It's All Fun and Games - Naturally!

By Katie Derer

Brian understands that a waggle of my finger means I am asking him to back up.

As an aspiring teenage horse-back rider, it is thrilling to learn all the latest developments in the horse world. Throughout the past few months I have discovered some interesting techniques and different ways of approaching horse care and handling. For example, I love to ride 'green' horses, and there are certain foundations that must be learned before it is possible to ride them safely and get the responses desired.

One of the most vital and basic principles that I have learned about while working with beginner horses like Brian Boru (the horse I took to the show, featured in previous issue) is the need for effective communication. I found this window of communication in the Parelli Seven Games™. These games are the most interesting way to help any horse and his human buddy learn a common language. If the games are played in an exciting and fun way, the horse easily picks up on the energy, similar to a kindergartner who picks up on the excitement of the teacher. It is fun time, hence the word games. The games incorporate fun and learning for the horse and teacher alike.

Within the Seven Games program, there lie valuable lessons for you and your horse including: confidence building (horse and human!), the horse yielding to applied pressure, moving the haunches out of your way with suggestive body movement, backing up, and more - all with willingness and enthusiasm. These simple, but fundamental games allow you to learn as you go while earning your role as the leader. As herd animals, horses naturally sort out pecking orders, picking the leaders and followers. Through the games, you and your horse can assess and completely understand one another's intentions. You can take time with your horse and figure out together what part of your partnership needs work. (By the way, I have found that green horses have the attention span of a two-year old, so I do not play with a horse in long-drawn out sessions. Shorter sessions prove to be more efficient for me.)

The ground principles for safe and successful riding exist with the hope to ride resistance-free some day. These games can take your riding and performance to the uppermost level, if that is what strikes your fancy. I remember how happy I was when Brian read my mind for the first time, (but he is not a psychic horse; in reality, he was reading my body language). At the time, I was trying to teach Brian to use his hindquarters to move forward in a balanced manner, so I applied my knowledge of pressure and well-timed release to cause him to drop his head and therefore round his back. While mounted, I squeezed alternating reins to apply pressure, and as a proper reward, I immediately released the pressure each time he lowered his head. Brian slowly, but surely dropped his head a little at a time.

That was how I knew I was finally speaking his language. Brian understood right away, which made me the happiest rider in the world! Horses are quite perceptive to our body language while we are riding (which I will discuss in a future issue). The greatest part about these games is that your horse will want to come to you and learn more. Their innocent curiosity keeps them hooked to your spontaneity and the mystery of what will happen next.

I say "move your hindquarters over"; he says "Okay" - and tail reminds, "Don't overdo it!"

Horses, because they are prey animals and are always looking around the corners for hungry predators, are very perceptive of movement and body language; noticing subtle movements is how they survive in the wild. Thus body language is the horse's native language, like Deutsch is to Germans. Once we learn which of our body movements means the equivalent to the horse, we too can speak their language, and by ‘winning the games' we can become an effective leader in our horses' eyes. To successfully complete the games, we need to be concise in every message we relay to the horse; play with consistent practice, dedication, and above all we must play fair.

I have learned that one of the roles of the horse is to question the leader everyday, and believe it or not, they do this in a clever manner that we are not accustomed to recognizing. Dan Sumerel, a well-known horse behavior expert and author, explains this quite well during his clinics and in his book, Finding the Magic. Dan provides information on how to communicate with horses, while informing the reader of his own life story and how he became a horse lover.

The most vital part about learning with horses is that no one can ever learn enough. There are always new, emerging ideas and it is crucial to take advantage of these ideas. The Parelli Seven Games have taught me a new language, one that allows me to understand horses, and them to understand me. Since the horse does so much for the human, it seems fair enough that we try to understand the horse in everything he does and how his body and brain work. These games are wonderful tools so that my horse and I can learn how to respect one another's space and body language. The skills that I have learned will benefit me not only with horses, but also throughout my entire life. CHEERS to many more great seasons of natural horseback riding!

About the author:

Katie Derer is a member of the 4-H Berks Saddle-Ites Horse Club and is 17 years old. She enjoys riding, showing, and learning about natural horse care. She hopes to pursue a career in eventing, naturally. Brian Boru is a Connemara Thoroughbred gelding, by Hideaway's Erin Go Bragh and Northern Finesse, and belongs to Ray and Cathleen Stoltzfus of PA.