By Lauren Jorgensen
The first time I ever saw Kathleen Sullivan, I was mesmerized. Here was this young woman on this golden palomino gelding, both of them totally relaxed and enjoying themselves. I was at a "Parelli Tournament" put on by two Parelli endorsed instructors, Mikey Wanzenreid and Kirsten Nelsen (who has since left Parelli to strike out on her own), who were spending the winter around the corner from us in Jupiter, Florida.
I didn't know who Kathleen was, but as the day wore on, I found myself watching her, puzzling over how she was able to pull off what she was doing so effortlessly, so carefree. She was walking, trotting, cantering, negotiating various obstacles and then at times just sitting on her horse, Hollywood, watching others and taking it all in. And she was doing it all bareback and bridleless. And by bridleless, I don't mean with a halter on her horse's head. I mean nothing on his head. And her horse looked every bit as relaxed as she was. She was, in a word, a dream. She represented what I, and I believe countless other horsewomen, only dreamed I could be, a trusted friend and partner of my horse.
To be honest, I was a little intimidated by her self-assurance. Now I regret not having gone up to her that day to talk with her about how she came to that place with her horse. I knew that she was Mikey and Kirsten's friend, and a fellow instructor. But only later did I discover that she would be the one who would help me unlock my relationship with my own horse and help me take my own horsemanship to a whole new level.
Over the year that followed that encounter, I played with my horse, I followed the Parelli "recipe" and earned my blue string. Over time I felt him relax and become more confident. I too became more confident and I felt I was beginning to understand what Ray Hunt means when he says "don‚t be in a hurry." "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult."
The following winter, Kathleen came back to town, and I invited her to come and do a clinic with the kids from my daughter's‚ 4H club. She clicked with them, teaching them things in that masterful way that only really good teachers know how, which is to make them think that they're just playing around and having fun when in fact they and their horses are learning and progressing in really critical things. Like horses learning to respect the space of their little munchkin humans. Like riders learning to balance and have the confidence to let go of the reins and trust that their horses wouldn't run away. Like horses and riders really relaxing, some of them for the first time EVER.
The kids loved her. She made learning fun. She left them wanting more. And I watched, from a distance. Still kind of in awe at how she could pull it all together.
Fast forward another year. By now I had gotten up the courage to start really talking to Kathleen. After she did the level one Parelli assessment of my seven-year old daughter (who passed, by the way) I started talking to her about my own challenges with my horse, Cappy. By then I was a level 3 student in the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program, and I had made a lot of progress with my former runaway Arab. He was so much calmer and more confident, and yet I knew somehow something was missing. Kathleen helped me put my finger on it.
In just a few lessons with her, so many light bulbs went off. She helped me to see all the good things my horse and I had going on, she gave me confidence to know that I was doing a lot of things right. But she also helped me to understand that I needed to use more "feel". She talked about Tom Dorrance's book and his teaching of true feel, that you must be willing to give to your horse, to give back instantly when he softens. She helped me with my timing. When I was asking for vertical flexion, the soft feel, I had to learn the precise moment when I needed to give my horse a big release, a reward for his softness. She helped me find the confidence to know it was okay to hold, to be firm, until he softened. And she helped me understand that there were times I could hold it longer, building on that softness. She helped me find that truly wonderful place when you feel your horse soften in your hands, so willing and ready. She gave me the tools and the confidence to keep building on that feeling.
After Kathleen left to go back to Colorado, I thought many times about her words. I thought about what a great listener she is, that she doesn't just parrot what she's been taught herself, but rather she really listens to what you're experiencing and then zeros in on what's challenging you. (Maybe that's her training as a lawyer showing.)
By that time, Kathleen had been riding with Buck Brannaman and she had embraced his teaching, and had given me a glimpse of what was possible when rider and horse together feel the lightness that so many of us only dream of. Cappy seemed grateful that I was ready to dance with him, he was so willing and receptive to my newfound confidence.
Now, Kathleen is no longer with the Parelli program. Rather, she brings her own brand of horsemanship to her clinics and her teaching. She's able to fuse what she has learned from masters like Buck Brannaman and to make it understandable to people like me who are searching for those elusive qualities: relaxation, lightness, pure feel.
The big names in natural horsemanship are, for the most part, men. Why don't we hear more about the great natural horsewomen out there like Kathleen? An incredibly talented horsewoman who is out on the road sharing her gift with horses, and her gift of communication, with those who seek lightness. Thanks, Kathleen.
Note: Kathleen Sullivan is based in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, but she travels across America with her two horses and dog, teaching natural horsemanship in clinics.