Written by: Josh Nichol

Introducing round pen work to three different types of horses.

Thumbnail for Meaningful Round Pen Work

Linda Finstad/A Sharper Image Photo

While you certainly don’t need a round pen to train a horse, using one does offer some real benefits, particularly when it comes to building a connection with your horse in a relational context. What the round pen provides is a wonderful middle ground, where the horse can be allowed to move his feet and express his thoughts with significant freedom, but not to such a degree that it puts the human at a disadvantage. Used well, that middle ground is a great place to begin meaningful communication, to show the horse that we can meet his needs, and to build a foundation of trust and peace in our training.

My approach to the round pen might be a bit different than what you have seen before. While the first priority for many people stepping into the round pen is to establish dominance, mine is to honour my commitment to the horse’s welfare. I want to understand what is important to the horse and meet those needs. By doing this, I find that I am able to best earn the position of leadership with the horse, which encourages him to want to work with me, rather than forcing him to submit to me.

As we have talked about previously, horses have three primary needs regarding communication and survival: Mind, Space and Pressure. They need to know what their connection is to the external environment and herd (Mind), who has calm and clear intentions (communicated through Space), and how they should deal with potential stressors (Pressure). My goal is to calm the horse’s mind, create clear communication spatially, and help him understand how to think under pressure. In short, whatever the horse’s worries are, my responsibility is to alleviate them. For example, if he is unsettled because being in the pen has separated him from his herd mates, my job is to provide leadership and connection so that he no longer feels alone and vulnerable.

However, it is important to recognize that having a human working to meet a horse’s needs through the means available to us is not a natural state of affairs for the horse, so we have to help him understand what we are doing and be able to prove to him that the whole horse-human interaction is a good deal. During this process, the horse will bring his nature to the conversation and respond as he feels necessary. Therefore, we shouldn’t perceive the horse as disobedient when he acts like a horse, as he knows no other option in the beginning. Fleeing, kicking out, neck-wringing, ear pinning and mentally leaving are not misbehaviours – they are simply the horse’s first natural options. This does NOT mean that we allow dangerous behaviours, only that we work with our horses in such a way that they soon feel no need to exhibit those behaviours.

When such normal expressions do appear, our task is to give the horse different options within our relationship to communicate and thrive. There are a number of things we can do in the round pen to show the horse other ways to respond that will actually make him feel more at ease in the world and help keep us safe at the same time. The first thing is to determine what your horse’s primary need is. Is he more of a “Pressure” horse, meaning he is sensitive and scared of pressure? Is he primarily a “Mental” type, strongly focused on his own thoughts, but not really scared? Is he mainly a “Spatial” horse that is mentally present, not fearful, and that may push into your space seeking spatial interaction? While all horses are a mix of the three types to varying degrees, figuring out your horse’s most prominent characteristic will give you an important advantage in the round pen, because once you know what is important to the horse, you will be able to meet that need and bring a level of peace.

Let’s now take a look at how we would begin to work with the three types of horses in the round pen.

The “Pressure” Horse

When a horse is fearful of pressure as used in the round pen, he will typically believe he needs to run away. If this is the case, it is extremely important to help the horse understand how to control the pressure by thinking “toward” you. In other words, if the horse shifts his focus to you, pressure goes away, which shows him that being with you makes things much less scary. You can accomplish this with the following steps:

Step 1: Stand on one side of the round pen near the rail. While keeping your energy calm and inviting, use a flag (my choice) or whatever aid you prefer to apply just enough pressure for the horse to begin to worry about it, but not enough to tip the horse over into real fear. I define worry as a state of concern in which the horse is still able to think, whereas fear produces a commitment to leaving, and thinking has stopped.

However, if the horse does need to move his feet while worried, that’s okay. Moving the feet is different than a blind panic. If you feel the horse is panicking due to your actions, you need to re-evaluate the situation and your use of pressure. With some extremely fearful horses, just you being in the pen with them can be too much pressure for the horse to handle, in which case you may need to start the process with you outside the pen entirely.

If you feel the horse is still thinking while moving around some, don’t stop your gentle pressure or you will teach the horse that the way to make pressure stop is to move away. If the horse circles around and comes toward you on the rail, just calmly hold your ground, using your aid if necessary so that the horse has to change his thought enough to go around you. You are not looking to direct the horse at this point – simply owning your space.

Assuming you have created a mild degree of worry but not outright fear, the mind of the horse will typically bring its focus to the source of the worry – which, in this case, is your pressure. This is what you are looking for. If the horse even glances in your direction, stop your pressure immediately. The general idea is to help the horse understand that he can turn the pressure off, not by running away, but by staying and looking at you, which is the very opposite of his instinct. Achieving this gets the horse to start thinking through pressure, rather than automatically fleeing from it.

Throughout this exercise, try to keep your energy the same. Don’t engage the horse’s worry by “getting smaller,” but also don’t throw energy around and make the horse nervous. Remember that there are many ways to modulate pressure including intensity, proximity and, most importantly, the intention you have within you. (As in step 3.)

Step 2: Move to a new location in the pen, but stay away from the centre. When you stand in the middle of the pen, you give the horse the opportunity to run circles around you, and you want to avoid that. So, pick a different spot close to the rail and repeat step 1. Remember to remain calm and inviting in your energy, and that the slightest look toward you must be rewarded with a cessation of pressure.

Step 3: Up to this point, you will have done nothing “directional” with your energy. In this third step, you need to create a very clear intention that you want the horse to come to you. To do this, you need to think “draw” in your mind and feel it in your body. You might make some subtle changes in your body language or how you are connecting to the space between you and the horse, but you don’t need to make any large, overt gestures. Some people find it helpful to think of becoming “softer” in their solar plexus, or to envision a gentle, inviting light moving into their body and pulling the horse with it. When the horse’s thought connects with you and your energy is asking him to come, he may begin walking toward you. If he doesn’t, you can try taking a step backward or sideways to see if this will help draw him.

In the beginning, don’t worry about trying to get a scared horse to follow you. Just stay focused on applying a small amount of pressure when the horse’s mind has gone off into worry mode, and releasing it when he returns to a calmer state. Always be cautious to avoid doing too much and creating fear. Soon the horse will understand that he can control the pressure by staying with you, and this is the beginning of a wonderful, connected relationship. Remember that you are aiming for a calming effect. DO NOT try to move the scared type of horse away from you for a long time. If sent too early, he will feel chased by you and will revert to fleeing.

The “Mind” Horse

Sometimes, we are faced with a horse that isn’t so much scared, but whose mind is strongly attentive to things outside the pen. This is not the time to focus on the horse’s body or trying to make him move. Before you can do any of that effectively, the horse’s mind must come into the pen so a conversation can be had. Mind-predominant horses usually won’t fear the pressure you use and will respond to it if you use it well.

The steps you want to take here are similar to the first scenario with the Pressure horse, but with a different priority. You will still be concentrating on changing the thought, but instead of creating a slight worry with your pressure so that you can stop the pressure when the horse connects with you, your pressure will come in when the horse’s mind is drawn elsewhere. Helping the Mind horse change his focus helps him understand that he has the ability to control pressure by staying mentally present. A horse will persistently follow what he is focused on, so the idea is to get his focus on you. One way you can work on this when the horse’s thought is elsewhere is to stand across the pen opposite to whatever the horse’s mind is locked on to, then create a pressure that is enough to interrupt his thought and get him to focus on you. As soon as he does, release the pressure to reward the horse for changing his thought.

However, if you ask too often or “nag” without actually getting a change of thought, the horse will begin ignoring you and become dull to your pressure. That means you don’t want to nit-pick at every little outside thought, but gradually work to show the horse that bringing his mind to you is a good thing. It is also very important to remember that you are not punishing the horse for thinking away from you, and you are not demanding that he think toward you. You are simply creating a scenario where the world has a more peaceful, inviting feel when he is with you, so be mindful of your energy, which must create and reflect this thought.

The “Space” Horse

Your first steps in the round pen are usually different when working with a spatially-oriented horse. These horses are usually mentally present, not fearful of pressure, and they are very willing to walk into your space because they are looking for spatial interaction. They are the only type of horse where your first round pen conversation will likely involve directing the horse to move away from you. It is important to keep in mind, though, that asking a horse to move away is not the same as chasing him or making him “do laps.” The difference is that you are looking for some yield or softening in the horse, and when you see it, you remove your pressure and let the horse rest. If you miss that and simply chase the horse in circles, your foundation will remain shaky. Always remember that you are aiming for understanding and connection, not merely compliance.

It is very common for people to label the Space horse as pushy or bossy, but I believe these horses are simply seeking clarity about your relationship and your intentions, and they need you to address this directly. When such a horse asks for clarification by engaging you spatially, you can choose to interpret this either of two ways. You can see his actions as rude and pushy, in which case you will likely respond emotionally and feel justified in “getting after” him. Or, you can interpret his engagement as an invitation to a conversation, which is a golden opportunity for you to establish a great foundation for your relationship. Here is how I would go about this:

Figure out what part of his body the horse communicates with the most. Some will push their shoulders into you, while others will push with their hind quarters. With the shoulder horse, use your pressure to move the shoulder away from you. If you feel that shoulder shift from “push” to “yield,” drop your pressure. If the horse holds onto the thought of pushing, you can move him further away and even turn him into the fence if needed. With the hind quarter type, you will direct pressure to move the hind quarters away and turn him toward you. Your eventual goal is that the horse becomes willing to yield both the hind end and shoulders softly, without frustration or worry. Try to remember that how the horse yields (softly or not) is at least as important as the yield itself, though we can’t expect perfection right away.

We also really need to keep in mind that with a Space horse, there is no disrespect in his actions, only unmet needs. This type of horse requires that you begin focusing on your own spatial awareness and what you tend to do in your interactions with the horse. Say you have a tendency to lean or step backward if the horse pushes into your space. You may not even realize that you do this, but you can be sure that your horse is aware of any “yield” in your spatial conversation. If you commonly give up your space in such ways, the horse will naturally believe that you should and will move for him. You may then see the horse do something like pin his ears or wring his neck at you, and you might interpret this as “bad attitude.” However, most often, such behaviours are merely reminders of a contract you have already made with the horse when you yielded your space.

If you are the type of person who tends to give up your space, you need to learn to own it – but this has nothing to do with chasing the horse, being mean, or punishing undesirable behaviour. It has more to do with you recognizing your tendencies and making changes within yourself that you can then communicate to the horse. One helpful exercise for this is to stand close to the horse and own your own space within yourself. You don’t need to think or do anything aggressive; just be confident about the fact that you have the right to occupy that space. Do not move – simply stand calmly and wait for the horse to feel awkward being too close to you. Soon he will move away and you will have achieved a very positive change, for you and for the horse. This is the beauty of working with a Space horse, as he will usually lead you to recognize your own tendencies! Fixing these tendencies within you usually takes care of the problem.

Whatever kind of horse you are working with, remember that Relational Horsemanship always strives to bring the horse into a more peaceful and connected state of mind than when you started. If things start to go sideways – and there are going to be times when they do – try not to get upset with either the horse or yourself. Just take a breath, regroup and go back to something you know you can both feel positive about. Success will come if you aim to keep yourself centered, continue to focus on what the horse needs from you, and remember to take the time it takes.