after learning how to ride with just one rein.

Instructor Sharon coaches Jolene.

Learning the canter with 2 reins was really fun! Nathan, Theresa, Susan, Jeff (fore to rear)

The whole bunch of us circled around instructor Neal Pye for our lessons.

The Copperhead Rustlers were the winners of the "Cow-puts-his-nose-on-the-chair" game (Sally, Doyle, Herb, Nathan, Randi)

The campfires under the shooting stars really topped the days.

Regardless of your age, level of horsemanship, physical abilities (and inabilities), gender, weight, and current attitude and beliefs, you qualify for the best horse camp ever - Pat and Linda Parelli's Horsemanship Experience Week. I did! This exclusive week-long course is open to anyone with the desire to improve his or her horsemanship skills and experience ultimate communication and connection with horses - naturally. Instead of a typical vacation, why not try a horse-filled learning experience? Not that it isn't like a vacation - with the scenery, exceptional facilities, rustic cabin life (or nearby hotel if you insist), and the wholesome exercise that comes with the territory, you will be able to forget your worries and cares and focus on horses and a new kind of horse-man-ship. Scrumptious meals are prepared three times daily, leaving you with the only responsibility of enjoying yourself to the limit (and then some)!

In addition to 'studying' personally with Pat, you will learn from instructors who are exceptional in not only their teaching abilities but in their knowledge, patient attitudes, and skills of riding and handling horses - any horse. In fact, you can pick your horse for the week or bring your own. I had the extreme pleasure of being a member of the HEW class of 2001 and here's how it went.

Our introduction to PNH (Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship) and the ISC (International Study Center)
We all gathered in a circle of chairs inside the lodge with Pat. One by one we introduced ourselves and stated why we came and what we hoped to gain from the experience. It was great to be with so many like-minded people, and to see that Pat understood us all, regardless of our various beliefs and backgrounds.

After our introductions, Pat treated us all to a demo with his mare Cash in a small round corral. We hung on every word as he spoke. He began, "What this week is all about is learning how to savvy horses. I may ask you to do some things that may not seem to be related to horses, but will be related to savvying horses, or to savvying savvy." Well, not exactly, I thought. I discovered that horses come with savvy, and the truth is we'll be savvying ourselves. THEN maybe we could further savvy the horse…

"Who wants to learn to savvy horses this week?" All hands go up; two go up for me. "So if we can understand how horses think, feel, act, and play it's pretty simple: Horses are born skeptics, cowards, claustrophobics and panic-aholics by nature; they are prey animals. So the more things we can do to teach them to use the side of the brain that we want them to use, the better it's gonna be for everybody." I couldn't wait. "

Pat continued, "A horse has a partnership side of his brain and a prey animal side of his brain. The partnership side starts right over there…" he points out a mare and foal grazing in the yard… "That little foal is taking his cues from his mother, on everything. If his mother is relaxed, he can be relaxed, can't he? The mental/ emotional/ physical state of that mare is being observed by that foal; because he's a prey animal, he starts his learning process right off the bat. So I've used that as my model for natural horsemanship."

We watched the mare and foal interact for a moment. "How does that mare touch him? Does she do this to him when he does something good?" and Pat heartily slaps his thigh like so many typically slap their horses on the neck. "A mare doesn't do that; people that think like people do that. How does she touch him? How does she cause him to follow her suggestion? How does she get him to follow her?" We contemplate. "This is what's in my mind - to get the horse to follow the suggestion of the human being like that, I like to pretend like I'm a horse, and I do that by emulating horse behavior. One way I emulate horse behavior is by having a tail. Has anyone ever seen a horse swishing his tail at another horse? Has anybody ever had a horse whip you in the face with his tail? And did you think, 'Hey… was that an accident?'" Everybody laughs, and someone comments that they do it on purpose. "Absolutely they do it on purpose," agrees Pat. "Because that's what they do - watch 'em. They say, 'hey, get over there' when they swish their tails like that."

Pat explains that's why he has the string on the end of the carrot stick, to be used as a tail. It is something that helps emulate horse body language and behavior. "Did you ever see a horse walk off and another follows but comes too close, and the first horse squeals and kicks it like that?" Pat's emulations and sound effects are surely realistic and entertaining, and clearly make his point. "Who's ever seen a horse do that to another horse? That kick lengthens her leg, and says 'Follow me, but not too close.' The people who act like people don't do that. So what I'm going to do is to try to get you to act like a horse, in every way. It's really simple - it just takes two things: 1. Watch what all your friends do and then do the opposite," everybody cackles, "and 2. Watch what horses do, and pay attention. Observe them; remember and compare."

Pat asked if we knew where our horses like to be touched and scratched, and what places we can scratch for them that other horses can't scratch for them. "This is something special we can do to show them we really love them," he explained. I thought of my horses who know how to park themselves precisely in front of me to indicate where they want to be scratched.

Pat went on, "It's gonna take three things to get something special with a horse. It's gonna take love, language, and leadership. The result is going to be lightness and a dynamic relationship that's available and will be very progressive. Most people have a heavy relationship with their horses. Horses frustrate them, horses lead like husbands going Christmas shopping, horses are heavy on the reins, don't stop when they want them to, and it seems like there's a lot of tension there. That's because horses act like prey animals and people act like predators, which causes horses to act more like prey animals and people to act more like predators, and it keeps going like that and becomes this revolving thing." He cracks a joke about how there is "a piaffe in dressage, a trot in place, and yet when a horse does that on a trail we get p-offed, even though he's doing something that lots of people work real hard for." We all laughed knowingly about that one. "So who'd like to have a relationship that's both dynamic and light? That's what it is all about. It's ever progressive," and he expounded upon what that kind of relationship can bring.

Pat demonstrated and talked briefly about each of the Seven Games and how they benefit the horse as well as the human, and why they work so well to establish a relationship of Love, Language and Leadership. His comical and endearing comparisons to everyday life and everyday horsemanship drove the lessons home, as did the nearby mare and foal, whose interactions Pat pointed out and commented on frequently. He showed us some things that demonstrated how much fun the Seven Games can be, and how they can help the horse become really clever. We discussed how horses perceive our body language, what they see as 'comfort and discomfort', and talked about personal space (both the horse's and the human's), the horse's eyesight, our independent seat, how we can communicate by just directing the air and directing the energy in our bodies, how we can create a bond that is stronger than any lead rope, be creative, develop our focus, feel and timing, be relaxed and confident, and much more. No longer would we kick to go and pull to stop. He told us that he was going to encourage us to "stretch our envelopes".

That was our introduction. It was obvious we were about to experience an amazing week. So much to learn, so little time…

What we experienced in daily activities
All of these actually helped us see our daily improvements in our savvy and horse-man-ship skills, which involve a lot more than one would think.

Volleyball: (the very first morning and every morning, 8am, right after breakfast)
Besides being fun it loosens up the tight muscles from traveling, gets the blood going, gets the oxygen into the nooks and crannies of the body offsetting the high altitude effects (which, thanks to activity, became much less noticeable).
It also lets Pat and the other instructors get a valuable assessment of our athletic abilities and probably each person's temperament, timidity, tendencies, reaction speed, eyesight, hand-eye coordination, timing, focus, competitiveness, etc.
It is played by Parelli rules, which means the ball is kept moving at all times, up over the net and back and forth non-stop until it goes too far out of bounds to hit it back, at which time we rotate to get ready for more. Fast and furious volleyball, the fun way, with 'Parelli scoring'.

Riding the Mighty Bucky:
Not only is it good for learning an independent seat, getting a feel for our own proprioception (balance), and improving timing while in motion with the horse, when mounted, we also learned how to get ON it with less and less effort and help daily. There was a noticeable improvement in everybody, including myself (thanks also to a fellow camper who helped me practice). All of us were able to stay on - balanced and in harmony - with more and more vigorous 'bucking' every day. Bucky held up quite well, as did the 'operators' who make Mighty buck.

Jumping on the trampoline:
This was great for improving balance too, off solid ground - land a little off balance on the springy, soft surface and you'll feel yourself wanting to tip over, but you'll learn how to fix it - quickly! It helps with learning to use the joints of the legs and hips, where to focus your eyes, place your feet, your weight, how to land sitting (or kneeling or lying down) and then right yourself to standing after the next bounce, focusing on something off in the distance. Focus is key.

Playing with the horses:
Those of us who had not brought our own horses were given our pick of a round corral full of them. We entered and mingled with them until everyone had a partner for the week. We chose for various reasons - color, size, temperament, etc, and being a fan of barefoot horses, I chose one of those. We led our horses to their outdoor pens and were shown how we would be feeding, watering, and cleaning up after them. The manure wagon is team driven, as is much of the equipment there, and that is a goal Pat talks about - having the ranch operating on only horsepower (and student power!) Our tack was stored safely in one of two tack rooms, protected from the wandering goats, who, fortunately, had many good things to chew on other than tack. Sheep also roamed free around the property, as did some horses at times, especially the minis Barnum and Bailey. I actually got to see (a small highlight of my stay) jumping sheep - they jumped up and over the low tree-trunk rails that divided a grassy area. (The cattle pups got in trouble for 'driving' them, however.)

I went on a trail ride the first day with Sharon, an instructor, and Wendy, another camper, up into the mountain behind the horse pens. I suppose they would consider it just a hill, in comparison to the real mountains. I tried not to 'ride' for fear of doing something wrong, and just went along for the ride. It was absolutely breathtaking when we started to come down and could see the beautiful ISC and its surrounding beautiful scenery.

Throughout the week we had our morning routine with volleyball etc, and fun with the horses. We learned the Seven Games (to some extent), and did the circling game from chairs and fence rails once we got the hang of it. We were divided into four smaller groups that rotated among 'learning stations' - we were given ribbons for our halters to remember which group we were with (AFTER a couple of us, including me, got confused with which group we were in!) We learned carrot-stick savvy (swing the tail away and back and catch it, etc), how to saddle and unsaddle the savvy way, learned how to tie knots (went from 'not savvy' to 'knot savvy' on that lesson), learned how to mount and dismount, pick up feet, put on the rope halter, and more, the savvy way.

Riding the horses:
We first learned how to ride with one rein and one hand at a time. It went amazingly smooth except for Daisy, who seemed to think she was allowed to kick. After some help from Pat, Daisy and Cathy improved. The next day another rider swapped horses with Cathy and things went even smoother. Once we learned how to walk, trot, canter, stop, get the haunches and forehand to step around with savvy, with the rope halter and one rein, we were allowed to learn how to ride with the hackamore and two reins. Next thing we knew we were doing it, with savvy. We learned how to back up, stick to the rail, focus on an object and get to it, and more. We all managed to do so with the expert instruction we received.

Once we were moderately proficient in the saddle, we participated in a cattle roundup game. The object was to get one of the cows to touch his nose to the single chair placed in the center of the Arena Grande. We were divided into groups that we named. The well-trained cattle dogs fetched the cattle from the meadow below and herded them into the large arena where they were divided and put into four round pens within the arena. The timed roundup game began. Groups 1 and 2 gave it a good try, but when the time was up, the cows were scattered everywhere. Group 3 did better, but our group, the Copperhead Rustlers, had caught on. I won't say how, but we won the game in plenty of time.

Trailer loading was also taught one day. So was early training, thanks to the timely birth of Chinook's filly. Pat explained that imprinting is the interaction/training that is done with the foal within the first hour of birth, which was missed, so he was applying early training instead, and he showed us how it is done. We all enjoyed that treat!

On the last day we rode up into the national forest and learned tips on safe trail riding as we tried out our newfound riding skills. That was an even more spectacular ride than the first day, and more enjoyable since I was really riding my partner, Fancy, and we had more savvy.

The fun ISC playgrounds provided us with ample opportunity to work on our games and ground skills and be creative with them. (If you haven't seen this playground, it is unbelievable - a tractor tire, water channel, sturdy log jumps of various heights, dirt mounds, log- and rock-lined plateaus to jump on and off, multi-level too, flat rock obstacles, and more.) It also gave us a good workout. By the end of the week, we were all fitter than when we came, and much more savvy. My only regret is that we didn't ask Pat to teach us how to walk on our hands. (He can do that very well, you know, as can some of the students.)

Good people from as far away as France attended. The International Study Center is a beautifully-kept and clean place with lots of help available. We were always busy; they kept us occupied with lots of learning experiences, and we had plenty of opportunity to befriend each other and the students. All the students were helpful, friendly, polite, and proficient. Pat wouldn't have a student of any other kind. He stressed that they are all WORKING students; none there on a free ride, all work hard to earn their learning. I enjoyed talking with Terry, the hoof man of the outfit, who kindly let me ask questions and bend his ear about hooves every chance I got.

The meals were delicious - varied menus with choices for every palate, healthy salads deluxe, every day, for lunch and dinner, and as much as you wanted to eat, desserts too. Some nights we enjoyed a campfire and singalong, complete with live guitars - Pat, Terry, Dave, et al - and shooting stars. We were given a ceremony and received certificates, and were applauded for our accomplishments - mainly for making it through the week - and we applauded our instructors (and the kitchen crew!) We watched a video of ourselves (and the instructors) the last day, and fast-forwarding and -backwarding added a hilarious touch.

I suggest you bring sunscreen, a good hat that provides shade, a riding helmet (I always wear one), tall (and comfortable) boots to keep the grit out of the socks (or plenty of clean socks), spare change to buy the local health food stores' smoothies and treats, swim suit for the town hot springs spa, perhaps a notebook to make notes on what you learned, and a camera to capture not only the stunning backdrop of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and clear blue skies but also the moments, though this experience will surely be unforgettable.

The dates for this year's Horsemanship Experience Week are June 30th to July 5th, 2002. Call 800-642-3335 or 970-731-9400, or email and visit for more information.