Roundpen to Recovery

Roundpen to Recovery

Nancy Slater with Josh the Mule. Photo by Lyndsey Fitch

By Nancy Slater, Level 6 student and a 2 star licensed Parelli Professional

Horses and People are Alike in Some Ways

We like to feel safe. We feel safe at home, around family and friends (herdmates), knowing we are protected. We are emotional beings. Whether strong or weak in spirit, when something really bad happens, it changes us. Fear keeps us safe, but too much fear alters our ability to enjoy life as we once did.

People who experience trauma have to be helped to recover from it. Horses too. Sometimes mild, sometimes severe, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real in horses and humans. At any time, a sight, sound, smell, feel, or taste, can subconsciously trigger a flight, fight, or freeze (even catatonic state) response in horses, just like it can in us. And it won’t go away unless addressed. Through the Parelli method, I have learned how to open a communication line with horses, interpreting their actions caused by trauma, then helping them to head towards recovery, peace, and happiness.

Josh the mule had experienced trauma. He came from an unknown past, but when I purchased the 10 yo mule, I was unaware of how deep the trauma reached. Riding oftentimes was a nightmare. He would, without warning, blow up, running and bucking violently. He’d get frightened, but he also had an angry, defensive side too. Josh was not afraid of things, just people. I set out on a quest to help him settle down. My search led me to Parelli Natural Horsemanship which was about Horse (and mule) Behavior and Psychology. Although I was a good rider, I was definitely not a skilled horse psychologist! Linda Parelli was the one who helped me, using the Parelli Program, heal the mule with PTSD. Here is how it went down.

Day 1
Linda instructed me to go ahead and saddle up. As I went about my business of doing that simple task, my mule, Josh, braced stiffly as I approached, thinking nothing of his behavior. After all, he WAS standing still. Linda stopped me dead in my tracks. “Wait!” I looked at her, wondering why. “See if you can get him curious about the saddle first”, said Linda. But he could NOT relax and show curiosity towards the saddle, towards the saddle, as it meant association with being ridden. How could I have missed THAT?!

Instead of riding, Linda had me take Josh into the round pen and turn him loose. She instructed me to quickly walk away from him. He just looked at me, so Linda had me turn slowly to look at his tail (zone 5). He stepped his hip over. I walked away again. The rules, Linda explained, was to put a little pressure behind Josh, (looking at zone 5, then flicking a tail hair), then walk away when he turned his nose to me, (zone 1), which released all pressure if he tried to follow. 2 ½ hours passed, with Linda continuously coaching me! Josh pinned his ears when I was too threatening, swished his tail if I flicked too hard, and tried to find his way out of this new situation. He tried hard to not move his feet, and soon I had to be very quick with my timing, because allowing him to stand would be a release.

Linda saying, “Now! NOW! Don’t miss it!” Then finally, Josh put his head down, blew out, ears came up, and he almost touched me as I walked past him towards zone 5. This being a huge positive change, I walked directly to the rail at Linda’s cue and ignored him to talk with Linda as Josh came down off adrenaline – yes, he barely moved but he was full of adrenaline. 10 feet away he licked and chewed with lots of tongue (unusual for him), cocked his foot, yawned and yawned, inched closer, reached out to chew the fence in displaced behavior, nudged me, tickled me on the cheek with his whiskers (!), got his head between me and Linda, THEN, he pushed his big-ol- head heavily into my arms against my body! He’d never done that before. The feeling of connection was so strong, Josh was HAPPY. My goal became to improve upon my newfound communication skills.

I have to say, the feeling was intoxicating when my unconfident mule said, “Hey, pay attention to me!”  The best was yet to come…

Linda’s Homework

Linda Parelli with Josh. Photo by Lyndsey Fitch

At home, while bringing all the horses down to the lower pasture, I noticed a change in the mule. Josh followed CLOSELY behind the golf cart trying to catch up to me. He walked up to the side of it, reached out, and nuzzled my arm! Usually he hangs back, uninterested.

Starting my homework in the round corral, I headed for zone 5 (behind his tail), putting on a little pressure to pique his curiosity and retreating as soon as he looked at me. It took 25 mins before Josh dropped his defenses, lowered his head and yawned, and when he did, I headed to the fence to ignore him and he followed me. His let down time lasted over an hour! During that time, he did some crazy stuff: he rubbed his hindquarters on me, pushed his head into my arms, put his teeth on me, (no biting), put his jaw on my shoulder twice while rolling his eyes, and did lots and lots of yawning. Finally, he pushed his nose into the halter, and I thought, “Wow! Who is this mule?!”

The next day in the round corral, Josh walked right up to the saddle and pad I placed on the ground and touched both without hesitation. Then he figured out that he could stop me from going to zone 5 by cutting me off along the rail. It worked, and pretty soon he was looking like a cutting horse, keeping me held down. His ears were up, but he didn’t touch me, so I slipped on by to zone 5. Game on! We spun and spun until he cut me off again. There was lots of licking and chewing and he had a sparkle in his eye, as he held me on the fence. Then, suddenly, his whiskers and breath touched me on my arm. He got me, and I held really still, but then he released me, and I hurried to zone 5 again. He swished his tail as he realized I outsmarted him. Next he tried harder and reached out to hold me again with his whiskers. He messed up again and I got away to zone 5. I was surprised when Josh cut me off the last time and held me with his FOREHEAD!

Game over, he gently reached over to nuzzle my arm sweetly as I reached for the halter. He pushed his nose into the halter and we left together.

Back at the Parelli Center

A different mule showed up at the round corral. Josh and I met up with Linda, and Josh was CONFIDENT. He made the choice of walking right up to me and stuck to me. Linda had me send him out on a circle at liberty. Slow phase 1, quick 2, 3, 4 and tag the ground. He spun and faced me with the attention of a Marine, while Linda’s horses who were next door, cut out of there! Josh got into a snotty, ear pinning, neck twisting trot, then broke down to a walk. Linda had me put my stick in front of him to tell him, “Yeah, walk!”. I agreed with whatever Josh did, “Ok, we’ll do that”. I encouraged his behavior, no matter what it was, until his ears went up. He was interested! He started asking questions. He saw the game in it and he was pleased! He acted playful. He was bright eyed. It was different to see this side of Josh. I was used to seeing Josh as a reactive Right Brain Introvert (Parelli Horsenality Profile) from his experiences with humans. I loved to see him come alive, happy, and engaged!!

Note from Linda:

“It was fantastic, Nancy. Your homework from last time really paid off, you have his trust. So now the real Josh shows up and plays games with you- and you have to adjust to fit the horse that shows up. Ahem, the mule in this case.

I think it is worth sharing that being boring for Left Brain Extroverts is as disturbing for them as putting pressure on a Right Brain Introvert horse. The more I learn about this Horsenality, the more I see how much damage can be done by suppressing or boring them! Even to the extent that I helped my own challenging horse, Allure, to trust, but only now am I really understanding what provocative means. And he lights up when I do it.”

This two part story by Parelli Professional, Nancy Slater, in cooperation with Linda Parelli, originally appeared in the March and April issues of Sport and Trail Magazine.  Learn more about Nancy Slater on her website >

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