The use of the round pen as a training aid has become more common over the past couple of decades mostly due to the influence of natural horsemanship. It is not a magic bullet for creating a wonderful relationship with your horse or resolving training issues. It’s merely a tool that provides a smaller working space, giving you an advantage over your horse because it has no corners for him to get stuck in, and it removes his ability to run away. If used incorrectly, this small space can become a torture chamber that does more harm than good to your horse and your relationship with him. The round pen, when used correctly, ensures your horse’s physical and mental well-being and helps him to feel safe with you. This requires a good understanding of the natural elements of equine body language and herd dynamics as well as the ability to apply them in an unnatural situation.
Too often round pens are used by well-intentioned horse owners to push horses around and around in circles. When the horse “hooks on” or “joins up” the owner believes it is because they have achieved a connection. In reality, the horse has simply given up. When a horse is pushed around and around in continuous circles, he is being chased. Chasing is predator behaviour that continues until the prey is caught or the predator relents. Horses use herding (prey behaviour) to move herd mates out of a certain space (eg. a stranger out of the herd, or a subordinate away from food). Herding stops as soon as one horse yields to the push of another. To apply herding behaviour in the round pen means the horse is asked to move in different patterns – changing direction, transitions, size of circle – and to move his hips and shoulders.
Use With Caution
The round pen is not a safe training environment for all horses, and can even be dangerous for some. Being isolated in such a small space with no way to increase distance between himself and the trainer triggers the horse’s natural flight instinct. Stressed, fearful horses may try to jump or climb out of the round pen or may become aggressive and charge at the trainer. Frightened or tense horses should never be worked loose (at liberty) in the round pen. They need help to calm down by bringing their bodies into a calm frame which can be accomplished more effectively through lunging or in-hand work. Before taking your horse to the round pen, honestly assess his temperament and training level as well as your own abilities.
Reading Body Language
Constant awareness of your horse’s body language and energy as well as your own is the key to creating positive experiences in the round pen. Your horse’s mouth, ears, eyes, tail and shape as well as how he moves are all clues about his mental and emotional state. A horse feeling stressed and unsafe will run around counter bent and high-headed as he tries to find a way out. A horse that has given up is sluggish or stationary with staring eyes and a tight mouth. A calm, relaxed horse will have true bend, a level neck and soft eyes. He may even make his circle smaller as he politely asks to come closer to you.
Horses communicate with three types of energy (or body language): pushing (go away); blocking (stay away); drawing (come here). Horses use these same energies on us and also read them from our bodies. Sending energy from any part of your body (i.e. your shoulders, arms, hands, hips, legs and core) at the wrong angle, wrong time or to the wrong part of the horse causes confusion and even fear. Pushing energy into your horse’s head or neck is perceived as aggressive.
The amount of energy you use is also important. If your energy is too strong, your horse may become fearful or aggressive. If your energy is too weak, you will be ineffective. The level of energy needed is different for every horse and even at different times within the same session with the same horse. Reading, using and adjusting body language and energy are skills that take practice
A training adage often applied in the round pen is that you gain your horse’s trust and respect by moving his feet. This is based on the hierarchy in the herd being determined by “who moves who.” But, how your horse moves (i.e. his shape) is just as important as your ability to make him move because it affects how he feels. Since you’re applying natural horse language in an unnatural environment, it is more beneficial to encourage shape and movement that helps your horse feel good. When he feels better with you than he does with his herd, he will prefer to be with you.
How to Move Your Body
Basic Position: Stand behind your horse’s shoulder and at about a 45-degree angle to him. Aim your core (belly button) at the middle of his shoulder. Angle your far shoulder away from his head and your near hip slightly towards his hip. This alignment keeps pressure from your body aimed into your horse’s body and away from his head and neck.
Move Forward: Look in the direction you want your horse to move, keep your core aimed into his shoulder and use your arm nearest his hindquarters to send a push to his flank. The push comes from the ground up and towards your horse and should travel no higher than his mid-line. If he doesn’t move off right away, send a stronger push more energetically to encourage him to move forward adding your rope or whip if necessary. Continue asking with gradually increasing energy until he gives you the desired response.
Come In: Stepping backwards and away from your horse’s head with a soft core invites your horse to come in. Soften your core by thinking of the energy traveling backwards from your navel out through your spine. If he does not respond right away, send a push to his hip to encourage him to take his hip out of the circle while you step back again. Back up in a straight line towards the round pen rail while pushing his hip out. Stop when you are one horse length away from the rail and remain still. If your horse runs through your space (his girth crosses your midline), turn and push him (flank) and hold your ground. Do not cut off your horse or try to “make him” come in. You want your horse to choose to come to you passively with a low or level neck and to stand square to you when he stops.
Positive Energy for Positive Results
When learning to use a round pen, it’s best to work with a quiet, reliable horse who can tolerate your learning curve without getting stressed or aggressive. Your first priority is to keep yourself and your horse physically and emotionally safe at all times. To keep yourself safe, always keep enough space between yourself and your horse to stay out of kicking range. To keep your horse safe, pay attention to his stress level and how he is moving. Put him on a lead rope or lunge line if necessary to help bring him into a calm, relaxed shape.
Your main method of communication with your horse is your body. But, tools like a rope or whip can be used as an extension of your body to reinforce the energy you are sending out. When carrying a whip ensure that it is inactive with the tip resting on the ground when it is not needed. Your horse reads the whip’s activity even if you are not aware you are making it move.
Remove pressure as soon as your horse responds to your requests or shows the slightest “try.” If he does not respond the way you would like then reassess how you are asking. It’s your responsibility to ensure you’re communicating clearly, concisely and consistently. Take your horse’s responses as feedback to how well you are communicating.
Are You Ready to Round Pen?
The effect the round pen will have on your horse and your relationship with him is determined by your ability to read and apply body language. Before taking your horse to the round pen ask yourself:
- Is your knowledge of body language and psychology deep enough to read your horse and communicate clearly, calmly and confidently to him without stressing or confusing him?
- How might your horse react based on his temperament and level of training?
- Is the confined space of the round pen a safe environment for you and your horse?
Be honest about your abilities and never hesitate to enlist the help of an experienced trainer who will work with you and your horse.