The Round Pen: A Valuable Training Tool
By Will Clinging
There is much debate about round pens and their use. I believe most of the debate stems from the misuse of the round pen rather than good round penning practices. The round pen is a valuable training tool if used correctly. However, like the spur, the carrot stick and many other training aids, it can be misused. It is important to understand the theory and philosophy behind the round pen, as without it the person using it is simply chasing his or her horse in circles.
The round pen creates a safe, controlled environment ideal for certain horse-training situations. Its main use is to teach ground manners, start young horses and deal with behaviour problems. The round pen should not be used to exercise your horse.
GaWaNi Pony Boy calls the round pen a classroom. I agree that it should be a learning environment used to teach specific lessons. There are those who argue that chasing a horse around in circles is not natural. Little that we do with our horse is natural.
A horse that joins up properly and moves out upon command will rarely move into your space uninvited. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
The round pen works because it contains the horse’s natural flight instinct rather than restraining it. A horse’s strongest survival instinct is to run away from danger or perceived danger. If the horse is restrained rather than contained his options are even more limited. If he cannot run away, he is more likely to get instinctively defensive. When this instinct is in operation his mind is not absorbing information. The containment of the horse’s motion gives the horse time to engage his brain so that we can work with him.
A common misconception is that round penning a horse means chasing it in circles until it joins up. A horse will not connect with you after being chased in circles. Chasing a horse around will teach the horse to run away from you. The round pen should be used to teach a horse to come to you. You are a safe place and he will not have to run if he is with you.
If I want to push a horse away, as another horse would, I quietly move him and have him think about the pressure I am applying. I do not want to chase him away like a predator and have his defensive instincts kick in. It is my job to respond to the horse’s actions. The horse, through his body language, will tell me if I am too passive or aggressive. I want to elicit the desired response with the mildest pressure possible, but as much pressure as needed.
Horses are large, powerful animals with hard hooves; humans are small and soft in comparison. Boundaries and respect are the keys to preventing injuries.
Many people have legitimate concerns about horses that try to jump out of the round pen. A properly round penned horse should not feel the need to escape. In this situation, the horse’s instinct to survive is overriding his ability to think. There are many factors that may lead to a horse trying to jump out of the pen. It may be that the handler is chasing him. The size of the round pen may be an issue. In a small round pen, it is easy for the trainer inadvertently to apply too much pressure. A poorly constructed pen may encourage the horse to try to escape if he feels the pen is weak. A combination of these things can lead to disaster.
Round penning is about mental awareness, not about physical exhaustion. When a horse is paying attention, I make things comfortable by letting him rest. When he stops paying attention to me, I make it difficult for him to ignore me by causing movement. By causing movement I do not need to make him run around and around. I might only move him a few feet before I offer to let him respond again.
I will not round pen a horse just for the sake of it. I will use it to prepare a horse mentally to be with me. It is a valuable place to start a young horse under saddle, or to deal with behavior issues in a secure environment.
The round pen, like any training tool, is frequently abused or misused due to lack of experience or knowledge of good round pen techniques. Bad habits are taught just as easily as good ones. Used incorrectly it will become punishment and help to justify a horse’s fear and bad habits.
The round pen in not a cure for bad training but simply a tool that, if used wisely, can help achieve incredible results.
Main photo: Tom Sayles, http://www.flickr.com/people/tsayles/