By Nancy Slater
Licensed 2-Star Parelli Professional, Certified PATH International Instructor and certified American Riding Instructor Association.

In 2017, The Parelli Foundation provided a grant for school supplies to Victory Ridge Academy in Lake Wales, Florida, a special needs charter school that focuses on education and therapy.  Nancy Slater is proudly entering her 5th year teaching Parelli Natural Horsemanship in public schools.  Horses are an important part of the therapy program at Victory Ridge Academy where Nancy has been the PATH International Instructor (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). A therapist once Nancy Slatercommented on how her work with therapy horses is similar to other types of behavioral modification used with students.  Her work uses clear communication through trust and respect resulting in predictable and consistent consequences which are effective for both horses and students.

Nancy and the school brainstormed the idea to bring together the horse’s natural ability to stimulate learning and communication in students and to incorporate a structured curriculum to achieve an outcome of relationship building skills. The Parelli program already had a written step-by-step self-help training course that could be used immediately.  And, the Parelli Natural Horsemanship theory book became the class text book.

What is Parelli Natural Horsemanship and How Does it Benefit Students?

This unique program is an interactive, relationship building program, integrating empathy, communication, and assertiveness. It teaches life skills.

Pat Parelli, the man who coined the term “natural horsemanship”, has a special needs son, Caton Parelli, who was not expected to live past childhood. If he did, the doctors said he’d have to be institutionalized. Now 36 years old and partially paralyzed, he has thrived, because of the program his dad created. Caton rides and trains horses. He is an accomplished competitor in cutting horse events, and He is a very confident individual who inspires many.

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Students selected for the program are hands on with the Parelli Natural Horsemanship trained school horses each week. They study out of the textbook in class and then Nancy brings the horses in as ‘lab’. Instead of riding, as with Hippotherapy, the focus for the students is on getting the horses to do specific tasks on the ground using ropes and training sticks for communication. The horses are natural teachers and are trained to be safe and gentle.  Students learn things about themselves that only animals can coax out of them.

Victory Ridge AcademyThe students play ‘can you’ challenges.  Upon learning the 7 communication games of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, students are challenged to control the movements of the horse and complete tasks. They must get their horse to understand the request.  Challenges might include moving the horse sideways over a barrel, or while the student stands at a distance in a hoop on the ground, placing the horse’s foot into another hoop.  Students even learn how to get their horse to knock over a cone and set it back up again without the student touching the cone or the horse! It’s like playing charades with a horse. Success requires clear communication, assertiveness, and tenacity!

The horses let the students know if they are being too soft, too hard, or just right with their pressure. The more confident and bossy students learn to be gentler and more patient. The shy and withdrawn students learn to assert their will with confidence.  The school horses, Graziana and Remington, have personalities that match (or mismatch) each student, making a challenge easier or more difficult!

The Parelli Natural Horsemanship program awards horsemanship levels.  Levels awards are a lot like the belts in martial arts. Colored ‘Savvy Strings’ are awarded instead of belts. Graduates at Level 1 receive a red Savvy String, Level 2 a blue string, level 3 a green string, and Level 4 a black string.  As a student goes through the Levels program, the tasks increase in difficulty and are completed in 4 ‘Savvies’, on the ground and in the saddle. By the time a student reaches Level 4 in all 4 Savvies’, he or she is ready to go out and compete in any equine sport of their choosing.  And, more importantly, that person has learned skills that foster great relationships and leadership through empathy, communication, and assertiveness. Parelli Natural Horsemanship provides a scholarship to Victory Ridge Academy for the cost of the awards assessment.

Victory Ridge AcademyThere was a student in our program who was terrified of the horses and refused to come to the arena. But, each day he would ask the teacher how the horses were doing. Finally, he asked the teacher if he “could learn not to be afraid.” He was encouraged to push himself out of his comfort zone little by little (we call it approach and retreat) until one day he was courageous enough to hold a lead rope in his hand!

At the end of the school year we hold a final exam for each of our natural horsemanship students. It is a ten minute or less video audition showing the skills of Level 1 On Line (groundwork). The private video is sent to Parellì Natural Horsemanship for assessment.  A score sheet with constructive, encouraging comments from a Parelli assessor is returned. The young man who was so afraid of horses, passed his Level 1 assessment!

Even if the students never touch a horse after they leave our program, they come away from the experience with a new outlook on life.  They have a feeling like no other, having validation from an unbiased creature like a horse. The horses give honest feedback! These students didn’t give up when it was scary, frustrating, or confusing to them. They touched success. Our Parelli school horses continue to mentally, emotionally, and physically empower our students!

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