Focus on the Friendly Game

by Pat Parelli

This is the first in a series examining The Seven Games and their role in establishing leadership as well as building a language between you and a horse …any horse.

The Friendly Game is number one of all the Seven Games because nothing else beats a good first impression. When you want to meet someone, how would you first approach him? I like to think about introducing myself to a horse as positively as I would another person.

Unfortunately, most horses are commonly assaulted and abused during an introduction. People trap them, force them into squeeze chutes, tie them up, tie them down, tie up a leg, blindfold them, throw a saddle on, get on and ride the buck out of them.

For a moment, let’s consider that a particular horse has already been ridden. Most of the riders he’s encountered just saddled up and got on, as if no preparation was needed. Then they kick him to go, pull him to stop and yank the horse around to turn. If the poor horse objects and misbehaves at this kind of treatment, then out comes the armory of gadgets. The gadget that will shut his mouth, tie down his head, hold him in a frame or provide more leverage to the rider in order to correct “bad” behavior and have the horse submit.

In my view, studded reins and chains near a horse’s mouth are just downright cruel. But, hey, it’s normal, so very few people ever question it. Yet with a little of the Friendly Game, so much of this forceful, mechanical equipment and the militaristic attitude that goes with it can be avoided for a more positive result.

Think Like a Horse

I believe if people could see things from the horse’s point of view, and if they knew of an alternative way to get results, they would choose it. Horses don’t need to be forced to behave. They can be won over naturally to become our willing partners.

The Seven Games were developed as a result of observing how horses communicate with each other. This system allows you to know not only what kind of games to play, but in what order and for what purpose.

Game #1 is the Friendly Game. It is without a doubt the most important of the Seven Games. You need to play it with your horse first, before anything else, and then you need to continue to play it before, during and after each of the other Seven Games. You can play the Friendly Game with your lead rope, with a PNH Horseman’s String, with a PNH Carrot Stick, with a plastic bag on the end of a stick, with a saddle pad, with your bare hands or with anything you have.

Play it from the tip of your horse’s ears, inside his mouth, down all his legs to the end of his tail. There is no part of your horse’s body you should not be able to be friendly with.

The Importance of Being Friendly

To emphasize the power of the Friendly Game, let me give you an example of getting on a horse that’s never been ridden. All this involves is being able to play the Friendly Game at a high level. I have two focuses in mind: 1) I can see the finished result. I’m on the horse’s back, I’m happy and relaxed and the horse is happy and relaxed. 2) I’m going to ask for permission all the way, and not make assumptions. I’m going to prove to this horse beyond any shadow of a doubt that I am friendly and trustworthy.

I start by rubbing the horse in a pleasurable way wherever the horse will allow me. I begin with areas he is comfortable with and gradually move to the ones he feels more defensive about. These are the “Wait a minute! I don’t know you that well yet!” spots. I take note of those areas and I use them to measure how far I’m progressing. When the horse is no longer defensive, he is telling me that he trust his body in my hands.

From there I increase my movements to see how much the horse can stand. Some horses are okay as long as everything is slow and quiet. These are horses people learn to sneak around. I do the opposite and make a lot of commotion. This technique will actually help sensitive horses from becoming scared and flighty.

I swing ropes. I skip around. I jump up and down and I stagger around until the horse gets desensitized. All the while I have a smile on my face and non-threatening, relaxed body language. Pretty soon the horse is convinced that I’m harmless. During this process a horse can get pretty upset until he figures out he is not in danger. My experience and savvy level allow me to understand when to approach, how much to approach and when to back off. I just persist through the process, approaching and retreating, until the horse becomes confident and can relax.

To leave the horse feeling scared is just not fair. Life as a prey animal is scary enough having to keep vigilant watch every moment just to survive. To become our partners and quit acting like prey animals, horses need to overcome their innate fears and skepticism. The first step to helping them do this is proving that I’m a friend no matter what.

The Friendly Game in the Saddle

Once I feel the horse is making mental changes and begins to look at me differently, lowering his head and relaxing his muscles, only then will I take the next step and ask permission to jump onto his back.

On his back is a whole new area that needs more Friendly Game and desensitization. But since I started on the ground, most of the work has already been done. Within a very short time the horse will allow me to lie on his back, kneel on it, stand on it, slide off his rump, disengage his hindquarters… and only then will I fork my legs over his back because this is actually the most vulnerable position.

This entire process has been nothing but the Friendly Game. If I get this right, everything else will come quickly and easily because I’ve earned the horse’s trust. While I’ve been insistent, at no time have I invaded without asking the horse’s permission. I never act like a predator. Horses are amazingly adaptable animals and are very quick to make changes, probably quicker than any other living creature. Once you have your horse’s trust, he will be ready to take on new challenges.

Ways to Make a Good First Impression with a Horse

• Hold the lead rope far away from the snap, at least 3 feet, and relax.

Don’t even look at the horse and don’t ask for anything just yet. Most people grab a horse short, right at the snap of the lead rope and hold tight. They want to immediately lead, tie or longe him, often without any introduction or permission. To do the opposite will impress the horse. He will recognize the difference.

• Learn to give the horse a soft look.

Smile and have a relaxed and friendly body language. Sometimes when people are a bit scared this is hard to do, but it will earn you big points. Direct eye contact can feel very threatening to a horse, and if you become conscious of this you’ll start to notice that a lot of horses will not look at a human. They’ll look away. As a horse becomes more confident he’ll actually be able to look at you, ears forward and with bright interest.

• Make your time together as fun for him as it is for you.

Horses love to rub and scratch and chew on each other. Learn to rub a horse like another horse rather than to pat him. Find his itchy spots. Be sensitive to areas that he feels defensive about and use approach and retreat to help him gain confidence with you touching ‘that spot’. Above all don’t be impatient. Work on things progressively until finally you are able to touch, stroke and rub him everywhere, even under his tail. You can’t force this. You need to gain permission by being friendly.

• Realize that much of what you already do is the Friendly Game.

This could include feeding, watering, grooming, offering carrots or just visiting in the corral. Horses will often fall in love with their grooms and learn to resent the rider because all the rider does is demand performance. The Friendly Game is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship with a horse. It is the foundation of all we do in PNH.

• Become more provocative. Escalate the Friendly Game.

Once you can touch a horse everywhere, use the Friendly Game to desensitize your horse to potentially startling things. These could be things like swinging ropes, rain coats, saddle pads, umbrellas, bikes, rolling balls, Frisbees, balloons, people running, jumping, skipping, stumbling, climbing up fences, and noises such as people clapping, bags of cans, cars and trucks. The variations are endless. Use your imagination to help your horse understand new things are not threatening. Once he’s convinced, the fear will disappear. He will start to take notice of how you perceive potentially frightening things. If he respects you and you don’t show any fear, he’ll follow your lead.

Punishing Your Horse

Punishment and reward does not work on horses. Punishment often carries with it an attitude of anger or displeasure and the horse perceives this as predatory. Also, punishment usually comes too late and the horse cannot associate it with the unwanted behaviour. Even worse, some people want to punish a horse for misbehaving when, in fact, the horse is really just scared out of his wits and acting on instinct.

What does work is positive and negative reinforcement. I like to use the analogy of an electric fence. The shock is negative reinforcement. It has no emotions. If a horse touches it he gets an instant message that this is a mistake and he can only blame himself. When the horse takes his nose off the electric fence, he gets instant relief. Using this kind of reinforcement you will be able to cause behaviour changes. Punishment, on the other hand, will ultimately cause a horse to become resentful or turn it into a game.

There are two kinds of effective positive reinforcement – rhythmic motion (rubbing) and neutral (the release or doing nothing at all). There are two kinds of negative reinforcement – rhythmic pressure and steady pressure.

If a horse tries to bite you on the arm and you turn to slap him for it, he’s usually ducked back and won the game. Instead, when he reaches to bite flap your elbow just at the same time, preferably while not looking at him. If he hits his nose on your arm, then he realizes he ran into something instead of thinking that you attacked him. This is negative reinforcement and the horse needs only to run into something once or twice before the behaviour will change.

Positive reinforcement is also immediate for the horse. ‘Reward’ often comes too late after the fact, and the horse won’t make the connection to his desirable behaviour. I’ve often made the comment that you should recognize the slightest try and that is the moment to release. Stop whatever you were asking him to do and let him rest. Because you quit asking, your horse will know that he did something right.

The Friendly Game can be played simply by offering the horse a release and relaxation. You don’t even having to touch the horse, just taking the pressure off will let him know he was right.

Another way is to rub the horse. This is especially effective when playing the Porcupine Game (Game #2). In the Porcupine Game, you ask your horse to yield by pressing with your fingers. When incorporating the Friendly Game, the steps would be; rub – press – yield – rub. This is a great way to erase any negative feelings the horse may have about being pressed. It helps him understand that the Porcupine Game is non-threatening.

Too Much of A Good Thing?

Kindness without control spells disaster. There are many incidences where people pet and feed their horses, offer lots of kindness but get no respect from the horse.

These horses have learned that people are not dangerous because they have had plenty of Friendly Game in their lives. So they try to dominate, push, nip, chase or drag people around because in horse society, the pecking order is very important. After helping your horse overcome his innate fears, if you don’t show yourself to be the leader, then the horse will think that’s his role. This is where games #2 through #7 of the Seven Games become valuable.

Don’t neglect the Friendly Game even if your horse seems gentle enough. Don’t rush through it either, thinking that all you need to do is get your horse to stand still. The Friendly Game is the savvy secret that horsemen use to gain a horse’s trust and to continually reinforce that trust and love. Once you earn the trust, you can begin to ask your horse to yield to pressure, bringing us to Game #2… the Porcupine Game.

Want to know more? You will find more detailed information on the Friendly Game, and any of the Seven Games in the Partnership pack, part 1 of Pat Parelli’s Savvy System. Call Parelli Natural Horse.Man.Ship. at 1.800.642.3335 or visit for a free brochure.