The Circling Game in Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship (PNH) is used to help your horse understand that it is his job to maintain gait, maintain direction, watch where he is going and all the while stay tuned into you as his center of attention.

Of course to get good at this game you first need to get good at the four PNH Games that come before it. The Seven Games are cumulative, so without the Friendly, Porcupine, Driving and Yo-Yo Games in place first, the Circling Game can turn into plain old longeing.

And speaking of longeing… exactly what is the difference between the Circling Game and longeing? Are they very different? Do they have a different purpose or are they the same thing with different names? The Circling Game and longeing are different in several ways but, most importantly, it is the attitude and knowledge behind the two that really set them apart.

Most people longe their horses before riding because they want to tire them out and knock the freshness off them. In my program, students want their horses fresh, alive and full of vigor because all that energy can be channeled to do fun things! Some other reasons people longe horses are because they want to exercise and condition the horse, teach him how to travel on a circle or curve, get him used to a bit, or teach the horse to carry a certain head set within a frame. My students want these things as well, but I teach them how to attain those goals naturally, without gadgets that force the horse to comply physically while ignoring his mental and emotional states.

Lots of people who longe horses, especially for the reasons just listed, don’t realize how much can be accomplished on line or how they may be making their horses dull. They tend to chase their horses around the circle, constantly clucking, slapping the ground or cracking a whip to keep the horse going, while the horse strains at the end of the longe line. The human ends up doing more work every day just to keep the horse going, while the horse gets dull and his mind is unchallenged. This is not at all what the Circling Game is about.

What the Circling Game is… and what it’s not

The Circling Game, as in each of the PNH Seven Games, stimulates a horse mentally, emotionally and physically, while teaching him to stay connected to you. Just working on the horse’s physical fitness by sending him around and around in mindless circles does nothing to help his mental and emotional fitness. That’s why it’s far better to make a game out of it.

Horses love to play games! They especially love one called, “Do exactly the opposite of whatever the human wants by outmaneuvering him until the human gets so frustrated that he gives up and leaves the horse alone.” They play it all the time with us whether we realize it or not.

That’s why the Seven Games change your relationship with your horse so dramatically. They teach you the language that horses use with each other, the games they play and what their rules are. Once you get so good at these games that your horse declares you the winner and the ‘best horse,’ he will start to look at you with more respect and greater attention. You become his herd leader, his alpha.

The Circling Game is not just about physical exercise. I use all of the Seven Games for that. Also, in my program the thought of ever putting a bitting rig on a horse never comes up. We don’t tie our horses’ heads down into position because that takes away the horse’s choice and therefore his sense of responsibility. Using a rig or any gadget instead of the feel in your hands to teach a horse how to carry a bit or hold a frame only creates a dead, dull feel in the horse’s mouth and thus in the reins. It also teaches a horse to put all his weight on the forehand and lean into the pressure in his mouth. This is not something I ever want to feel in my horses. I want my horses to be so light and mentally connected that I won’t have to feel more than the weight of the reins in my hands no matter what I am asking him to do. The Circling Game helps to achieve these goals.

How to play the Circling Game

The object of the Circling Game is to have your horse willingly head off in the requested direction, maintain gait and direction once on the circle, and then come back in at the slightest suggestion. Essentially, the Circling Game can be broken into three distinct parts — The Send, The Allow and The Bring Back. Each part is just as important as the others.

The Send teaches your horse to follow your direction and suggestion. The four phases to The Send, asking him to go out on a circle are: Lead It – Lift It – Swing It – Touch It. Lead him with a light pull on the lead rope in the direction you want him to go. Lift your Carrot Stick or the tail of your lead rope in the other hand to support the horse in the direction you want him to go. Swing your Carrot Stick or lead rope if he hasn’t moved yet. Touch him on the neck with the Carrot Stick or lead rope if he is still standing there looking at you. If he still hasn’t moved, then just start again. The next time, do it with just a little more energy and a determined look on your face.

At any stage in the four phases, if your horse even tries to go in the direction you asked for, stop asking and Allow him to go on the circle. If he only makes it half a lap or even a few steps, that’s okay. Just start over with a new Send as many times as you need to. The object of the game for the human during The Allow is to not move — no turning, no slapping, no clucking, no smooching and NO lifting the Carrot Stick. Just pass the rope behind your back. The only time you get to move is if the horse stops. Then you just Send him again and go right back to The Allow as soon as he goes. Meanwhile, the horse is going to try to get you to move as much as possible by stopping, especially behind your back! The only way to win this part is to be passively persistent. The horse stops, you Send. On and on, this dance proceeds, until finally the horse thinks, “Wow, it’s a lot easier to keep going around than to keep on with this stopping and starting all the time. I’ll train my human to leave me alone.”

Ask for The Bring Back only after your horse has completed a minimum of two laps at any gait. Don’t do more than four consecutive laps or your horse will start to check out mentally. You want to do just enough laps to help the horse understand it’s his job to keep going, without doing so many laps that he gets bored. When you Bring Back your horse, you will follow the same phases used in The Send: Lead It – Lift It – Swing It – Touch It. Only this time you are going to Lead your horse in by running your hand down the lead rope and then bringing it to your belly button. Bring your hand all the way in and pretend you are “stabbing” yourself in the belly button with the lead rope. Lift your Carrot Stick or the end of the lead rope and look at your horse’s hip. Swing the Carrot Stick or rope a few times towards his hip, then Touch your horse on top of his hip to get him to face you. Now you can now see just how important those Porcupine and Driving Games were! If your horse doesn’t respond by facing you or coming to you the first time, then just shorten the rope and go through the four phases again.

So, what’s the big deal?

Now that you know what to do, it sounds simple enough. What makes it so mentally and emotionally challenging? By playing the Circling Game this way and by these rules, you are actually developing some wonderful skills in yourself and in your horse.

Take the Send and the Bring Back for example. When you Send your horse without moving your feet, you have to use Direct and Supporting Rein positions. The leading hand directs and the Carrot Stick hand supports. You learn to become very effective with your hands and your body by Sending the horse in a particular direction while he is facing you. When you Bring Back your horse you are effectively using an Indirect Rein position and teaching your horse how to bend to a halt from any gait. Being able to bend your horse to a halt is your equine emergency brake! In my program, we use the same or very similar equipment on the ground and on the horse’s back. So learning these “rein responsibilities” transfers easily from ground work to under saddle and makes perfect sense to the horse.

By following the four phases I described for the Send and the Bring Back with perfect consistency and effectiveness, your horse quickly learns to have snappy departures and smooth transitions down to a halt with a minimal amount of effort on your part. Again, the horse has no problem transferring this new knowledge when you are on his back because you will be using the same techniques, and he has newly found respect for you.

The Allow part of the Circling Game teaches your horse that it is his job, his responsibility, to maintain gait and maintain direction. Horses only learn through the release of pressure. Constant pressure on a horse just desensitizes him and makes him dull and resentful. Because you are specific in asking only when you want something and are not constantly driving him around and around on the circle, your horse learns that he can find comfort and life is hassle free as long as he just does his job. Remember that horses are just like husbands — they hate to be corrected!

Now, all horses are bound to make lots of mistakes until they figure out what their job is, so you need to have enough patience to Send him over and over again until he understands what you want of him. Your job is simply to stand still and smile when he is doing the right thing. Don’t let your horse believe that you think he is stupid by nagging him constantly. Show him that you know how to give him comfort by leaving him alone.

Standing perfectly still in the middle of the circle and smiling is also perfect preparation for your independent seat. Having an independent seat takes as much mental focus as it does physical ability. You need to learn to let go when things are going well. Relax completely and allow the horse to do his job. When things don’t go just right, then do something about it until they do, and then immediately go back to relaxing.

One of the greatest benefits of the Circling Game is that you start to become the center of your horse’s circle, the focus for his release and reward. When you stick to doing just enough laps to make sure your horse knows his job, then he never gets to the point of tuning you out. He will stay mentally and physically focused on you because he gets to stop as soon as you begin to ask for the Bring Back, and he knows it’s coming soon!

As your horse starts to see the middle of the circle and you as the “sweet spot,” he becomes more mentally and emotionally connected to it. (Now you can see why the Friendly Game was so important!) You can tell when your horse is really paying attention to you because his inside ear will be on you, his nose tipped slightly in, his body arced on the circle and the lead rope will have lots of slack in it, if it’s not already completely dragging on the ground!

After a short time playing this game, you will find that your horse knows how to stay straight on a circle by himself. This is something that top riders seek with endless hours of training. But all you have to do is turn the task into a game. Set it up so your horse finds the most comfort by doing exactly what you ask. It is that simple once you understand how a horse’s mind works… once you have the Savvy.

In the next issue: The Sideways Game