The Painful Path that Led to Parelli
by Ingjerd Oftebro, 18 year old Parelli student from Norway
Thank you Mona Ulas for nominating Ingjerd to be highlighted on our blog!
We got the horses as therapeutic riding horses for my psychologically handicapped sister and me. Within a couple of years, we had been dragged through a nightmare of injuries to both horses and humans, dangerous situations, tears and terror, and ended up with a dangerous horse that nobody could see a future for. Trapped in an evil circle that kept getting worse no matter what we did, we found a brighter future than we could ever have imagined through Parelli!
In the early spring of 2014, my Dad and I traveled to pick up two beautiful Icelandic horses, Nanna and Skjòna. They were intended to be therapeutic horses for my sister Annbjørg, who is severely psychologically handicapped, and they were young but experienced horses that I could learn from and develop. The horses had lived together their entire lives and were supposed to be fully trained and easy to handle, but we quickly realized that that was not the case! It started out with small issues like stopping, not wanting to go forward, and never being able to get them into a trot. They would bite and kick and would show some form of protesting if pressured even just a little. Nanna would frequently buck and was quite the bully! Skjòna would behave as long as things happened at her pace and will, but as soon as I tried to influence her movement, she would stop, lock her body, and whip her tail or throw her head. Shortly after, it escalated to rearing. Mostly alone, I was at a small stable with nobody to help us, so I would just try the best I could. But it did not take long before the problem got so big that I was starting to lose confidence and hope.
We moved them to another stable, hoping there would be someone with experience to help us out. There were more Icelandic horses and a well-established training environment there. However, the problems kept escalating, and within a short time, the horses had developed problems with separation from each other. They would run down fences if they were separated and even jump out of the arena during training! I was already unconfident due to a previous accident, and the few times that I dared to ride Nanna down a short trail, she would grab the bit and run home as soon as she thought the trail was over. It seemed as though she was purposefully running through trees and bushes so that she could dislodge me. I realized that riding my horses on a nice trail as therapeutic horses for my sister was now a distant dream. Annbjørg could not sit on Skjòna at all and could only sit on Nanna for about a lap around the arena. The challenges we had were too big for anyone at the stables to handle, and they ended up recommending several instructors.
I went to so many lessons and clinics, all of which promised to help, but the problems just kept on growing despite their efforts. I got simply fed up with Nanna. We had no chemistry; she would buck every time I tried to ride her, and she would bite and kick and just be a pain to handle. I stopped training her and prioritizing her, feeling like I didn’t have the energy to work with both of their problems at the same time, and Skjòna’s problems were already taking so much of me. However, despite the issues and being the most challenging horse I had ever faced, I felt a deep connection to Skjòna, and this was the only thing that kept me going with her.
She had turned more aggressive than before. It had become more than simple protesting and people starting being afraid of her. The challenges would start as soon as I arrived at the stables. She would run towards me with pinned ears when I came to the pasture to get her. Sometimes I had to leap out of the way so that she would not hit me. It became a habit that she would throw me off during rides, and it could happen several times in a single session. Sometimes it went okay, but I never knew when she would snap. Sometimes, she would explode in a series of huge bucks. However, the biggest challenge was her rearing. She had reared higher and higher, and it was so high now that all I could do was slide off the back of her and get out of the way, often fearing that she would flip over.
It did not take long before rumors started spreading about this crazy horse. People started gathering when we were training to witness the madness. At first, it was positive because people would try to give advice and be helpful, and that helped me keep at it. It made it easier to hang onto motivation, but mostly it was a roller-coaster of emotions. Nevertheless, we were trapped in a bad circle. People soon changed. Attitudes and rumors turned negative. No matter where I went, there were people telling me to give up and get rid of her before she hurts someone. I had to come to my senses, they said. Only strong force could tame this horse, they said, and I did not have it. But because I felt such a deep connection and saw something in her that nobody else seemed to see, I could not just give up. I insisted that she had a physical problem and had her checked out by several physicians and equine therapists, but nobody found anything wrong with her. I felt completely lost and very frustrated, and I just kept on trying to train her as best as I could with the knowledge I had. A year had passed and nothing seemed bright.
One day Skjòna got sick and would not eat or drink. She was colicing. I stayed with her all night, and she didn’t seem the same after that. A couple of days later, we tried taking her on a short trail with a calm horse, hoping the calmness would affect her and keep her calm through the trail. It seemed to go well, but suddenly she leapt into an enormous buck, throwing me to the ground in front of her. She hit my stomach with her front legs. Luckily, I was not badly injured, but for the first time, I was terrified of her. As I lead her home, she bit, kicked, and pushed me into trees and trenches. I cried the whole way home. I wanted to give up, but I knew deep down that I did not want to lose her. Nobody would take her, so I knew that the only other alternative was to put her down. It felt so unfair that she shouldn’t be allowed to live just because we could not understand her. Weeks passed and scary situations piled up as my fear increased. The joy of riding was gone.
We put Skjòna away on summer pasture to clear our heads and get a break while thinking of a solution. I borrowed other calm horses to build my confidence back and to reignite the joy of riding. The stress and frustration started letting go, and I felt good again. I decided to focus on Nanna for a while to get her rideable so that I could sell her. It went better than it had before. I could ride her on trails alone, and I was happy! Finally, it felt fun to train her although her bucking remained. When I went to visit Skjòna, after four weeks, it turned out that she had been neglected by the pasture supervisor. She had been severely mistreated by the herd. She was thin, full of infected wounds, and seemed very depressed and low-spirited. I was crushed. I felt enormously guilty and took her home to the summer pasture at our stable and had her stay there until the end of the summer while I continued training Nanna.
After the summer, I was motivated and ready to try again with Skjòna, but the confidence that I had built up quickly dispersed. What good was all the confidence in the world when I could not communicate with her? So the struggles continued. Now people got nasty. They said that she was not worth it, that I would never be able to handle her, that she would kill me, and that I should not waste any more time on such a wreck. They said that she had no talent and would never be able to do anything. All of this broke me little by little, but it also ignited a strength and will to prove them all wrong—to prove that nothing is impossible. It just takes longer because she is talented and unique! The only people who supported me were my parents. They did not see what I saw in her, but they supported me. However, these two horses kept bringing me problems… This time it went bad for all three of us. Something seemed very wrong with Nanna’s hindquarters. Her legs were stiff, and she was dragging them. The vet found nothing wrong but put her on painkillers and box rest for a week. At the same time, the vet looked at Skjòna, found tenderness in a fetlock joint, and put her on medication. As the vet came back, he suspected Nanna had PPID syndrome (Cushings disease) and took some tests. Skjòna just needed some time to heal he said. Due to people’s attitude towards my horses, it got really difficult to stay where we were, so we moved to a new, larger equine center in November of 2015. Things seemed brighter, and the people were kind and supportive. We got the test results from Nanna showing that she did not have PPID, and they were both declared healthy. I started training Nanna again, but I quickly understood that she was still in pain. I called another vet, and he found inflammation in all four fetlocks. The vet put her on medication for 6 weeks, and she got well. It took some time to get her back in shape, but now it could only get better! I mean, what else could possibly happen? Training Nanna went well, and I had improvements but not with Skjòna. Now we had spent so much time and money on the horses that I started lying to my parents, telling them that things got better, when actually she was getting worse. I just wanted so badly for things to get better.
One day, hell broke loose. Skjòna had become a ticking bomb. She now physically went after people to get them, rearing and striking whoever was handling her. It was her way or no way at all when leading or handling her. Now, I had lost all control, but I didn’t want to tell my parents. However, when my sister wanted to come to the stables one day, they witnessed firsthand how bad things were and that she was more difficult than ever. All I could do was break into tears. I had had enough. Nothing was fun, and I was afraid every day that I went to the stables.
We called the vet who treated Nanna, begging to find something physically wrong again with Skjòna. He found medium lameness in all four legs, located in the knee and fetlock joint in the front and in the fetlock joint in the back. He prepared us for the worst and said she might never heal from it and may have to be put down. I could not believe what I heard. Despite the problems, she was my best friend. She was so special to me, and I felt that we had something nobody else saw. I really loved her. After all we had been through, I could not bear the thought of it ending like this. What followed was a long period of pain, vet visits, and treatments. She didn’t seem to recover. We tried a last round of treatment, but we were already preparing to lose her. I felt like I was about to lose everything. I had fought for her for so long. She had turned into the reason that I got up in the morning. As the vet did a last check after the treatment, he looked at me, astonished. Everything was as it should be. He said it was quite the miracle because everything had pointed in the opposite direction up until then. I was incredibly relieved! Despite being healthy now, we still couldn’t establish any kind of communication or understanding, and things were about to turn out pretty bad. The vet had told me to walk her every day to keep her legs moving, but it was no use leading her. She would just attack. So, I tried sitting on her for a small lap around the area. As we were coming up a hill, she reared, lost balance, and fell on top of me. I strained my foot and was severely bruised. I was on crutches for 2 weeks.
Shortly after, I went to an Icelandic center, where 2-Star Parelli Professional Sigrid Ritland was doing a demonstration on two unhandled horses. I was fascinated by her approach to these horses and how she so quickly developed communication and trust between them. I spoke to her and told her about my challenges, and she gave me some tips. I realized that this could be it. I started checking into Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and it seemed incredibly interesting. It had gotten so bad where we were now that it seemed like the horses weren’t happy there, so we decided to move back to the stables we had been at before. As soon as they arrived, they expressed joy, and it was clear that they were happier there. Skjòna got easier to lead again, and Nanna seemed calmer. Funny how just the environment can have such a large impact!
In April of 2016, I went to my first Parelli clinic with Sigrid. At that time, I could no longer sit on Skjòna, but I could lead her. She would rear a lot and seemed frustrated with everything. After the clinic, Sigrid had given us a language that neither of us knew yet, but after 2 to 3 weeks, we started to be able to understand each other. Trust followed shortly after, and I got to sit on her again. I finally had a feeling that things would be okay. I was no longer afraid by the thought of going to the stables, and it felt great! After that, we joined Sigrid’s clinics frequently, and I became obsessed with this way of thinking and playing with the horses. I was so hungry for knowledge! I wanted to get everything that I could out of every course. I took Skjòna to a clinic with 4-Star Senior Parelli Professional Russell Higgins, and later with 4-Star Senior Parelli Professional Alison Jones, and everything just developed so well, and I learned so much. At first, I focused on Skjòna since the chemistry with Nanna still did not feel great. I got on well with riding Skjòna. She was still rearing a lot, but it was now with a different attitude and for different reasons. I was no longer afraid of her! When the summer was over, I started working at Sigrid’s place every Friday as part of the school system. I came with her on courses and lessons she had; it was amazing. She helped me get started with the Levels Program, and everything just seemed to settle in the right place. I felt like I got the chance to start over, and I really needed that! I now had more support than just my parents, and I really felt that we could achieve something. I went so well with Skjòna, and we were able to do things that I had only dreamed of before! Finally, I felt a good connection with Nanna as well. I learned that Nanna is an extreme Left Brain Extrovert, and I learned how to bring out the best in her.
I worked very hard, read a lot, and worked a lot with the horses. I was so proud of what I had achieved with Skjòna that I signed up for a gaited competition. My first competition ever, and we did surprisingly well! We got a 4th and a 2nd place, and a first prize for combination as we started two classes! It was a fantastic feeling, because everyone knew who this horse was and that she “should have been put down.” It was the best day of my life, so far! We got to show everyone who did not believe in us, but also myself, that we can get through anything. It was an incredible feeling of success as I got my first medal and an even better feeling that Skjòna and I had won it as a team!
I have an ambition to become a Parelli instructor myself someday because I would love to share this with others and help people who might be in the same situation as me and because horses are such a deep passion for me and I want to become the best that I could ever be for them. It took long to get where I am today, but I was able to do it because I gave it my best. One saying that kept me motivated was Norman Vincent Peale, who said, “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
We are now ready to film our Level 3 within a year after my first Parelli clinic. When we found the right way, we developed quickly, and we are reaching new milestones every day. I am working with two other horses in addition to my own now. The four of them are each of the four Horsenalities, and it’s so exciting! Every time I learn something new, or achieve something, I feel like I’ve won the lottery!
Now, my handicapped sister rides alone on both Skjòna and Nanna, while I give them signals on where to go, when to walk, halt and trot. It gives her such a feeling of confidence and happiness, and they have turned out to be the perfect therapeutic horses for her! My horses and I now have a bond too strong for words, and I could never imagine my life without them! Thanks to Parelli, I have become a better person, I have gotten better with horses, and I am more motivated than ever. I can ride Skjòna bareback and bridleless, and handle Nanna at the same time. I feel like I am dancing with them, and it feels so wonderful.
Thank you, Pat and Linda Parelli for making the impossible possible!
Follow Ingjerd’s journey with her horses on Instagram, @icelandic_horsemanship!