Parelli Theory / Study

The Parelli Method of horse training teaches expertise and success with horses based on the way horses relate and communicate in their natural world – hence the term “natural horsemanship.”

The natural approach to horse training is effective with all horse[s]... It’s been embraced worldwide by horsemen and women of all disciplines and skill levels, from first-time beginners to international competitors and Olympic medalists.

The Parelli method allows horse lovers at all levels and disciplines to achieve success without force, partnership without dominance, teamwork without fear, willingness without intimidation, and harmony without coercion.


The Responsibilities:
For the Human:
1. Don't act like a predator  
2. Have an independent seat  
3. Think like a horse  
4. Use the natural power of focus    
For the Horse:
1. Don't act like a prey animal  
2. Maintain gait  
3. Maintain direction  
4. Look where you're going

The Principles:
1. Horsemanship is natural
2. Don't make or teach assumptions
3. Communication is two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea
4. Horses and humans have mutual responsibilities
5. The attitude of justice is effective
6. Body language is the universal language
8. Principles, purpose, and time are the tools of teaching

Things to Know:
1. Three systems of a horse: Respect, Impulsion, Flexion
2. Four stages of learning: Teaching, Controlling, Reinforcing, Refining
3. Levels of competence: Unconsciously incompetent, Consciously incompetent, Consciously competent, Unconsciously competent

Thirteen Things to be Done with Excellence:
1. Catching
2. Haltering/un-haltering
3. Picking up all 4 feet
4. Saddling
5. Trailer Loading
6. Bridling/Unbridling
7. Mounting/Dismounting
8. Nine Step Back Up
9. Soft Feel at Halt
10. Lateral Flexion
11. Direct Rein
12. Indirect Rein
13. Supporting/Fixed Rein

Keys to Success:
1. Attitude
2. Knowledge
3. Tools
4. Technique
5. Time
6. Imagination
7. Support 

10 Qualities of a Horseman:
1) Heart & Desire
2) Respect
3) Impulsion
4) Flexion
5) Attitude
6) Feel
7) Timing
8) Balance
9) Savvy
10) Experience

Pat Parelli's 45 P's:
Pat Parelli Proudly Presents his Provocative and Progressive Programs and the proclamation that Prior and Proper Preparation Prevents P-Poor Performance, Particularly if Polite and Passive Persistence is Practiced in the proper position. This Perspective takes Patience from Process to Product, from Principle to Purpose. The Promise that Pat Plans to Prove is that Practice does not make Perfect, only Perfect Practice makes Perfect and, isn’t it Peculiar how these poor Prey animals Perceive People as predators prior to practicing the Parelli Programs.

Four Relationship Killers:
1. Chauvinism
2. Autocratic
3. Anthropomorphic
4. Direct Line Thinking

5 Step Lead Change Ladder:
1. Confidence & Relaxation
2. Canter-Walk Transitions
3. Counting 5 Strides
4. Swing Shoulders
5. Serpentines

6 Steps to Collection:
1. Rhythm
2. Relaxation
3. Contact
4. Schwung / Impulsion 
5. Straightness
6. Suppleness

3 Reasons to Play On-Line:
1. To teach your horse something
2. To teach yourself something 
3. To prepare for something

The Three "R's":
1. Rhythm
2. Relaxation
3. Retreat

The Three Laws of Parelli:
1. Put the relationship first
2. Foundation before specialization
3. Make a commitment to never ending self improvement

Strategies for Impulsion:
1. Long horses (tendency for more go than whoa) need circles
2. Short horses (tendency for more whoa than go) need straight lines

The Correct Order for Impulsion:
1. Mind
2. Flexion
3. Weight
4. Feet

Rein Positions:
1. Direct
2. Indirect
3. Lateral Flexion
4. Casual
5. Concentrated
6. Supporting
7. Control
8. Suspension
9. Jingle Bell
10. Steady
11. Fixed
12. Partial Disengagement
13. Butterfly
12. Bunny Rabbit

What the Different Horsenalities Need:
1. RBE = Safety, "Focus me"
2. RBI = Comfort, "Be gentle with me"
3. LBI = Incentive, "What's in it for me"
4. LBE = Motivation/Fun, "Play with me"

Beats in a Gait & Weight Distribution:
1. Walk, 4 beats, 60% of weight on FQ
2. Trot, 2 beats, 50% of weight on FQ
3. Canter, 3 beats, 40% of weight on FQ
4. Gallop, 4 beats, 51 - 70% of weight on FQ 
5. Back Up, 2 beats, 49 - 30% of weight on FQ

Reasons to Shim:
1. Scapula clearance 
2. Muscle atrophy 
3. Riders balance point

Consistency vs. Variety:
1. The ratio of 80% to 20% should be applied to everything you do with your horse
2. On-line 80% of the time, Liberty 20%
3. Freestyle 80% of the time, Finesse 20%

Phases On-line: 
1. Porcupine / Yielding to a Feel: Hair, Skin, Muscle, Bone
    Think: Fly, Mosquito, Blackbird, Eagle
2. Yo-Yo: Finger/Look, Wrist, Forearm, Arm
3. Circling: Lead, Lift, Swing, Tag (behind Z5)

Phases Freestyle:
1. Going: Smile, Squeeze, Smooch, Spank (the air, then the hair)
2. Stopping: Quit, Lift, Hold, Bend
3. Turning: Eyes, Bellybutton, Legs, Rein/Stick

The Parelli Formula:
1. Rapport, Respect, Impulsion, Flexion
    "Develop forwards, fix backwards"

Parelli Formula extra:
The Rapport is in his heart, the Respect is in his head, the Impulsion is in his emotions, the Flexion is in his body.

5 Areas of Confidence:
1. Leader
2. Themselves
3. Herd
4. Environment
5. Learner
*Remember it as L-THE-L

Parelli Core Values: 

 Put the Relationship First
• whether with your horse, partner, family, co-workers, customers, vendors, or business partners
• use open, honest & respectful language (non-violent communication)

Be the Best Me That I Can Be
 • pursue a positive perspective
• be impeccable with your word
• be solutionary
• don’t take things personally

Get it Done, with a Little Fun
(Create Fun with Individuality)
• celebrate individuality – you are free to be yourself
• have fun activities outside of work without horses sometimes

Exceed Expectations ‘WOW’ Service
• whether you are an instructor or in Parelli Support, aim to deliver more than the student or customer expects, everyone is a customer

Embrace Never Ending Self-Improvement
• for us individually, as a team and a family
• nurture learning & change
• embrace imagination & creativity
• create support & promote opportunities for personal & professional growth

Do More With Less
• how can we be more efficient & effective
• work smarter not harder
• how can we best utilize the resources we have

Be Humble
• service above self
• be an ‘active parent’ and put your family’s needs before that of yourselves
• be inclusive not exclusive (not autocratic)
• values before our egos
• being authentic about helping the world from the ‘spirit’ of humility

Truth, Transparency & Trust
• honesty
• zero gossip

Keep it Natural
• it’s a lifestyle choice

  • You should be in charge of the gas and your horse should be in charge of the brakes.
  • Take the time it takes, so that it takes less time.
  • Expect a lot, accept a little, reward often.
  • Release pressure at the slightest try.
  • Green and green equals black and blue.
  • Slow and right beats fast and wrong, but fast and right beats everything.
  • What other people think of me is none of my business.
  • What I think of me is none of my business. (Linda - when you are being overly self critical)
  • Horses are natural born skeptics, cowards, claustrophobics, and panic-aholics, by nature and in varying degrees.
  • A horse can only move 6 ways - up, down, forward, backward, left, right, and sometimes all at once!
  • If you always do what you've always done, then you'll continue to get what you've always got.
  • Play with the horse that shows up.
  • A horse is like a computer, it won't always do what you want, but it will always do what you tell it to.
  • Be as light as possible and as firm as necessary.
  • Use love, language and leadership in equal doses.
  • Expect obedience, but be ready to correct, not one more than the other.
  • Be effective to be understood, be understood to be effective.
  • Cause the wrong thing to be difficult and allow the right thing to be easy.
  • Don't make or let, instead use cause and allow. Know the difference.
  • Walk a mile or a minute in your horse's horseshoes.
  • Be as gentle as you can but as firm as necessary. When you're firm, don't get mean or mad and when you're gentle, don't act like a sissy.
  • Don't bribe 'em with carrots, don't hit em with a stick.  Find the middle of the road.
  • Be an extreme middle of the road-ist.
  • Don't get mad, get even-tempered.
  • If your horse wants to bolt, there's probably a nut loose in the saddle.
  • When in horseville, do as horses do.
  • When he's blinking he's thinking....when he's not, he's hot.
  • Savvy is knowing where to be, when to be, why to be and what to do when you get there, at any given moment and in any situation with a horse. 
  • You know you do Parelli when you put the relationship with your horse first, you study in four savvies, you’re involved in never-ending self-improvement.
  • Focus gives you feel.  Focus and feel give you timing.  Focus, feel and timing give you balance.
  • Horses are made up of their spirit, innate characteristics and learned behaviour.


This page will always be under construction - if you have one I'm missing please feel free to leave it in a comment so we can all benefit from these great ideas! :)


  1. This is GREAT! I love all the info you have compiled here. (: ~Becca (A fellow Parelli Fan)

    1. Hello!

      Thank you so much for your positive feedback! I somehow had the comments hidden on the backend of my blog for this page and didn't notice this until JUST NOW, nearly 2 years later. But thank you all the same! I'm constantly trying to update this so check back often!

      Samantha :)

  2. Good blog but I want to know what Parelli teach in the way of learning theory. Operant and classical conditioning, I can't find anything useful on their website.
    I have studied some psychology and understand negative and positive reinforcement and punishment.
    I read somewhere that Parelli is based on negative reinforcement (pressure/release or avoidance learning). Some say they also use positive reinforcement but it seems not to be as I understand it. Positive reinforcement is giving an appetitive reward after a behaviour is performed, but needs a marker sgnal at the exact time of the behaviour. So as I have seen it Parelli advocates a rub or a scratch as being reinforcing but does not appear to use a marker signal - so how does the horse know which behaviour is being reinforced?

    1. Hi Gill,

      That is a great question! Thank you for asking! Give me a couple days to get a the best reply I can together for you and I will post it back in the comments! I'd like to share your question with the Parelli Central team so we can get the most accurate answer for you!

      Have a super weekend!
      Samantha :)

    2. This will be a two part comment/answer due to length - PART 1:

      Hi Gill!

      I have an answer for you! This is from our 4-Star Senior Parelli Professional Jesse Peters written on behalf of Parelli Natural Horsemanship. Please let me know if you have any more questions!

      The questions below comes up from time to time about the Science of Psychology as it relates to Parelli and Horses. First of all, let me say that Pat and Linda Parelli have done a BRILLIANT job boiling down exactly what the horse needs from us humans so that the Parelli program is “So easy even Adults can do it!” Not everyone’s learning style requires scientific in depth detail so the Parelli program sets learning up simply, easy, step by step in a manner that Horses and Humans can have a quality relationship based on the social structure and language that the horse can understand based on their herd dynamics. The Parelli program is based on the basic principles of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

      Question part #1: I read somewhere that Parelli is based on negative reinforcement (pressure/release or avoidance learning). Operant and classical conditioning, I can't find anything on their website. I have studied some psychology and understand negative and positive reinforcement and punishment.

      In negative reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. Aversive stimuli tend to involve some type of discomfort, either physical or psychological. Behaviors are negatively reinforced when they allow you to escape from aversive stimuli that are already present or allow you to completely avoid the aversive stimuli before they happen. One mistake that people often make is confusing negative reinforcement with punishment. Remember, however, that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative condition in order to strengthen a behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, involves either presenting or taking away a stimulus in order to weaken a behavior.

      In Pat’s teaching he states that punishment does not work with horses. Here Pat is referring to punishment (in terms as our culture sees it) as something that brings up a frustrated or aggressive reaction from the human and is not appropriate. Why? Usually when a human uses punishment (sometimes with emotions as they would with another human) on horses, their timing is very late in the application of the punishment and the horse cannot attach the punishment to the behavior. When we are boiling the program down to technical terminology, then yes of coarse the Parelli program uses negative reinforcement/punishment/avoidance learning as you understand it from the psychology books. Punishment (by definition only)/Negative reinforcement or as we call it, pressure is used in Parelli’s Games #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7. We recommend that students start each of these games (behaviors) with a confidence building activity (Friendly game, Game #1). Then change our body language to an assertive posture, just like an alpha mare would do in a herd, and apply pressure appropriately using increasing phases of pressure. The moment the horse begins to respond appropriately to the request, the pressure is released and we return to a relaxed body posture and return to a friendly game (Food, scratch, grazing, rest, gentle rub or Rhythmic motion with not pressure).

  3. PART 2:

    Question Part #2: Some say they also use positive reinforcement but it seems not to be as I understand it. Positive reinforcement is giving an appetitive reward after a behaviour is performed, but needs a marker signal at the exact time of the behaviour.

    In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened. One of the easiest ways to remember positive reinforcement is to think of it as something being added. To understand the various positive reinforcement methods we use in the Parelli program one must first understand what motivates a horse. According to Pat Parelli there are four things that motivate horses, and they are also in this order of need/importance also 1. Safety 2. Comfort 3. Play and 4. Food There is more detail and concept available for each of these categories of motivating factors available and how they are used for in depth study of horse psychology in the Parelli teachings of Horsenalities. So notice that food is listed last on the list. In other words, if a horse is worried about their safety because a garbage truck has scared them, then food is not an appropriate motivator in that moment. Safety in their environment is the most motivating reward for their situation in those moments (the release of the perceived pressure).

    Question Part #3: So as I have seen it Parelli advocates a rub or a scratch as being reinforcing but does not appear to use a marker signal - so how does the horse know which behaviour is being reinforced?

    The positive reinforcement (Food, Scratches, Gentle Rub, Rest, Grazing, Treat, etc…) should be presented consistently and should occur frequently. The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. Keep in mind that as students of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program, we are all doing the best that we can and we too are learning how to present the games (behaviors) the best we know how on each given day. As our consistency improves and our timing improves with the application of pressure or the presentation of a reward. The behaviors will improve and then the “Games” become play and recreation for not only the human, but the horse too.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to find the answers. This is OK as fsr as it goes but still doesn't answer how you mark the exact behaviour you want reinforcing using postive reinforcement. If you just give cookies after a behaviour the only behaviour that may or may not be reinforced is the one the horse is doing at the exact moment of reinforcement.
    This is why it is important to use a bridge signal that has been classically conditioned - using a bridge signal - a clicker or verbal bridge can then be used for the required behaviour and then any of the rewards can be given - scratches, treats, getting to perform a behaviour that is intriniscaslly rewarding.
    Times are changing and I hope Parelli is changing too and will embrace reward based training in the future. Or at least teach us the correct application of all quadrants of operant and classical conditioning.

    1. If I may say this, I think it may help. Horses are born understanding releases. God made them in a way that they communicate from birth using pressure to motivate and a release to "reward". Horse's see their world through a different lens than we do. The top priority is safety. Their lives are everything. Next is comfort. A shady tree, a more relaxed way of moving, or a good scratch on the neck is often sought out. After a horse is safe and comfortable, he may want to play or be creative. THIS is the state of mind a horse must be in to learn. The friendly game helps a horse learn to be confident and that he is safe. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th teach a horse to move from simply safe to finding comfort. Steady pressure on the horse's halter (asking him to lower his head, for instance), with increasing poundage on the rope will undoubtedly make him uncomfortable, and if he is not feeling threatened, he'll seek comfort. "How do I make this halter slack up?" He'll try pulling against the pressure, he'll probably try to move some direction not desired by the human, but soon, he'll try to move in the right direction. And if the human is skilled at a release, it will be so instantaneous that the horse will have no doubt in his mind at all--"Oh! Down! Pressure on my halter in that way will be released when I lower my head!" And he'll remember that lesson for life. Now, all that being said, it can be helpful and effective to use a combination of "pressure/release" or negative reinforcement, AND positive or reward based teaching. Ask the horse with pressure, release the pressure AND IMMEDIATELY use a voice or hand cue to make the answer that much more obvious. I often keep a treat in my hand when I'm working. Especially if I see my horse man a very good effort for me, I will give a very sharp, distinctive "good girl!!", which she knows means she gets a treat for doing so well. The Parellis are the ones who encouraged me to carry treats and use some positive reinforcement. So, they're not opposed to it at all, but, pressure and release is a horse's natural learning style. They simply just get it. I think it is very thoughtful of you to ask if just one or both types of teaching are used with the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Method. And to make it as short and sweet as possible, (too late, I know) the answer is YES. They do use both. Although pressure and release, as I previously mentioned, is just how horses work. Rewards and positive things are great, and they work, but we can't stray totally away from the pressure and release system, because horses need that firmness and assertiveness to communicate thoroughly. I say use what combo works best, and always be open to new ideas! I've found that many horses can benefit from rewards and positive reinforcement, but without pressure and release, they simply can NOT function in our human world. Its all about balance. Ask Pat Parelli himself, he'd be happy to discuss any questions you have! I hope this helps some.