A Few Things About Pat Parelli, Mules and Natural Horsemanship


by Vic Otten - Torrance, Calif.
I had been working for a long time on an article about Pat Parelli and his enormous contribution to the mule world but just could not find the angle to get the story to flow. So like many frustrated writers, I shelved the piece.  Almost two years after I had interviewed Parelli for the story, I crossed paths with a cute blonde horse trainer from Switzerland and she, unknowingly, congealed my fragmented thoughts about Parelli into this story.
It All Happened At A Restaurant Called “Islands”
It all happened at a restaurant called Islands where I had gone to watch UCLA pound the heck out of USC and rip the last bit of dignity from the mouths of the Trojans who had started the season ranked #1 in the nation. With three losses under their belt, the only thing that could save a dismissal season would be to defeat their cross-town rivals. It did not happen.
I took a seat at the bar next to a pretty blonde gal who was chatting with a friend. As I watched freshman quarterback Brett Hundley lead the Bruins to victory, I heard the woman telling her friend about training horses for a living; the accent was thick but mesmerizing. I turned to her and said “You train horses for a living? That is really cool. My name is Vic and I own and compete on my mules all over the state.” The typical response that I get from women in the horse showing world when I tell them about my mules is usually no response at all or some snide comment and sudden retreat. But that did not happen this time. The woman smiled and said: “Pat Parelli had a mule that he almost won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity with. My name is Nora.” I could not believe what I had just heard. Here was a woman from a small village in Switzerland that teaches Warmbloods how to jump and she knew about Pat Parelli. “The mules name was Thumper, and the NRCHA banned mules from competing after that” I said.
Bishop Mule Days, A Preacher From Clovis and A Wild Mule Named Rose
Parelli attended Bishop Mule Days in 1973.  Like most people that attend the event for the first time, Parelli had a great experience but also immediately saw the potential of mules. At that time, Mule Days was in its infancy and Parelli envisioned really taking the mule competitions to a higher level.  
Parelli was fascinated by the athletic ability of the mules competing at the event but felt that the competition needed to be taken to higher level equivalent to that of the horse world. It was around that time that an idea began to geminate in Parelli’s mind: if he could demonstrate to the horse community that he could train a mule to become a performance animal, people would believe that he could really train a horse.  Parelli, however, had no idea that the techniques that he would begin to develop in training his mules would become the basis for his horse training program.
Ray Brown was an old preacher that lived in Clovis, California in the early 1970s. He used to bring horses and mules down from Oregon. On one of his trips, the Preacher brought back a wild mule named Rose that had only been handled once in an Indian Rodeo. When Rose was unloaded from the trailer, she kicked and bit Parelli-- it took several cowboys to get her to the barn. Parelli understood that Rose was not a bad animal, but that she had simply been mistreated, and had not been properly trained and had trust issues. That being said, he knew Rose would be a challenge.
About six months after getting Rose, Parelli went to a mule show in Exeter, California. He won nearly every event on Rose. At the end of the show, some guy got drunk and became belligerent.  Someone said to Parelli that if there was an association sanctioning the mule event, they could kick out people like that guy. Parelli’s mind started spinning.
The Birth of The American Mule Association
Parelli eventually got together with Ray and Jackie Winters and began discussing starting a mule organization to sanction competitions, this was in 1975. The group obtained the Bishop Mule Days mailing list, which had about 300 names at the time, and sent a letter to everyone on the list telling them that they intended on starting a mule organization. They also wrote letters to all the high profile mule people at the time and invited them to a meeting at Parelli’s house. Parelli wanted to call the new organization the Performance Mule Association but the founding members did not like the name. In 1976, the American Mule Association was founded.
Training Mules and Natural Horsemanship
Parelli explained to me that his Natural Horsemanship program is really a mule training program. “Mules are just like horses but more so,” said Parelli. As mules made up approximately 80% of the animals that he trained in the early 1970s, Parelli credits mules for teaching him the concepts of Love (Relationship), Language and Leadership. The relationship between you and your mule is the foundation of the Parelli teaching method. “If a mule loves you, he will put effort into wanting to be with you.” Understanding how the mule sees the world is the language aspect of the teaching method. With a mule, you often must make him believe that something you are asking him to do is his idea.  Finally, like horses, mules are herd animals and are therefore instinctively comfortable following a leader.
UCLA Beats USC 38-28
Nora explained to me that the way the trainers teach horses in Europe is with constant pressure on the bit. “They don’t understand the release of pressure. They force these horses to do really unnatural things. It is really very cruel,” she said. As Nora talked excitedly about various training techniques, she was really pontificating about natural horsemanship, something Parelli has spent his life educating people about. It was at that point that I realized how big of an impact Parelli has had on the world. Nora is a horse trainer from a small village roughly 6,000 miles from Los Angeles and she knew all about Parelli and natural horsemanship. 
Can You Teach A Mule to Jump By Next May?
Like Parelli had decades earlier when he encountered the drunk at the mule show in Exeter, my mind started spinning. I was sitting at the bar with a beautiful woman from Switzerland who trained show horses to jump for a living. She seemed to understand the concepts of natural horsemanship and had not looked down her nose at me when I mentioned mules.  I told her about my stocking legged mule with a skunk tail named Jesse James. “That little mule can enter cattle events, gymkhana, trail classes and western pleasure and really do well. Do you think you can turn him and me into decent jumpers by the start of the show season next year?” I said to her. “I’m not worried about the mule” she politely responded.