The legendary horsewoman, partner to Pat, and master builder of the Parelli Horsemanship empire reveals her inspiring story of strength and synchronicity.
Suppose you had a comfortable living in Australia, working as an executive in an international skin care company, surrounded by family and friends. Would you even consider giving it all up and relocating halfway around the world for an uncertain future with a humble cowboy? Faced with this dilemma, the woman in this story took a leap of faith. She picked the cowboy. Otherwise, why would we be writing about her here?
His name was Pat Parelli, and he was a former rodeo rider with a special knack for understanding horses. Working together, the pair managed to gain back the things that Linda Parelli had sacrificed when she left Australia, plus the things she’d dreamed of—freedom, adventure, love and, in a small way, the opportunity to change the world. But the journey was not an easy one.
Linda Parelli’s life began in Singapore with her parents, Jim and Ruth Paterson, and two younger sisters, Vivian and Yvonne. When she was nine, the Patersons moved back to their native Australia, settling in a suburb outside Sydney. Many of the neighbors owned horses and it seemed that everyone in the Mona Veil community kept a kids’ pony in the pasture. So, Linda pestered her non-riding parents for one, and they relented.
“After that, I became horse crazy,” she said.
As she developed into a striking, athletic teen, she didn’t idle away hours at the beach with her friends, like many Aussies her age. She preferred riding instead, and spent her weekends dragging her parents to pony club meets and competing in gymkhanas. If she did go to the shore, it was to gallop across the sand or swim in the ocean with Radar, her Arabian-cross pony, or Quarter horse, Khani.
“They were both a little challenging,” she admits. “The Arab had a lot of go and the Quarter horse had a lot of argument. But they were both nice horses…”
But her childhood equestrian pursuits gave way to adult responsibilities. After high school, she spent two years at university as a scholarship student, majoring in education with the intent to become a teacher.
“But,” she says, “I got fed up with school after two years and went looking for something else to do.”
With the hope of getting work as a movie makeup artist, she took cosmetology courses and became an aesthetician. That lead to work for Ella Baché, a Sydney-based skin care company. She became their education director and travelled the world on a hectic schedule that kept her away sometimes for two or three weekends each month. But there was a void in her life and a longing to ride again.
“I decided I could not live without horses,” she said.
She bought a racing Thoroughbred named Siren who proved he could run, so she and her husband at the time kept him racing. But she was anxious to ride and grew tired of waiting for the horse’s career to end. So she bought a second horse, Regallo.
“He was a beautiful horse, seven-years-old and a bit unbalanced, mentally,” she says.”I was in a lot of hot water with that horse.”
Although Linda wanted to do eventing, which consists of jumping, cross-country riding, and dressage, her riding instructor implored her to scale back her ambitions and concentrate on dressage. The trainer felt that dressage might help make the horse manageable. Though Linda considered dressage “the most boring thing possible,” she decided to pursue it for the sake of the horse.
Friends and acquaintances, however, felt that a better course would be to get rid of Regallo altogether. “People said he was a man’s horse, and dangerous. Although things got pretty desperate, I didn’t want to give up on him.”
Linda said she consulted every book and watched every video she could get her hands on, trying to find solutions. Nothing seemed to work. Then, she watched a short video of an American horseman, a former rodeo cowboy, who was doing some interesting things with horses. At first, though, she wasn’t impressed.
“He had a cowboy hat on, and my initial reaction was a bit stuck up. To me, dressage seemed like proper riding and I had this stereotype of cowboys being all flying elbows and shouting ‘Yahoo!’”
But then she realized that the cowboy, a notable but still relatively little-known clinician named Pat Parelli, was doing the riding without bridle or bit.
“That impressed me, his ability to ride bridleless. I saw there was something big here, something I had to learn. I couldn’t even ride my horse in a trot without all these gadgets on him!”
To her good fortune, the clinician was in Australia and would be teaching his art nearby in a few weeks’ time. At first, she thought she might spectate, but then decided that she should take Regallo, who to her mind was the one that needed help.
“Well, he was the worst horse there,” Linda recalls.
Pat Parelli sized up the pair and told Linda that her horse was afraid, and that he hadn’t placed his trust in Linda. This was apparent, especially when she started in on exercises that Parelli calls “The Seven Games.” These exercises are based on equine body language and the hierarchy of the herd, and they help the rider to get inside the horse’s head, befriend the animal, and put herself in a leadership role.
The first exercise was to rub the horse all over, trying to discover spots that made the horse nervous or uncomfortable. Regallo was fine with that. Next, Parelli asked Linda to gently toss the tail of a rope on Regallo’s back, with the goal of doing so six times without him moving his feet. So, Linda gave it the first toss.
“Regallo just took off. I might as well have thrown a snake on him,” she recalls.
Pat Parelli took Linda aside, telling her, “I don’t care what anyone else here is doing. You have to work on this until he’s not afraid of you. You have to do this without getting upset or impatient.”
Linda kept after the desensitization exercise for more than an hour, until Regallo finally realized that she wasn’t going to harm him. It was a watershed moment. By the end of the day, she was able to ride Regallo in just a halter and he remained calm under her control.
Linda left energized and eager to learn more. Though she’d been riding all her life, she’d never seen the things Parelli was teaching anywhere. And it was immediately relatable to her life up to that point.
“Because education was part of my background, a lot of what I did came down to learning how people think. And I realized that I could use this learning to understand how a horse thinks. I had something I could apply, and that was very exciting,” she said.
When she tried to share her epiphanies back at the riding stable, however, her words fell on deaf ears. Like she’d done herself, the other English dressage riders dismissed the value of anything a cowboy might have to say.
“The pushback and criticism were incredible. Just terrible! I literally hid behind the bushes to work with my horse. But I was determined not to give up.”
A year later, Pat Parelli returned to Australia, and Linda attended two more clinics. By then, she was in awe of the horseman and his teachings. So her heart was heavy when he said that he wouldn’t be coming back because he’d lost his promoter. So, Linda stepped up and said she’d promote his Australian clinics herself. Pat accepted.
Twice a year, Parelli returned for a month or more to run the clinics Linda had set up, and the two developed a close relationship. Though Linda and Pat strived to maintain a professional relationship, it was clear to them both that there was a mutual attraction.
“When we met, I knew there was chemistry. But the connection took both of us by surprise. We kept each other at arm’s distance, but it was so obvious that we were on the same wavelength,” Linda said. Meanwhile, under Linda’s guidance, Pat’s Australian clinics took off. Her marketing skills played a key role in promotion and her educational background helped her to develop a curriculum. Pat Parelli began to rely upon his Aussie connection more and more.
“Finally, after one of the tours, in 1992, he called me from Europe and he said, ‘I can’t do this without you! Will you come to America?’”
Linda said yes.
Both were, by then, separated from their spouses. They moved into a motor home and took it on the road. At first, there would be clinics in which as few as 10 people attended.
“The first eighteen months were really hard. We were horribly in debt and trying to stay ahead of things. There wasn’t business set up in advance, so we had to do the work when we got to each new place. We practically lived at Kinko’s, making posters and putting them up wherever we went.”
But by the third year, the average crowd surpassed 100, and sometimes reached 300. Then, they began doing expo events in stadiums filled with eager riders hungry for what the Parelli’s had to teach. Articles that had appeared in Western Horseman magazine, and a book called Natural Horse-Man-Ship that Parelli wrote with the assistance of Western Horseman staff member Kathy Kadash, also helped to popularize the rider, too.
Parelli was also part of the first wave of what came to be known as the “natural horsemanship” movement which gained a stirrup hold in the 1970s, then began to explode in the 1980s and 1990s. Natural horsemanship is based on understand a horse’s innate behaviors and drives, and learning its methods of communication through body language. It also rejects the use of abusive training methods and equipment, which are felt to only damage the bond necessary for horse and rider to work together rather than at odds with each other.
Pat Parelli, along with others, points to the brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance, and their close follower Ray Hunt, as the inspiration for this approach. Another well-known proponent of Natural Horsemanship and a contemporary of Parelli’s is Buck Brannaman, a Montana cowboy who was the inspiration for the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer.
Natural horsemanship, particularly as taught by Parelli and Hunt, connected with the vast audience of recreational riders who struggled to understand their horses and advance their riding abilities.
“We wanted to empower these people,” said Linda, who empathized with their frustrations. “I resembled them. Even though I was doing dressage and competing, I came from the same place. Mainly, I wanted to have fun with horses.”
Surprisingly, the Parelli Natural Horsemanship method also connected with cowboys who wanted to be better horsemen. One example was Clint Johnson, a Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame saddle bronc rider, who, after retirement, became a notable horse trainer in the Texas Panhandle and one of the Parelli’s close friends.
Through Pat’s powerful understanding of—and compassion for—horses, and Linda’s exceptional skills at marketing and education, Parelli Natural Horsemanship grew to be a phenomena, with tens of thousands of followers. The small clinics gave way to packed arena stadiums where the couple would demonstrate their techniques using their own horses. Linda played as big a part in the shows as her (now) husband. But the couple had come to a crossroads.
“When I first came to America, Pat said to me, ‘We can tour around the country doing clinics and retire early. Or, we can change the world.’ I said, “Let’s change the world.”
In 1996, the couple built a training and educational facility in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, a peaceful retreat with mountain views.
“There were a lot of people who expressed an interest in coming to our place, but up until that time, we didn’t have a place. We had a trailer!” said Linda with a laugh. “It had become clear we needed some place for people to come.”
The result was a base camp and an educational facility where the Parelli’s could hold intensive, multi-day classes for people who wanted to dive deeply into their methods. For 10 more years, they continued doing arena presentations, touring extensively in the U.S., Australia, and Europe. But they were also returning home to rest, and to develop a new generation of riding instructors with a deep understanding of horses and of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship method.
It’s through these instructors that Parelli Natural Horsemanship now extends to all segments of the horse community, vastly impacting the way people interact with horses. By extending their reach through education and apprenticeship, the couple is making good on their commitment to change the world.
It’s a tired, old cliche to say that behind every great man stands a great woman. Today, it’s just as likely that the woman is out in front, accomplishing great things on her own. But with Pat and Linda Parelli, co-founders of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, the relationship is truly one of equality. It is exactly what they strive to help people achieve with their horses: a true partnership.
The Parelli Program
One of the tenets of the Parelli method is never ending self-improvement. It’s a philosophy that guides Pat and Linda’s own progress as horsemen and as business people. There is a constant evolution that’s been going on since Pat’s earliest days teaching others.
“We’re not only trying to help horses be happier, we are teaching people to be better leaders. And that translates into their everyday lives as parents, business people and managers. We’ve even brought in psychologists to help us. And we’ve done a lot to explain and demystify equine psychology.”
Pat Parelli has an often-used phrase to describe their approach to natural horsemanship: “Love, language and leadership in equal measure.”
Love, says Linda, means breaking down the a horse’s instinct to view man as a predator. “We help break down that barrier. We express love by showing the horse what is important, like safety, comfort and play.”
Language is the understanding of the horse’s way of communicating. Early on, Pat Parelli developed his “Seven Games,” which are exercises that help teach people not only how to communicate with their horses, but how to understand what horses think in order to form a bridge of trust and understanding.
Leadership goes to the horse’s herd instinct, in which hierarchy determines status. “We teach what it takes to be the horse’s alpha. It’s a 51/49 partnership, not a dictatorship. You achieve it through collaboration and agreement, not force,” says Linda.