The Time for Change Has Come

Pat Parelli and Leon Harrel Make History in Fort Worth


By Karen Brown

Pat Parelli and Leon Harrel joined forces at the Fort Worth Cowtown Coliseum in December, to present an evening of demonstrations on the future of training. Through an unprecedented union between the top equine behaviorist and the unequivocal legend of cutting, the audience sat still and silent, spellbound by a near continuous display of communion between horse and rider.

Held in conjunction with the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity, the capacity crowd included many of the top trainers in cutting, as well as other great stars in the horse world such as David O'Connor, Olympic Gold Medalist in 2000 in eventing, and Larry Mahan, PRCA 6 time All Around World Champion Cowboy

All came to see what Pat and Leon had in store. What they saw and heard was the first ripple in a worldwide tidal wave. Pat and Leon came together this night to make a point. The time has come to reach for higher levels of achievement and performance by looking deeper into the training process than merely eliciting physical responses. Says Leon, "Cutting is much more than a body reaction from the horse. It's a mind game." Pat and Leon are committed to sharing with everyone just how to get into the horse's mind and reach the depths of his talent by encouraging his spirit.

The evening began with a group of Parelli Natural Horsemanship students warming up the crowd with an unorchestrated panorama of on-line, liberty, and riding games. Each student played with their horse displaying a variety of maneuvers learned through the Parelli Savvy System, such as getting your horse to follow you at different gaits, over jumps, or backwards, all without a lead rope or halter. Other students rode their horses and performed the same tasks without a bridle or halter. Horses were laying down, bowing to the crowd, and standing still while the rider twirled a lasso overhead while standing in the saddle.

Once the attention of the audience was on the arena, in came Parelli on his beautiful black mare, Magic, bareback and bridleless. Stopping in the center of the arena they performed a piaffe worthy of international competition. (Piaffe is trotting in place; one of the most difficult upper level dressage movements to attain). From there they moved into a graceful canter around the arena with flying lead changes at every turn that segued into two tempi changes (change of lead every two strides) for the length of the arena. Pat and Magic continued to wow the crowd with canter half pass to flying change to canter half pass, perfect halts, and trotting backward.

The spectators were mesmerized. Every move was the epitome of grace and freely given collection. One could not see when or how the horse was being cued; indeed, it appeared she did it all by herself. If Pat weren't telling the crowd what he was going to do next, one might have thought Magic was choreographing her own ride.

But as thrilling as this was to watch, Pat wants everyone to understand he's not out there to show off or perform tricks. He and his students are there to prove that anyone with any horse can do these things. But more importantly, Pat wants to reach every horseowner and convince them of just one fact. The only true path to perfect performance is through love, language, and leadership. These moves can be copied by using force, fear, and intimidation to bend the horse to the rider's will; but, the outcome is destruction of the magnificence of natural beauty, and the spirit and joy of perfect harmony between horse and human. Pat and Linda, his wife and partner, have developed a complete system, which has been wildly successful in teaching students how to reach their goals with their horses, regardless of what the goal may be.

As Parelli played with Magic he talked about the ingredients he believes are most important to remember when interacting with horses. "Let's talk about dignity. Let's think about the things we've seen done to horses that are undignified. Have you ever seen a horse being shoved into a trailer by a bunch of people and maybe a few ropes? Is that dignified? How about the horse on the lunge line with his head tied down with side reins. Does he look dignified? Horses should be handled in such a way so that their dignity is not compromised. If you want to get this kind of response from your horse you must protect his dignity." Pat talked his way through riding Magic at three speeds in each gait. She walked so fast her legs were a blur, then slowed to picking up and setting one foot down before the next foot moved. He stopped at one point and rocked her forward and backward, shifting her weight from front end to back end, and she responded to his every request softly, willingly and happily. "I had to make my own rocking horse."

Pat brought in a second horse, Liberty Major, a stud horse discarded for being dull, stupid, and unwilling. Pat turned him loose in the arena. After a few fast laps, Liberty began to tune in to Pat and they played together in unison. If Pat walked, Liberty matched his stride. If Pat sped up so did the horse. When Pat slowed to a crawl, the horse did too. Liberty was so hooked on that Pat could run back and forth simulating a cow and Liberty "cut" him. Pat hopped on Liberty's back, again with no tack, and loped around the arena, stopped and dropped into a spin as fast and clean as any reining horse champion.

"This horse was given away by his owners because he had no try left in him. Does he look like he has no try to you?" The crowd cheered as Major arched his neck and danced back and forth following Pat's lead. "If you want a horse to want to be with you, you have to learn to respect him just as he will learn to respect you. If you ask your horse this question when you finish working and he says "Yes", then you're on the right track. "Was it as good for you as it was for me?" Let's talk about exuberance. Is your horse exuberant? A horse should be exuberant about everything he does with you. How do you get that? With dignity and respect."

Linda Parelli presented her warmblood gelding on line demonstrating the connection she has attained with her horse in order to get him to walk, trot, canter through her body language, jump a three foot high row of barrels, and side pass with Linda in front of him. Pat credits Linda for the revolutionary format of the Savvy system. She has achieved the monumental task of writing down Pat's training method step-by-step and printed each lesson in individual pocket guides to be taken to the arena for reference while practicing with your horse. It is truly the most innovative teaching program ever marketed.

Enter Leon Harrel. Pat and Leon go back to 1979 when Leon gave his first cutting clinic. A young man called him up and said he really wanted to come to the clinic but didn't have any money. Leon put the man to work cleaning stalls to cover the fee. That man was Pat Parelli. Pat learned all he could from Leon about cutting horses and they have remained friends and associates over the years.

Around October of 2000 Leon took in a couple of horses for training that he admits he learned to hate. One was a rank stallion, named TM Nutcracker. Leon says, "This horse was tough to be around. He liked to crib on your collarbone or lead you to the bathroom by the elbow. If you stopped walking he would climb right on top of you and you couldn't get him off." Leon grants that he has never been very good with stud horses. So it's no surprise to him that he and Nutcracker didn't get along. But, if he was going to train this horse they had to come to an understanding. "When you want a horse to cut you've got to have something called synchronization. That means you and the horse are of one mind, thinking and focusing and doing the same thing at the same time."

Leon brought out another horse. Leon and his wife, Myrna, both attest that this was the meanest, rankest, and hardest bucking horse they had ever come across in 35 years of training horses. To hear Leon tell it, "When this mare bucks, she don't just throw you off, she throws you away!" The Harrel family pinned the nickname "Blue Duck" on the horse, a reference to the outlaw Indian character in Lonesome Dove who single-handedly terrorized the Texas Rangers. Leon looked to Parelli for ideas on how to handle these two horses. Last May he started playing with these two horses using Parelli's 7 games. He says, "I've known about what Pat's been doing for years, but I never really checked it out until I got ahold of these two horses. Well, tonight I'm gonna show you why I came to love both of these horses."

As Leon talked about the stud, he moved the horse through some of the ground games Parelli teaches to develop responsiveness and respect. Nutcracker moved willingly and easily in any direction Leon indicated, never showing any sign of resistance or aggressiveness. Leon apologized for his skill level in performing the games, "I've got a lot to learn."

Then Leon stepped up on Blue Duck, took her head gear off, and began warming up with circles, backing, slow spins, and cantering, all while talking to the crowd about what he has learned from Pat about reaching into the horse's mind to get the physical response desired. It was a special moment to witness the teacher crediting the student for improving his game. "We've handled these cutting horses a certain way for a long time. But, it's time to start thinking about horses differently. It's time to start treating these horses just like a close friend or family member. When you finish working with a horse ask yourself if that's how you would treat a member of your family."

"Every day this mare reminds me of where she came from and how every horse really should be treated - she won't tolerate anything but a respectful partnership. So why should we expect other horses to tolerate anything else? Blue Duck slid into the prettiest spin, stopped, and stood quietly waiting for Leon's next request.

As if this weren't enough excitement, the gates opened and a herd of cattle moved into the arena. While Pat and the turn back riders settled the herd, Leon disappeared, and then came back on a horse named PG Special Edition- bareback. He's had "Annie" in training for about 15 months. "My son, Lance, was supposed to be here tonight to give this part of the presentation, but he's tied up at the Futurity sale, so I guess it's up to me. Ya'll look out, I'm going in." He took the halter off and tossed it off to the side. The crowd drew a collective breath as he entered the herd. As he wove through the herd, he melted down into that horse and became a part of him. The cow made his move, but Annie was there, back and forth they went; the horse rolling back and around, too quick for the cow to get past. Cheers and whistles filled the air. There was more to come - Leon backed off that cow and went in for another one. This one was a little faster and little more determined to get back to the herd, but he wasn't quick enough to get by Annie. Larry Mahan and David O'Connor were the first on their feet for another spontaneous standing ovation.

While everyone tried to settle down and catch their breath, Pat talked about getting horses ready for competition. "Leon and David, you all are in the icing business. You put the finish on a horse and get him to the show. You give him the skills he needs to do a specific job, to compete and win. I am in the cake business. What I am trying to get all of you to understand is how to make cake. Every horse has to be a cake before you can put icing on him. How many times have you seen a horse blow up in the show ring, or jig down the trail, lose his concentration, or refuse to go in the trailer? All of that is because the horse isn't made of cake. He doesn't have the foundation on which the icing is placed."

Leon capped off the evening with another ride on Blue Duck. He was warming her up for a go-round. As he headed for the herd, Pat checked him, "Hey, Leon, you gonna take that halter off?" Leon dropped his head, mumbled something about hoping he didn't get hurt, and took the halter off. Back in the herd they went. Blue Duck latched onto a quick little cow and laid her hocks on the ground to roll back and forth in time with the cow. He made a couple of charges to get around her, but with no luck. Blue Duck was quick, fast, and dancing in the dirt. Another well deserved standing ovation.

And so, the wave has started. As Leon said, "Sometimes things have to get bad enough before someone makes a strong enough stand. After thirty five years in the business I'm making that stand."

Hats off to you, Leon.



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