Interview with Nita Jo Rush: PNH in Pennsylvania

Natural Horse Magazine had the distinct pleasure of meeting, talking with, and learning from Nita Jo Rush at the Pennsylvania Level 1 Clinic at Brittany Common in Nottingham, PA. Here's what she had to say. Thank you, Nita Jo!

Nita Jo Rush and Sadie
Photo by Coco


Nita Jo Rush is a Parelli Natural Horsemanship Certified 3-Star Instructor, also endorsed as an apprentice (2-Star) Developing Young Horse Trainer. She teaches people of all ages all over the country - from Minnesota to Florida to Colorado - with all kinds of horses, from miniature to draft. This uniquely effective natural horsemanship system has been developed by one of the world's top horsemen, Pat Parelli, and is changing the way people think, feel and play with horses.

What is the primary goal of the Seven Games?

To have a language - to communicate - in order to get partnership and respect.

How can a person tell if a horse has respect for her or is safe to ride?

Well, if you've got respect on the ground, first of all, the chance of having respect while mounted is much greater than if you don't have it on the ground. It's not a perfect translation; sometimes you also have to get respect riding, but you want to have the respect on the ground first. How you can tell is: Does the horse comply nicely, willingly, and with a nice attitude, without being resentful or oppositional about it? Can I be safe on the ground? Can I play the Seven Games, reasonably nicely, and have my horse be reasonably happy about it without kicking, without pushing me around, without refusing to go, without any of those sorts of things that we typically might call vices, or problems? If that's going well, then I'm going to assume my horse is safe to ride - and in the sense that I say assume, I mean that I am going to try it out, see what I've got.

What kinds of things do horses do when they are testing our leadership abilities?

They walk into our space - every time we walk backwards we encourage our horses to come into our space; they play the games with us , they drive us around; they might nip, they might threaten to nip, threaten to kick; if we're riding, the typical one is they kick up or buck a little bit; maybe they get really stiff and bracey and run off. All of those are tests of their respect. They're basically saying, "No, I don't want to", or "You know what I know, can you cause me to do this, or not?" All those typical things.

Do they consider the games a challenge to them?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes people will say, "Well my horse is perfect. I let my kids ride him. He's perfect. He doesn't do anything. He's great, we get along great." But sometimes it turns out they get along great because the horse is in charge. And then when they start to play the games, the horse does feel challenged and then will challenge back. Some horses by personality or temperament or by experience might be more challenging than others. And then horses like mares might be a little more difficult in general than geldings, and stallions definitely are much more challenging. We recommend people NOT learn this program with a stallion; if they get to level three and get really handy at it, before trying to do it with a stallion, then fine. A stallion will consider them a challenge, more than a mare or gelding. Mules are more difficult too. We find it's like peeling an onion - you get the compliance, you get the horse responding and yielding, and then you ask for a little more and get a little opposition, dig a little deeper and get it going. So it really is that as we ask more, they do challenge. And they are supposed to challenge, because that's how they survive. They've got to know who the leader is. And they have to count on her, and they have to trust her with their very lives.

Does leadership to you mean the same as dominance?

I would say that dominance is included in that, but it's not all of it. Leadership is bigger than dominance. Yet dominance IS part of leadership. Sometimes people don't like that word, because it sounds nasty or not politically correct - but it's a fact of life; horses have a hierarchy in the herd and again, their lives depend on it. So dominance doesn't mean intimidation, coercion, or abuse; it just means, "Do I know that you're higher up in the pecking order and that I'm going to look to you?" But leadership, for the human with the horse, means more than that. It doesn't mean just, "Am I dominant?", but "Am I looking out for you? Am I protecting you from other horses? Am I taking good care of you? Am I also having the language and the love along with the leadership?" I think it's more than just "dominance".

How many clinics have you done in the East?

I'm not sure . I've been coming to Maryland and Virginia since the summer of 2000, so I've been coming here for three years.

Do you see any differences between the English horses and the Western?

I do see some differences. In the Midwest , like in Minnesota , I see a lot of people who are just backyard horse owners, recreational trail riders, and so in some ways they have some problems that these folks who have an English background don't. You know, these horses, at this clinic, are much better behaved as a group than some I've had - yes, there are a couple that are a little pushy - but sometimes I get horses that are "evergreen", that are still really green even though they might be 12 years old. In general on the East Coast people are not as comfortable with the loose reins, and turning horses out together. A Western rider who has really used a horse on a ranch, of course, is a confident rider - and they might be really comfortable with the slack freestyle reins, yet not comfortable with contact. And you see fewer issues with lunging with horses in the West because maybe they've been lunged less, and here sometimes you get horses that just go round and round. They don't understand that maybe it's the Friendly Game and it means stand still, and maybe they don't understand that "when she looks at my hindquarters I'm supposed to stop and come in", because in lunging you don't do that. So I do see some differences like that.

What other kinds of things do you see that we need to work on here in the East?

Let me clarify that lunging done well can be a useful, training/ teaching tool. But a lot of times, and let's face it, people use lunging to run the p & v out of a horse so that then the horse seems safe to get on. Then you just get your horse fitter and fitter and better and better at running circles, and there's no mental engagement. I love riding my horse when she's fresh but I want to know that we're connected mentally and emotionally before I do that. So the Seven Games take the place of traditional lunging. And another thing, along with lunging they often use things like side reins, where there's no release - and the horse is kind of forced into it. So it's not that lunging can't be useful; I just think that most of us don't learn how to use it in a really useful way. Lunging isn't the only problem - a lot of times I think people in general are afraid to let horses be natural. On the East Coast especially they are in stalls WAY too much and they're not turned out all the time with other horses, which is a shame. I think in a way - and nobody's meant it to be cruel - but it's cruel. Horses are SOOO social. It's like being in prison in isolation. And do they accommodate and do they come into their stalls willingly? Well sure, because they are pattern animals. You know, if the bugs are bad when they're grazing they'll come in eagerly, but they need to be out. They need to have a big place to roam in, they need to be with other horses, and sometimes we are afraid to let them do that.

So is it true that socialization within the herd helps them socialize better with us?

It helps us socialize better and communicate better with them. An example would be if you have an orphan that's never really been tossed out in the herd and socialized. Or, occasionally you see a colt that has a bad momma that doesn't teach the colt any manners and then they become much harder for us to deal with because they haven't really learned the games from other horses. Another example would be people who do the foal imprinting or early foal training, which is great, but then they don't teach any boundaries - they do all the desensitization, take away the foal's natural fear, and then there are no boundaries; there's no respect. And then they become that foal's favorite toy and that's dangerous. So it's not fair to the horse. And it really makes it hard for us when a horse has not been socialized.

Where and how can one get started in PNH?

It's really not very difficult at all - it's easy to get started. The easiest way is to go to the website,, and order the educational materials, the program, the home study kits, and the tools, right off the website. It's really designed to be done at home - you don't have to be dependent on instructors. People come to clinics and get a boost - they get ahead a little faster plus it's just fun to be with other people. You can do anything from just study at home yourself to go study at the ISC international study center in Colorado or Florida for ten weeks. Those are the two ends of the spectrum. Money doesn't grow on trees and we understand that, but when you think of all the money that people spend on stuff for horses - it's humongous. You can get all the tools, all the educational materials that you need, for all three levels, for only $1,000. Now if you don't have a thousand dollars it sounds like a lot of money. But if you think about what people spend on horses, it's not. You can get started in the program with the Partnership Kit for $300. So it's really easy. So that's how you can do it - you can do it at home, you can do it yourself, you can go to a clinic and audit. You can go on the website and find clinics; you can sort by geographical area and find clinics in your area and go audit or participate. So there are lots of ways to do it. Sometimes people say, "I don't want to drive that far." Well, that's your choice. I went almost 400 miles for my first clinic because that's where it was. So it depends on your resources, your time and how dedicated you are. But it's not hard to get started.

Because the first three levels are about "teaching people how to teach horses" and not "horse training", the horse appreciates it. And the farther up the ladder you go through Level 3 the more it becomes horse training, but it's really teaching people. We really recommend that people bring their easiest, "best" horse to a clinic and that they take THAT horse through the levels. We recommend they bring a horse they can walk, trot and canter on, ON PURPOSE, to a clinic, so that they're not working with an especially difficult or unusually difficult horse or a young, young horse because it's just harder that way. Because it's about people. We could do this whole clinic without horses here, because we could just simulate all the games. But of course, why we're here is to speak the horse's language and the horse will tell us if we've got it right. People will say, "Oh, I've got an easier one at home, but I brought my difficult one." Well, they don't get it - this is about what YOU'RE going to learn, and how you're going to benefit from a horse that will help you out.

Or, if they move up - like this clinic's an Advanced Level 1 clinic, and they'll be riding both days - they've got to have a horse that they can ride. Human progress goes the fastest when people take a nice, average horse and take THAT horse through the first 3 levels, THEN go back and do their young horse or difficult horse or stallion.

Did you get started in PNH by just having heard of it from somebody?

What happened was that I had these two yearlings, 18 months old, that I wanted to start myself the following spring and I just literally, and this is true, I happened upon Pat's book in a tack shop. (They didn't have the Partnership program and the Savvy System out yet.) The title, Natural Horsemanship, and the picture of him sitting on this horse bareback and bridleless attracted me - and I thought to myself, "Oh, this will really help me start my horses." And then by happenstance, through the internet I learned of a Parelli clinic in Illinois - there was one rider spot left. So about a month later I took my older mare, the mother of one of the youngsters, and I drove to the clinic, because then you had no other way to learn it. There was no home study program then. You had to go to the clinic and then if you enrolled as a student they gave you a pamphlet with the Level One information. So I went to the clinic and fell in love with it immediately. I had a ball and came home and practiced with the Seven Games with those two fillies, and started them. Now we don't recommend that, and I would do a better job now, but then I just kept on with that older mare and then switched over. So I went back the next year to another clinic, and then three months later went to another one, and that's how I did it. It was luck. It was good fortune. It was meant to be.

What about wearing helmets, and safety?

On the East Coast, where there are more English riders, we get questions about helmets and we get criticism about not wearing helmets. Sometimes people are upset that we're not wearing helmets, and there's nothing wrong with wearing helmets. Some Parelli students wear helmets - a lot of them do, and some instructors wear helmets. It's fine to wear helmets. A helmet might protect you from a soft, mild blow to the head or keep you from getting a concussion, but if you really get slammed hard even a helmet's not going to do it. Plus, and naturally I'm not an expert on helmets, but knowing where to be, why to be, how to be, what to do when you get there, understanding horses, having the respect on the ground, and knowing how to ride is going to protect you a lot more than a helmet. SO - what Pat talks about is "A lot of savvy will protect you more than a helmet." Can an accident happen, can anybody get kicked or thrown? Yes. I suppose there are some people that ought to have helmets on while they are on the ground. As I said yesterday, I ought to wear a helmet when I drive my car. Is an accident possible? Of course it's possible. Anything this day and age can kill you. But let's be sensible about it.. I'll give you an example. A couple years ago I was teaching in Maryland . I had a bigger class than this. Almost all of them were English riders (there were just a couple of Western saddles), and when we got to the riding part and everyone was mounted, I looked around. All the English people were wearing helmets, and they were all wearing athletic shoes. I said, "You guys are nuts. You're wearing a helmet, and yet you're wearing the most unsafe things on you're feet. You need to be in boots so that you don't get hung up in that stirrup if you come off. That helmet's not going to save you a bit if that would happen." So to me, that's where we need to be sensible. I just don't wear a helmet; part of what I like is the freedom. So I'm running around playing with my mare and then I'm going to jump on her bareback and bridleless, and I'm going to stop and put on a helmet? No. But if I were jumping 5 feet, yeah, I'd probably wear a helmet. You know, my husband could say next week, "Dammit, I wish she would have worn a helmet." Well, I've never, ever had a head injury from falling off. I just wish people wouldn't get UPSET about it. People get upset about it and get really obsessed with wearing a helmet. And that's the other thing - I've told students, "Some of you are willing to ride horses that I wouldn't ride." And I've heard Pat and Linda say, " I wouldn't ride that horse, you know, the way he's behaving on the ground, and I'm a good rider." So, people are riding horses, jumping over fences, and the horses are right-brained and they're emotional - and THAT'S how people get hurt. It's not the helmet that saves them, it's savvy . The helmet is the safety net if something goes wrong, but let's set it up for success before we even get to the helmet. But if someone wants to wear a helmet, that's great, it's fine.

What do you enjoy most about presenting PNH and doing clinics?

It's gratifying to see people transform their relationships with their horses, leading often times to wonderful changes in both human and horse. I love seeing both my students and their horses develop and grow - become more mentally, emotionally, and physically fit.

I can't tell you how many times someone has told me that his or her study of PNH has changed his or her life.

Plus, it's just plain fun!

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 and 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
Photo by Coco
Firefly Fotos
Monte Vista, CO