A Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship Clinic at Brittany Common

As I walked up to the Brittany Common indoor arena, I briefly reminisced about past times at this farm attending English horse shows with my riding lesson students. Though the place looked much the same, its horsemanship was shifting from the traditional 'English show' approach toward natural horsemanship - Pat Parelli's Natural Horse-Man-Ship. Not only accepting of this western cowboy and his philosophy, this farm was actually presenting a clinic, taught by Nita Jo Rush , a fantastic Parelli Natural Horsemanship Certified 3-Star Instructor. Wow, have times changed - for the better, thankfully.

Nita Jo Rush (right) talking with some of the auditors before things got started.

I wondered what things would have been like, had I known about Pat Parelli in the old show days. Surely I would have welcomed these ideas and the Seven Games (and bought a lot less tack!) But would anyone I had associated with back then have felt the same? Ever since I was a youngster, I knew people who thought English was the way to go and anything 'cowboy' was totally uncool , and vice versa. Unfortunately there are still many of these closed-minded people still around, still dealing with 'horse problems' in traditional, self-limiting ways. It's not the English or Western that is a problem; it is the lack of horsemanship. One thing I DO know is that if one horse's owner back then had played with her horse and learned Parelli's Seven Games, my student's mother, an innocent bystander, would not have gotten that unexpected and undeserved kick in the thigh. And one other thing I know is that there were a lot of seemingly-safe 'broke' horses back then (including mine) that today I would never ride until after doing the Seven Games. In fact there are horses like that today whose owners still have no idea they are riding or making an unsafe horse; they are simply unaware of the signs.

Nita Jo explains the hows , whats , and whys of game 1, the Friendly Game. Notice how the horses are not exactly attentive to their humans.

Fortunately, there are those who braved the torrential rains and attended or audited the clinic at Brittany Common, and those who organized it. Now things can be much better for the horses and their people in this area. Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship has arrived and brought a fundamental natural solution for the problems that continue to plague many local horsefolk. This solution is communication - learning the horse's language, and playing the Seven Games that horses play with each other to establish herd 'pecking order' and leadership. It's a welcome change from the usual scene of restrictive martingales, mouth-closing nosebands, harsh bits for 'control', kicking and spurring, whacking with crops, yanking over-the-nose chain shanks, bullying, and yelling. With just a little knowledge things could easily be worlds better for people and horses, and there's no reason to be frustrated, angry, or cruel. Nita Jo Rush came to town and brought a much better way - she taught a Level 1 clinic at Brittany Common, enlightening an appreciative crowd with the ways of Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship. The Friday night demo by Nita Jo and her horse was inspiring and impressive for starters, but how she managed to make such a big difference for this group of students in only two days was even more impressive.

Sherry plays the Friendly Game with her 6-year-old mare Ruby.


Despite the drenching weather, in came the enthusiastic humans with horses in hand, and some enthusiastic horses with humans in hand. Some human-horse pairs had obvious difficulties, though they appeared to be minimal. Other pairs seemed to have a perfect relationship. What this weekend would reveal would be the real leaders - the Seven Games would bring out the best and possibly the worst in all the horses, and in all the humans as well. Background music played quietly in competition with the incessant rain - classic oldies like Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, and many others. When Nita Jo spoke into her headset, the music was muted; the PA system worked well and enabled everybody to hear clearly. Throughout the weekend, Nita Jo invited questions from everyone, including the auditors.

Lisa and her rescued QH Jesse play the Porcupine Game to step the forequarters over.

The morning began with Nita Jo calling everybody up front to form a horseshoe for a brief equipment and halter knot check along with introductions. All horses wore the Parelli rope halters and long lead ropes as required for safety and effectiveness; the humans sported carrot sticks with savvy strings attached. Horses and humans came from various disciplines and experience levels, and Nita Jo's friendly teaching style made everyone feel comfortable and welcome.

Ryan, the youngest human in the class, backs her horse Jiggs using the Porcupine Game.

Nita Jo talked about the prey animal/ predator tendencies and differences, and how horses are herd animals and need a leader. She explained that horses can learn to look to us for leadership if we show them we are worthy. She said comfort and the release of pressure are their reward, and that we should avoid using voice commands and instead use body language. Nita Jo described the Seven Games as the basic building blocks of partnership, and explained that the whole Parelli Partnership Program is positive, progressive, and natural; it helps the horse become more athletic and gymnastic, smarter, braver, calmer, and more willing.

Katy uses the Porcupine Game to ask her horse Jamie to step the hindquarters over.

The Seven Games:

The Friendly Game

Nita Jo explained and demonstrated game 1, the Friendly Game - the 'hurry up and relax' game, the game of rhythmic motion. Appropriate vintage background tunes filled the moist air and drowned out the noise of the pelting rain on the roof. Most of the horses stood quietly while their humans rubbed and stroked them with the bunched-up ropes and their hands. After a little practice with the carrot stick and savvy string, they stroked and rubbed with them as well. The ropes and savvy strings were soon swung rhythmically up over the horses' backs and around the neck and legs. Nita Jo explained that the purposes of the game include calming, building trust, desensitizing, and finding 'don't touch me' zones, which can be used to judge one's progress in the trust-building department (through approach and retreat, one can reassure the horse and gain the horse's trust, eventually gaining access to these forbidden areas).

The Porcupine Game

Game 2, the Porcupine Game, is the game of steady pressure. It teaches the horse to yield with lightness and responsiveness, when asked. Nita Jo explained and demonstrated this with the 'rub first' (to avoid the horse anticipating and moving before asked), the '4 friendly phases of firmness' (hair, skin, muscle, bone), and the rub to a stop (as in 'hurry up and relax'), emphasizing the need to release the pressure (reward) upon the horse's earliest try, and when NOT to release (when being oppositional).

Clare uses friendly, rhythmic motion with her carrot stick and savvy string on Chipper (no longer "Nipper") while watching Nita Jo coach a student. uh oh, don't grab that snap!

First the horses were backed up by using the phases needed on the nose, and all caught on to the game quickly. The music brightened things up for everybody, with the chosen songs humorously matching the scene. One horse tried to chew the rope, and Nita Jo showed his human what to do to discourage that - she simply stuffed more rope into the horse's mouth, explaining, "You just turn his dream into a nightmare," and the horse spit out the rope. Everybody was tickled at how well that worked. Then the horses were backed with the tip of the carrot stick by using the rub/ phases/ rub on the chest below the neck. Some horses tried to bite the stick, and Nita Jo had a solution for that too - "Hold the pressure until he backs AND stops mouthing the stick." Some horses moved out from in front of the humans, and Nita Jo corrected this by having the humans move with the horse, staying directly in front of the horse until he backed up. Yes, there are more ways than one to back a horse.

Next the Porcupine Game and its phases were used to move the hindquarters away, first with the tip of the carrot stick (to keep a safe distance from the horse) and later with the hand. Nita Jo explained the significance of stepping the hindquarters over, which works like a clutch to disengage the engine from the feet. She mentioned that some horses may find this difficult at first for several reasons including opposition reflex (usually indicated by tail swishing), stiffness, and emotions. The humans readily learned to step their horses' hindquarters over from each side.

As the day went on, the ropes were used less and less for 'control' and the horses became more and more attentive to their humans - notice how each horse has an ear on his partner. Susan and Dundee (center) look like they need no rope at all.

The Porcupine Game and its phases were then used to move the forequarters away - rubbing first, placing the tip of the carrot stick in the dent behind the jaw, and applying the phases needed until the horse yielded the slightest bit (moving the head away). Once the yield is understood, the phase is held until the feet move, and then until the feet cross over. Nita Jo coached the humans and showed them how to support the carrot stick signal with the other hand and rope, where to position themselves, where to focus, and how fast and in what direction to move to get the best yields. Once they got going, some of the humans had to run to keep up with their horses as they fluidly made a complete circle around on their haunches. Then they used just their hands to signal and move their horses.

Lateral flexion, new to several of the horses, helps make a safe horse.

The Driving Game

After a break, Nita Jo introduced the Driving Game - the game of rhythmic pressure and ' hurry up and do something'. In this game, the horse follows a feel and is guided by a suggestion rather than touch. She demonstrated this by backing the horse using body language in 4 phases: while facing the horse from out in front of him, stand up straight and stick belly button out; strut with rhythm and energy toward the horse tapping the air with the carrot stick; tap the ground firmly with the carrot stick while continuing to strut with the same rhythm, energy, and pace toward the horse; tap the horse (maybe very firmly). She equated these phases to the ones that horses naturally use with each other - 'suggest' with the ears back, 'ask' with the lift of a hind leg, 'tell' with a jerk of the leg, and 'promise' with a kick. "As soon as the horse begins to back, let her be," Nita Jo said. As the carrot stick bumped the horses who didn't move before phase 4, they quickly caught on and moved backward; on the next suggestion, they naturally backed up at an earlier phase and became very responsive.

Nita Jo coached several horse-human pairs for differing responses from the horses: "Keep the same pace. Keep the horse's eyes and ears facing you - bump sideways on your rope. Use your body, not your rope. Don't let rope out - move with her. Bump sideways - keep tapping - keep moving. Put life into your body - be a chicken and flap your wings (elbows)." and "Stop. When they attempt to back, let them dwell." There were a lot of horses licking and chewing, and Nita Jo said that sometimes the horse just needs some more information from the human, so he will test the human. She also mentioned that backing is difficult for them but if they back well, they'll do everything else well.

Nicky 'trombones' on Getta's rope before asking for the lateral flexion bend. In the background, Jan and Rio do the same.

Next the Driving Game was used to step the hindquarters over, again using 4 phases: standing near the horse's head, look at the hip/rump and bend over, 'pin ears' (nasty facial expression), and think "move your butt"; walk like this along a wide arc toward hip/rump and tap the air with the carrot stick; tap the ground; tap the horse. Reward one step over and stop. One horse moved backward instead of stepping over, and Nita Jo coached the human to hold phase 3 a little longer and he soon stepped over, not back. This game is affectionately called the "Hide the Hiney" game because when the horse faces us, his rump is hidden from view.

Just before lunch, Nita Jo asked the group what they had learned, and their responses included: horses have a side preference; horses need us to ask them correctly and clearly; how to back the horse; less is more - ask softly and they do it better; we need to protect our space and use all of the carrot stick's length; rhythm is important; release is reward.

Standing still for mounting and dismounting, another determinant of a safe horse, was also new to a few.

After lunch, the Driving Game was resumed with moving the forequarters over. Nita Jo demonstrated more than one way of doing this, but the idea is to focus beyond the horse and travel right through him (not around him), just like horses higher in the pecking order would push right through the others to get to food or drink. Nita Jo talked about the Zones of Influence (areas of the horse's body between the nose and the tail). Zone 1 is the head and neck, Zone 2 is the shoulders, Zone 3 is the barrel, Zone 4 is the hindquarters, and Zone 5 is the tail.

Nita Jo watches while the class rides with one rein, which went more smoothly than some riders expected.

The Yo-Yo Game

The fourth game, the Yo-Yo Game, is the game of balance and involves backing the horse away and bringing him back in. Nita Jo explained that backing up is hard work for horses, mentally, because nature tells the horse to run forward. This game, which puts rhythm into the rope to back the horse up and rhythm into the rope to bring the horse back to us, has 4 phases for each.

Donna and Cherokee get the hang of one-rein riding.

Phases to back the horse up: stand erect, facing the horse from out in front of him (Zone 1), and rhythmically shake your index finger (of the hand holding the relaxed rope) back and forth; shake your finger and hand back and forth; shake your finger, hand, and forearm back and forth sending a moderate ripple of energetic rhythm down the rope; swing your arm, extended straight out at full length, sending a powerful ripple of energetic rhythm down the rope.

Hostess Loretta (left) with Slider, who was loaned out for the course.

Phases to bring the horse in: soften your body (bend over toward the horse and smile); take up some slack in the rope and rhythmically 'reel it in' with palms-up open/ flat hands (letting the rope slip over them); close hands gently and reel; close hands more and reel. Nita Jo reminded the humans to use only the phases needed to get a try and build on that. She coached the humans who had difficulty, explaining what was happening, and sometimes bodily guiding them so they understood how to be effective, and so their horses could understand their requests.

Jamie loaded and unloaded readily for both Nita Jo and Katy.

The Circling Game

Game 5, the Circling Game, involves sending the horse out on a circle, allowing him to travel around it while you stand in the center, and then bringing him back to face you again. It is the game of maintaining gait and maintaining direction, also known as the "Don't make me pick up the stick" game. The 4 phases of the 'send' are: lead it, lift it, swing it, touch it. Start by facing the horse from out in front of him (Zone 1) and 'lead' him (direct him in whatever direction you want him to take, either clockwise or counterclockwise around you) taking slack out of the rope and stepping back (to 4:00 or 8:00) to encourage him to come forward; 'lift' the carrot stick straight up using the non-leading hand; 'swing' the carrot stick around in the air (toward the shoulder); 'tap' the carrot stick/ savvy string on the shoulder.

For the 'allow', stand still and let the horse go around you 2 to 4 times (if he stops or slows, turn and face him and send again starting with phase 1). This is not the same as longeing because you are not micro-managing the horse and he is not being 'worn down' - he is learning to maintain gait and maintain direction on his own, even when you are not looking at him.

To bring him back in, disengage the hindquarters (driving the hindquarters away, "Hide the Hiney"). The 4 phases of the 'bring back' are: look at Zone 4; shorten the rope; tap the ground; tap the hindquarters (let out the savvy string).

"The better the send, the better the allow ," said Nita Jo. She coached the humans, standing behind a few of them and maneuvering their limbs for them. Judging by the horses' responses, this was a tough game for the humans to grasp. Nita Jo helped with troubleshooting for various responses from the questioning horses, saying "Don't make them wrong for it." They just needed more information and consistency from their humans, and then they understood.

Nita Jo clarified that the Circling Game does not take the place of longeing, but that all Seven Games take the place of longeing. She expounded on why they are better than longeing, and why longeing can be counterproductive.

The Sideways Game

After an afternoon break, Nita Jo introduced the Sideways Game. It is game 6 and involves the stepping over of the forequarters and the hindquarters, alternately at first and then together. Taking turns, each horse stood nose-to-the-wall with the human standing to one side, slack in the rope, at least a carrot-stick length away - out of kick range.

Using the phases: first look at the hindquarters (Zone 4), then ask (using the Driving Game) the horse to step them over, releasing on the first step over. Then look at Zone 1 and ask (using the Driving Game) the horse to step the forequarters over, releasing on the first step. As the horses and humans got better at it, the carrot sticks glided back and forth from Zone 1 to Zone 4 like a windshield wiper as the horses glided sideways along the wall. Nita Jo cautioned the humans to NOT use phase 4 if in close range of Zone 4 - and to NOT let the horse turn his butt to them, which is disrespectful. She offered solutions to those having trouble with that as well as kicking, backing, stopping and not stopping, and aligning with the wall. When everybody was doing it reasonably well, they all did it together and moved sideways all the way around the arena. Then the humans were instructed how to reverse and go the other direction - they simply did the Circling Game and the horses went a half circle around them right up to the wall, in position to go the other way.

The Squeeze Game

The Squeeze Game, the seventh and final game, teaches the horse to think (left-brain) instead of panic (right-brain) because it addresses the horse's natural claustrophobia. Using the communication skills learned in the previous games, the horse is asked to face the human, invited to go between the human and the wall, then asked to turn and face the human again. The horse is then asked to go back through in the other direction. The space between the human and the wall is a tight spot for the horse and can be made tighter as things progress.

This ended the first day of the clinic, and Nita Jo asked all the human-horse pairs to form a horseshoe up front again, and to "stand on the side of the horse that will help him be more balanced." There was indeed a difference in the horses and humans from the morning horseshoe - all the humans and their horses had learned to communicate quite well, and in only one day. What would the next day bring?


The morning consisted of practicing each of the Seven Games, doing them with variations, and troubleshooting where there were "broken" games. Next Nita Jo showed how to use the communication for such things as asking the horse to pick up his feet and lower his head, or driving to a specific spot. She coached the humans through challenging situations such as temper tantrums, 'busy' heads, fear responses, and opposition reflex, helping the humans tidy up their body language and timing. She corrected the humans if they used voice commands, clucked, or grabbed the snap on the rope - "Next time you touch that snap I'm gonna charge you five bucks." She said that one should "put as much energy into the correction as the horse puts into the mistake." She explained the responsibilities of the human and stressed the importance of focus. She stressed that having a safe horse is the best accident and injury prevention. Helmets help if an accident were to happen, either on the ground or mounted, and Nita Jo said helmets and protective wear are a personal preference. We should just do what Mom says and err on the side of caution; some think it is stupid to not wear a helmet, and it is definitely stupid to not have a safe horse.

Another lesson on Sunday's agenda was savvy saddling. The class brought out their saddles - English, Western, and otherwise - and learned how to tack up their appreciative mounts like a partner, not a predator. Asking permission - letting the horse sniff and approve the blanket and saddle - is an important step before setting them on the horse's back in a friendly 'hug'. Nita Jo explained the safest way to cinch up and when/how to attach the breast collar. Cinching up was kindly not done all at once; the horses were moved around, played with (some of the Seven Games), sent in circles, over small obstacles, and sideways, in between cinch/girth tightenings. Nita Jo explained the importance of these pre-flight checks, which indicate whether the horse is physically, emotionally and mentally ready, and a partner.

No bridles were worn - just halter and rope. Nita Jo demonstrated how to stand at the horse's shoulder and rhythmically flip the rope over his head - a version of the Friendly Game. This was to prepare the horse and rider for riding with only one rein. Then she demonstrated lateral flexion, not mounted, using phases to get the horse to softly bend his neck around. To the right: fold the excess rope over the withers, lift the rope rein with the left hand, 'trombone' it 3 times with the right hand and hold without slack (match the horse's resistance), place the left hand on the withers, and as soon as the horse begins to tip his nose over, release the rein. Then mirror this to the left. This was done in both directions from both sides. Nita Jo explained that lateral flexion makes good vertical flexion, and that lateral flexion is the Friendly Game because it is the game of 'hurry up and relax'. This later proved to be the way to stop the horses.

Ruby loads willingly.

. but immediately exits.

Nita Jo passively and properly persists.

. and Ruby trusts, calmly responds, and realizes she is safe.

Savvy mounting and dismounting, with its series of steps, seemed to be a challenge for a few of the humans, but after some savvy instruction they were getting it. Some of the horses did not stand still, and this was addressed and remedied by applying a few appropriate games and/or fixing 'broken' games to help the horses understand. Nita Jo said that riding a horse that won't stand still for mounting is like driving a car with no steering wheel or brakes. It's dangerous. Soon all the humans were mounted and ready to ride their safe partners, with one rein - just halter and rope. The first thing they did was, naturally, hurry up and relax.

Lateral flexion while mounted was practiced, and the humans and horses knew exactly what it was all about since it was first practiced unmounted. If the horse moved, the lateral flexion bend was applied and not released until the horse stopped moving his feet AND RELAXED. Soon the horses stood patiently, awaiting instruction from their human partners. Passive persistence in the proper position sure paid off.

The humans practiced the lateral flexion bend, for the stop, and then learned how to step the hindquarters over using phases. They practiced tossing the rope from one side of the horse's neck to the other (a mounted Friendly Game, rhythmic motion). Then they all started out with the rein on the left side and learned how to ask the horse to move forward, using phases. As they walked along, Nita Jo broke the tension by asking, "How many of you are beginning to breathe?" Then they learned how to "look for the eagle at 11:00 high" to ask for a turn with body position, focus, and rein. The students also learned how to reverse direction, and even to back up.

By 4:45 Sunday afternoon, everybody was trotting. It was clear who had become the leaders - the humans, who earned it. All had developed a budding working relationship with their horses. Nobody needed to kick the horse to go or pull the rein to turn, stop, or back. These riders now had the tools they needed to continue a working partnership with their horses, and it looked absolutely beautiful.

Class was over, and Nita Jo answered more questions. Everybody seemed to enjoy Nita Jo's clinic, with her understanding, encouraging, and lighthearted manner. But there was one thing left to do - a trailer loading demo. We went out back to the trailers to watch and learn.

The first horse, surprisingly, walked right into his ramp-load trailer without any hesitation, every time. The other horse, whose human had said it took a long time to get her loaded to bring her to the clinic, balked. The mare tried to avoid getting into her slant-load trailer but Nita Jo confidently communicated to the horse that this was just another Squeeze Game and that she wanted her to go in, and the horse understood. She walked right in, much to her human's delight . but she immediately turned around and came back out without being asked. She loaded readily the second time, but again came right out. After doing some partial loadings and backings, using lots of Friendly Game and other games, modifying the carrot stick, and being passively persistent in the proper position, Nita Jo had the horse willingly and comfortably staying in the trailer longer and longer. The mare soon felt safe enough to wait until asked to back out, though her exit was hasty. When the mare did load, stand awhile, and back out when asked, CALMLY, the mare's human loaded her horse herself a few times, and finally the trailer door was closed for the trip home. Nita Jo asked the mare's appreciative owner, "How long did that take?" and the owner approximated the minutes. Nita Jo smilingly corrected her and said, "It took two days."

They did not just load a horse into a trailer, they communicated. After having a common language, thanks to the Seven Games, along with trust and partnership, the horse went the extra mile and worked through her fears. The Seven Games really did make the horses (and humans) smarter, braver, and calmer. Thank you, Nita Jo, for coming to Pennsylvania , and thank you, Brittany Common and clinic hosts, for having her!

About Nita Jo:

Nita Jo Rush has been in the PNH instructor program since 1997. She travels frequently to the International Savvy Center in Pagosa Springs , CO to study and ride with Pat and Linda Parelli. Reared in Colorado , Nita Jo grew up playing with horses, and she worked as a wrangler years ago in the mountains west of Pikes Peak . She competed in NRHA reining in the upper Midwest before turning to PNH in 1995. Educated and trained as a social worker and psychologist, Nita Jo practiced for 24 years until resigning that career and following her dream of playing/ working full time with horses. She resides in St. Cloud , MN with her husband and children.

For more information:

Please see NHM Volume 3 Issue 4 through Volume 4 Issue 2 for articles on each of the Seven Games. To learn more about Pat Parelli's Savvy System, the highly effective, fun, creative and safe system for teaching people the secrets to success with horses, consider attending lessons and clinics with PNH instructors. Visit www.pnhsavvy.com and www.parelli.com for clinic information.

Nita Jo Rush
5911 Rolling Ridge Rd.
St. Cloud , MN 56303
612- 581-0240 cell

Parelli Natural Horsemanship
PO Box 3729
Pagosa Springs , CO 81147
970-731-9722 Fax

Brittany Common
50 Griest Road
Nottingham , PA 19362