As I reflect on my summer with four-star Parelli Professional Nita Jo Rush, I cannot help but feel honored to have experienced such a high level of horsemanship firsthand. Nita Jo has showered me with countless hours of lessons and horsemanship development, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Looking back on my time here, I would like to share a photo journey accompanied by some bits of savvy I learned during my time on Nita Jo’s place outside the little town of Bowlus, Minn.
My foremost thanks go to my family and to my parents in particular for transporting Savanna and me to Nita Jo’s in one piece. Savanna was quite the travel pro, and she took the trip in stride. The very first piece of advice given to me by Nita Jo was to always untie my horse before opening the trailer door.
On one serendipitous day, Nita Jo taught me in a new way to trust my horse. After our long ride, I was in the process of teaching Savanna to lie down for longer periods of time when Nita Jo walked up and suggested that I sit on Savanna’s back. She proposed that I swing my leg over and grab onto Savanna’s mane. Finally, she encouraged me to ask Savanna to get up. With one graceful sweep, Savanna rose with me on her back, and in that moment, heaven and Earth converged.
Savanna and I learned the power of playing at liberty in a round pen. When standing in that seventy-five foot universe, the sweet spot must always remain at the center of the pen. While playing in round pens of differing sizes, I witnessed the perceptibility of horses. In a fifty foot round pen, the horses tended to get claustrophobic and miss their flying lead changes when they changed directions at the canter. It puzzled me that multiple horses were having this issue, so Nita Jo suggested we try using the larger round pen. To my astonishment, simply by allowing the horses more space, the issue disappeared.
Each evening, Mother Nature reminded me of the beauty of the Midwestern sunset.
Savanna and I had the privilege of riding for the first time in many group settings, including our delightful Parelli drill team. Practicing with the drill team taught me the value of having impulsion and the ability to rate my horse’s speed not only between the gaits, but within them. These exceptional people also taught me the significance of the seventh key to success, support.
A common thread that was prevalent in riding with Nita Jo was the importance of having control of the horse’s hindquarters. A key to getting relaxation and responsiveness from Savanna is to get solid hindquarter control, for as Pat Parelli says, this is a leg game, and if you have control of the horse’s hindquarters, you have control of the horse. He also said that if I put my legs on a horse, one out of ten times that might mean forward. The other nine times, though, my legs will mean some form of lateral movement.
Savanna taught me countless lessons this summer, one of which is the unpredictability of a life with horses. She became sore on her right front leg and was out of commission for the second half of the summer. I switched over to riding and playing with Nita Jo’s Atwood Ranch mare, Elli, who stood in as my primary partner for the remainder of my stay.
Meet Elli! One of the most significant lessons I learned while playing with and riding Elli was to expect more out of my horse. Elli has loads of talent and knowledge, but if I don’t ask for responsiveness, such as snappy departures, then her exuberance and energy drain into the ground. Nita Jo also taught me to be aware of when my legs are on and off. When I ask for a change and put my legs on, I should only wait for a stride or two, and then I need to add rhythm to get the desired response. When I micromanage Elli with my legs, she becomes dull.
I was blessed with the opportunity to travel with Nita Jo to Pat Parelli’s Beyond the Basics Masterclass at The Horse First Farm in Brooklyn, Wisconsin. The general theme of the masterclass was advancement, for as Pat said, “we have imprisoned ourselves in kindergarten until we get it perfect.” He focused on the importance of making everything we do with our horses into a dance composed of flow and rhythm.
Pat encouraged riders to use “soft hands, more legs,” and he demonstrated the pivotal role that sideways and backwards play in horsemanship. Pat emphasized the importance of riding and communicating with spurs to help the horse become lighter and more responsive off of our legs. Pat stressed the importance of a “respectful, understanding, yes-sir” type of responsiveness: “we need responsiveness, folks. If you don’t have it, you’ve got to get it.”
Nita Jo gave me the opportunity to put principle number seven into practice by allowing me to ride her most advanced horse, a Swedish warmblood mare named Malin. Nita Jo also helped me experiment with riding Elli in Nita Jo’s dressage saddle. The saddle allowed for much more freedom with my legs than I am accustomed to with western saddles, meaning that I needed increased structure in my body. Thus, posting should come from my knees rather than my stirrups.
Nita Jo and I put our principles to a purpose when we went on a trail ride at Crow Hassan Park. Elli was consistently calm, connected, and responsive throughout the ride. I learned the benefit of allowing the horse to go forward at the canter for long distances. Nita Jo reminded me, however, to check my seat connection with the horse by periodically stopping and backing up.
Nita Jo graciously allowed me free rein with many of her Parelli educational materials. One key concept that I learned from my study was that when riding, the horse is responsible for the brakes, and the human is responsible for the gas.
I owe a great deal to Nita Jo’s kitties, Ditto and Groucho, who filled my days with equal doses of exuberance and ferociousness.
During her recovery, the lovely Savanna had a leisurely time eating grass and hanging out with Nita Jo’s horses.
I owe the world to my dear friend and newly formed partner, Elli, for day after day putting up with my learning and for ultimately helping me to film my Parelli level 4 freestyle audition.
One of the highlights of my summer was Nita Jo’s finesse coaching with Elli. Nita Jo taught me to feel and maintain the correct amount of contact in my reins. I then would use my body and legs for forward, backward, and steering. I learned that finesse consists both of exercises that build suppleness and exercises that strengthen. Nita Jo helped me to feel the lateral maneuvers, such as haunches in, shoulder in, and leg yield.
Last but surely not least, I would like to thank Nita Jo for all of the knowledge and wisdom that she shared with me throughout the summer. She has shaped me as a horseman and helped me to develop a greater understanding of feel and harmony with the horse.