Focus on the Yo-Yo Game

By Pat Parelli

People have only tapped a very small amount of the potential with horses because they are not looking outside their specialty and they are not paying attention to the horse's foundation.

Game #4 in the series of the Seven Games with Pat Parelli

Have you ever wished that your horse had more suspension, stopped easily with a light cue, could do a slide stop, moved straighter or could back up quickly and willingly?

The Yo-Yo Game is the key to developing all these things in your horse… and more. Imagine if you could balance your horse's "go and whoa" so well that it took only your thoughts to move him forward or bring him to a screeching halt.

Wiggle the rope sideways and keep the "Schwiegermutter" look on your face until he takes a step back.

How do you get there from where you are today? All of the Seven Games combined is the complete answer, but in particular the Yo-Yo Game helps balance your horse's backward and forward movements.

Most horses will go forward without any difficulties, but backward can be an entirely different matter. They have a good forward "Yo" but their backward "Yo" is broken. They need to be balanced. A great Yo-Yo Game is a huge part of building straightness, respect and impulsion in your horse. It will also help you cure such problems as your horse running you over, running in front of you while leading, nipping, biting and getting heavy on the forehand.

Understanding why you would want to learn this game, why this game is important and where it can take you, is the first step to success. As I often say, process and product are two very different things! Most people run into frustration with horses because they are constantly working on the end product. They practice spins, flying lead changes, jumping or barrel racing over and over, thinking that things will get better. Their focus is product; they've ignored the process. They can't understand why their horse has a good day one day and falls apart the next, or why it only gets a little bit better every year no matter how much they practice.

What if your horse could get a lot better each month instead of waiting years? People have only tapped a very small amount of the potential with horses. This is because they are not looking outside their specialty and they are not paying attention to the horse's foundation. That's why I developed specific tasks for the first three Levels of my program (Level 1, Partnership; Level 2, Harmony; Level 3, Refinement). Although the tasks may not look like dressage, reining or cow work, these Levels provide a solid foundation for any horse, no matter what he is going to do as a "profession".

When you ask him to come to you, smile and look at him with a very friendly face and comb the rope lightly with open fingers

It's like giving your child a good education throughout grade school before you ask him to do high school courses. How well would your child do if you just stuck him in a high school English or math class at 3 years old and expected him to "get it" by practicing sentences or equations over and over? Horses need the same foundation of developmental time. The Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship Levels program is what gives a horse this foundation.

What's in a name?
The Yo-Yo Game is the fourth of the Seven Games. Games #1 (Friendly), #2 (Porcupine) and #3 (Driving) are called the "principle games" because they establish the fundamental "alphabet" for communicating with your horse.

Games #4 (Yo-Yo), #5 (Circling), #6 (Sideways) and #7 (Squeeze) are known as the "purpose games" because they incorporate combinations of the first three games and put them to a purpose. Each game builds on the one before it, so getting good at games 1, 2 and 3 before teaching your horse the Yo-Yo Game (#4) is very important if you want positive results. You will find throughout all of the Seven Games that when you are having trouble in one, the problem can be fixed by going back to the games before it.

Why such a funny name for this technique? I called it the Yo-Yo Game for a couple of reasons. One is that the name easily sticks in your head so you won't forget it (!), and two, the game is all about sending your horse back and bringing him forward in a straight line and with equality… just like a Yo-Yo. Your horse develops balance, lightness and suspension because he learns to be just as ready to go backwards as he is to go forwards. Since horses are naturally forward-a-holics (especially when they get scared or confused), learning to think about backwards can balance them mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

Playing the Yo-Yo Game
In the early stages, the Yo-Yo Game is taught on a 12-foot line (Partnership, Level 1). Since the movements are exaggerated when you start, there will probably be lots of rope wiggling! As you and your horse advance (to Harmony, Level 2 and Refinement, Level 3), you will learn to play the Yo-Yo Game on a 22-foot line, a 45-foot line, without a line at all, and while you are on your horse's back, all with more and more refinement. The Game is the same; what changes is how you play, where you play, the speed of the backup, where you are in relation to your horse and the level of sensitivity and responsiveness in your horse.

* Remember; don't try this first. It's game #4, so games #1, #2 and #3 need to be understood and played first (refer to the earlier articles in this series).

Teaching your horse to backup

The better your horse backs up, the better he'll do everything else.

Begin with your horse's nose at about arm's length from you and with the very end of the lead rope in your hand. Give your horse a "Schwiegermutter" look (German for mother-in-law!) like you are another horse laying his ears back. Lift your hand and wiggle just your index finger at him.

If your horse doesn't move, then wiggle the rope sideways - not vertically - until he takes a step back. Start with a very gentle wiggle then increase the wiggle stage by stage until he decides to move backward. Learn to keep your feet still and be consistent, starting gently and increasing the wiggle until your horse takes a step. This will teach your horse to pay attention to what happens before what happens happens and soon it will take only the slightest motion of the rope to move your horse backward.

As soon as your horse takes even one little step -- at any stage -- stop immediately and relax your body. This is how he will know that he did the right thing. Then start over again gently and keep asking until he takes a step. Continue until he is all the way out to the end of the lead rope then let him rest for at least 30 seconds.

Bringing your horse forward
Once your horse gets all the way out to the end of the lead rope, rest for a minute or two before asking him to come back to you. When you are ready to ask him to come to you, smile and look at him with a very friendly face (like your mother). Keep smiling and comb the rope lightly with open fingers, allowing the rope to slip through your hands. Increase the drag on the rope by closing your hands more and more until your horse responds by taking a step forward. As soon as your horse tries to come forward, open your hands and ask softly again. Continue asking him forward until he has come all the way in to you.

Using the Yo-Yo Game

Try playing the Yo-Yo Game in a variety of situations.

Once you have taught your horse how to back up and come forward, you can use the back up part of this game to cure your horse of nipping, biting and running you over. If ever your horse tries to nip at you, back him up right away and in a hurry! Every time he even thinks about biting or nipping, send him backwards. Pretty soon he will start to keep his mouth at a respectful distance.

If your horse is constantly running you over on the ground, just back him up every time he comes into your 'personal space'. You can visually define your personal space by drawing a circle around your body with one of your feet. If your horse puts his nose, a foot or any other body part over that line, back him up. It won't take long at all for him to learn to respect your personal space and to find it more comfortable to stay there.

As you and your horse get really good at this, you can add in lots of challenges to test your horse's mental, emotional and physical fitness. Try playing the Yo-Yo Game in a variety of situations and with different obstacles.
Yo-Yo your horse through the pasture gates
Yo-Yo him into and out of his stall
Yo-Yo him in and out of the wash rack
Yo-Yo him in and out of the arena, between two buckets or two barrels
Yo-Yo him up and down small hills
Yo-Yo him over a pole
Yo-Yo him in and out of a trailer with a ramp (very advanced!)

Get the picture? You can use this game to build your horse's confidence and enthusiasm while you are improving his back up. This is only the beginning of the Yo-Yo Game. At every Level in my program you learn how to take this game further and improve it. Then you learn how to use the same principles for teaching your horse to slide to a stop, do a piaffe, or spin like a pro… that comes later. All of these maneuvers start with a good foundation, a bit of rope wiggling and a lot of understanding and confidence in your horse. The better your horse backs up, the better he'll do everything else.

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

Want to know more? Find step-by-step instructions on the Yo-Yo Game in the Partnership pack, Level 1 of Pat Parelli's Savvy System. Call Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship at 1-800-642-3335 or visit for a free brochure.