Overcoming Remmer’s Fear

This article was originally published in the August 2007 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.

Developing Strategies for Confidence

-by Linda Parelli

Starting last December at our Ocala tour stop, Remmer started having serious trouble with the crowd. It had been slowly building, and I should have been doing something about it, but as soon as I got home I’d forgotten about it. Finally in December it got really bad, and I resolved to fix it.

Here’s what happened. At our shows we started having this exciting entry into the arena. The volunteers and tour team would line the pathway into the arena clapping rhythmically to that wonderful Keith Urban song, “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me?” It scared Remmer. But we’d make it through. Casper and Rem would trot down the human chute and blast into the arena where everyone was cheering and clapping, too. It didn’t take long before my nice calm horse would hear the first sounds of Keith Urban’s song and start worrying!

So each tour weekend, Remmer would get all worked up and then be fine once he was in the arena and playing with Casper. Then he started having trouble when I was doing my Sunday session on Fluidity. Every time the audience clapped, his adrenaline would come up. Instead of having my nice calm horse, I had to deal with his tension and try to teach at the same time. Not good! It progressively got worse, and he was now even getting reluctant to go into the arena. I had let it go way too far.


After the Ocala explosion, I got to thinking about how to solve the problem. It’s a Friendly Game issue; he needed desensitization, and even if I could get a group of people to clap rhythmically until it didn’t bother him any more, how was I going to do that every day for seven days?! Then it dawned on me that I could simulate the situation simply by rhythmically tapping things with my Carrot Stick.

I prepared for my first session of rhythmic desensitization. I stood as far away from Remmer as possible (22-Foot Line), just outside of my grooming area nice familiar place for him) and I started softly tapping the fence with my Carrot Stick. Remmer about lost it. His adrenaline shot up, he was frantic to escape, and he even thought about jumping the fence. I regret to say I was somewhat surprised at just how frightened he was.

I used approach and retreat, an important element in the Friendly Game, but I didn’t go closer to him. I stayed away but went from stronger tapping to softer tapping until he got calmer, and then I’d gradually get stronger again and then softer until he could stand still and wasn’t thinking about running away. I wouldn’t say he was calm. He head was high, his whole body was tight, eyes staring, but it was better. So that’s when I quit. I waited with him until he sighed and licked his lips and lowered his head, which took another few minutes, and then I played with him as usual. The whole desensitization session< took about 20 minutes. It felt like forever. The next day I did the same thing. This time he moved around a bit but quickly got to where he could stand still. All in all it took about 10 minutes, half the time it took on the first day. We were making progress. Day three, he barely moved his feet at all. Day four he never moved, and he was blinking throughout. A lot of the tension had gone. By day five I couldn’t bother him, so I decided to take him on a walk and tap the fence as I walked ahead of him. This bothered him at first, but pretty soon he didn’t care. On day seven I was able to ride him and tap the fence as I rode; it was a really great improvement. After that seven day program, I made sure that every time I played with him or rode him, I’d do a little bit of tapping the fence just to make sure the program worked deeply, and he was doing fantastically. I could even tap the fence at a canter, tap trees as I went by, and I kept trying to find things that made different sounds until nothing bothered him. EARLY SUCCESS, THEN TROUBLE AGAIN!

We didn’t have a tour stop until February, so I had a good amount of time to help him get really confident, so when it came time to do the show, Remmer was actually in pretty good shape, emotionally speaking. He got a bit excited when the clapping started but settled very quickly, and he was just great during my demo. I think the clapping bothered him only once. So apart from a little tension here and there, he was doing fine at the shows… until we went to the Western States Horse Expo at Sacramento. Suddenly it all went bad again.

Remmer had fallen in love with one of his new travel mates, Vision, one of the lovely fillies that the Atwood Ranches had given to Pat. The stables were set up right behind the grandstand and Remmer could hear her whinnying for him while I was presenting in the arena. Keeping him focused was a big struggle while I was presenting and on the second day, he was almost impossible. I’m not sure the audience saw the severity of what I was dealing with, but when I’m used to having Rem feel really ‘with’ me, the disharmony was screaming at me.

At the end of the session I didn’t leave the arena. Luckily there was no one appearing after me, so I could take as long as he needed. Unfortunately I kept some students waiting in line for me (sorry!), but I had this important opportunity to fix the problem on site.

Here’s what I did. My Left Brain Introvert had become a Right Brain Extrovert, so I had to address the horse that showed up and therefore use strategies for right brain behavior. First of all, the worst thing I could do was hold him back. I had to get him busy and use his forward running-off impulse constructively. I set up two barrels about six feet from each other and then ran figure eights around them until he didn’t want to go forward anymore. I didn’t hold back the energy which would have made him claustrophobic and want to fight the containment. Instead I directed the energy in a positive and safe manner. I also matched his energy and then some by asking him to go a little faster than he wanted to. I don’t know about you, but galloping around the arena until he quits running is not something that feels safe to me, and a right brain horse can easily have an accident because he’s not thinking. By using constant turns around the barrels, he had to start using his left brain. What I was asking him to do was override his feelings of needing to get back to his filly, and focus on getting around those barrels quickly.

That went well, so I started walking around the arena. He stayed calm until I began talking to some folks, and then he got antsy and couldn’t stand still. I felt his mind go to the filly again, and I needed to get it back. Instead of returning to the barrels, I played ‘Sticky Feet’ right where I was visiting. This means I turned his front end back and forth repeatedly and more quickly than he wanted to move his feet. It took about 40 seconds, and his feet started to drag and then ‘stuck’ to the ground. It only lasted about 10 seconds before he wanted to move again, so I repeated it. This time it took half as long before he stood still, and he was able to stand for about twice as long. The third time, it was all over in about 15 seconds. He let out a big sigh, dropped his head, licked his lips and stood like an angel, totally relaxed. (By the way, all this could also have been done on the ground if it felt too risky to be in the saddle).

We walked out of the arena on a loose rein, and at the next tour stop, I had my old Remmer back. He was totally calm throughout all of my performances, and I was thrilled. I also learned an important lesson about snuffing out the tiny sparks properly, so they don’t turn into flames! Now, as soon as any signs of stress or tension arise in Remmer, I’m on it. Let’s never forget how fearful horses are naturally, and how important our role is, as leaders, in developing their confidence and helping them to overcome their fear. When I wasn’t helping him be comfortable in the situations that had confronted him, he had every reason to lose respect for me. My relationship with Remmer has reached an even higher level as a result. He trusts me more, and we’re one step closer to True Unity.

In closing, I think it’s important to share these kinds of things with you because people tend to think that everything always goes perfectly for us. You can learn a lot from my mistakes just as Pat shares the mistakes he’s made over the years, and how they were resolved. I’m often asked what I do if I get frustrated, but the truth is I never get frustrated. It’s a discipline for me; I just don’t go there. Frustration is just an emotion, and derived from a lack of knowledge; not knowing what to do in a particular situation. I always know where to go to get more knowledge, so I don’t lose patience, and I do what it takes to learn and improve. I can’t remember the last time I got mad or frustrated with a horse, and I hope that with all the things we share with you, especially in the Liberty & Horse Behavior courses, that you start to develop the same strategies as we have.