Finding Neutral

Mutual Responsibilities in a Partnership
by Pat Parelli

This article was originally published in the May 2009 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.

One of the most challenging things to get across in the Parelli philosophy is the notion of a horse having responsibility in his partnership with you. In fact, there is an argument that you cannot give a horse responsibility, but I do not agree at all.

I’ve been training horses since the early 1970s, and my mentor, Troy Henry, is the man who showed me just how much horses are capable of. If you give them a task, they can follow it. They can get mentally involved, and what develops is a true partnership in which each has his own responsibilities. I talk about this at length in my work on the Eight Principles, the fourth of which is “There are mutual responsibilities in a partnership: four for you and four for the horse.”

In this article I’m going to focus on the horse’s responsibilities:

  1. Don’t act like a prey animal, act like a partner.
  2. Maintain gait.
  3. Maintain direction.
  4. Look where you are going.

Many riders not only don’t give their horse responsibilities, they take them away! So you are not developing the partnership when:

  1. Your horse is afraid of you.
  2. You have to hold your horse back or keep urging him forward to maintain gait.
  3. You micromanage him to keep him straight or on a circle.
  4. You tell him “Watch out!” when there’s a hole, a pole or a fence in the way.

The definition of responsibility is trustworthiness, dependability and accountability.

So…how do you give your horse responsibility, and how would you hold him accountable?

On the Ground

The Circling Game* (#5 of the Seven Games) is the biggest test of responsibility on the ground, which is why so many people have difficulty with it, especially if they have an introverted horse. Horses are taught from an early age to go with the human when you are leading, so asking them to go around you while you do nothing can be quite a challenge.

In normal longeing the horse is constantly urged forwards with the longe whip, but in the Circling Game it is the horse’s responsibility to keep going in the gait you have asked for while you are in neutral. True “neutral” means you are relaxed, could even be talking to someone, checking your manicure, anything except concentrating on your horse or waiting for him to make a mistake. A horse can feel intention, so if you are in the position of neutral but not feeling neutral, your horse will feel pressure. That’s what happens when you are concerned about what your horse is doing rather than just trusting that he’s going to do what you’ve sent him out to do—stay on the circle and not change gait. The secret is to adjust only when he doesn’t uphold his responsibility to maintain gait and direction. This makes it fascinating for the horse as compared to the mindless micromanagement of longeing.

*In the new Levels Pathway we have moved the Circling Game to Level 2 On Line so you gain a little more savvy first.


The best way to teach a horse responsibility is through FreeStyle. Think of it this way: When you are on a trail ride, it’s the horse’s job to stay on the trail so you can enjoy a relaxed ride on a nice loose rein. There is nothing worse for horse or rider than a tense tug-of-war!

You should also teach your horse patterns, such as to follow the rail of an arena, do a cloverleaf or canter a circle on a loose rein, because it’s important to develop your horse’s mental and emotional fitness as well as his physical fitness. At first you’ll guide him on the pattern, and then you’ll give him progressively more responsibility by loosening the reins and not mean you relax, because relaxing should tell your horse to stop. Riding is an active sport, and you need to have the required amount of energy in your body and seat for the gait and speed you want to ride at. Then keep that energy the same until you want to change it.

If you are riding through turns or on a circle, you would turn your body and focus in the direction you are going but keep your energy the same. This is harmony, but you are in neutral. The opposite of neutral is micromanagement, which gives the horse no freedom, no responsibility. It makes his mind blank.

Allow the Mistake

Over my many years of teaching I’ve found I constantly have to reassure people that they can allow their horse to make a mistake and he’ll be better for it. I have a saying, “The more you use your reins, the less they use their brains,” so the opposite is also true. It will teach your horse to think and to ask questions of you instead of robotically responding to micromanagement. When you prevent a horse from doing something, he doesn’t learn anything, so he’ll keep doing it, and you’ll keep having to prevent him from speeding up, slowing down, turning too soon, turning too late, etc. Turn the reins loose and watch what happens. He’ll probably:

  1. Head straight for the gate!
  2. Speed up or slow down and stop, and maybe eat grass.
  3. Change directions.
  4. Have not the slightest idea of what to do!

If you think about this from the horse’s point of view, how do you think he’s feeling? Confident or lost? Like a partner or like a loner? Connected or disconnected? When you teach your horse to have responsibility, you’ll change all this and develop a confident and interactive partner.

Reminded, Not Reprimanded

Accountable means “held responsible,” so when your horse does not keep up his part of the deal, you have to remind him by picking up the reins and putting him back on course, then releasing the reins again. Your attitude is critical here, because you don’t want to reprimand or punish the horse. He doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong, and he probably hasn’t learned yet what the expectation is or even that he has a job to do! Gently put him back and trust him again, smiling as you do it. This is where you have to give it at least – four to seven sessions, because consistency is a good teacher. It won’t be long before you’ll find yourself riding a horse on a cloverleaf, and he’s actually making all the turns and asking you if he should stop in the center—but not actually stopping until you agree.

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