The round pen is one of the most commonly used tools of Natural Horsemanship (NH). NH is a generic term for a style of training that considers the horse's natural behavior and attempts to train him in a language he understands. Round pen work is quite a bit more complicated than just chasing the horse in a circle; it involves a systematic process that brings the horse to a respectful, trusting and willing frame of mind.
In this article we'll explore the purpose, the process and the techniques used for doing round pen work with your horse.
All horses speak the same language and have the same set of behaviors, so in that regard, all NH is the same, with the same end goals, but not always the same means. Not all NH techniques are identical, even though all horses speak the same language. In every area of horse training, there are many good trainers that employ a variety of techniques and unfortunately, there are bad ones too. Not everyone has the feel, timing and understanding it takes to truly communicate with a horse.
The techniques covered in this article represent my personal techniques in the round pen, because that is what I know best. You will get a slightly different perspective on NH techniques from each trainer that you work with, but all of the techniques should have the same consideration toward the horse's natural language and behavior.
The purpose of round pen work is to bring the horse through a natural process that starts with subordinance, and progresses through focus, respect, communication, trust and ultimately results in the leader-follower relationship that indicates that the horse accepts you as his herd leader. I try to teach people a very systematic approach to the round pen process, with five clear steps:
1. Drive the horse away (subordinance)
2. Control his direction (focus)
3. Control his speed (communication)
4. Establish a dialogue (trust)
5. Following behavior (leadership)
The round pen itself is simply a confined area, at least 50-60 feet in diameter, with a high rail at least 5' tall, excellent footing and preferably a solid kick board around the bottom, to prevent the horse's feet from clamoring through the rails as he skitters about. The confinement simply levels the playing field between you and your horse and allows you to use herding type behaviors on the horse, without chasing him all over the north forty.
It is imperative to have good safety awareness in the round pen. Just as horses naturally behave in the herd when the pecking order is upset, the horse may kick, charge or bite in the round pen. You must accept this possibility as a probability, especially in the beginning stages of round pen work, when you are challenging the horse's dominance. It is a good idea to wear your helmet in the round pen and you must always have a tool in your hands to defend your space and communicate to the horse. Generally, a lariat, a 12-15' rope or some sort of stick is used. Personally, I prefer to use a lariat, but this tool requires some practice to handle effectively. A longe whip could also be used, but I find it to be a little awkward to use in a communicative manner, because it is too long.
Whichever tool you use in the round pen, you will use it as an extension of your arm, to help direct the horse away from you or to make him go. You cannot safely walk right up to the horse and spank him on the butt to get him to move off, because it would be very natural for him to kick out and you would be right in the danger zone. The lariat, rope or stick allows you to contact the horse if needed, but from a safe distance.
Since your ultimate goal is to have the horse respond to your simple and subtle hand signals, you'll want to use the tool in a communicative way. Use gestures that have a clear and consistent meaning. I like to use my hands to point toward the body part of the horse that I want to move, the nose, the shoulder or the hip. If I point at the horse's nose and signal him to move off with the rest of my body language, I expect him to turn his nose away from me and take off in the direction I pointed him.
Now that you have a general idea of the philosophies and tools behind round pen work, let's take a closer look at exactly how you and your horse will move through this five-step process and emerge at the other end with the perfect horse.
Driving the Horse Away
The first step in the round pen involves driving the horse away from you, just like what would happen to a new horse if you turned him into an established herd. The more dominant horses would drive the horse away from the herd, as if to say, "You cannot be a member of our herd. We do not want you." The new horse knows he must be accepted into the herd for his very own survival, so his instinct is to try and try again to be accepted back into the safety of the herd.
Remember, the dominant horse in the herd controls the herd resources and controls the space of the subordinate members. In driving the horse away, you are not only moving him out of your space, but you are positioning yourself as the herd leader. It is not about chasing the horse in a circle until he gets tired and wants to stop. It is about the horse changing his attitude. For a very domineering horse, this may take a while, for a more subordinate horse, this could happen immediately. At some point, maybe a few minutes, maybe after numerous sessions, the horse's attitude will begin to shift from defiant to contrite. Watch closely for these signs; the horse will tell you when he has accepted your authority.
There are several signs you are looking for that indicate the horse is becoming subordinate. The first sign you'll see is that he will focus his inside ear onto you, instead of looking outside of the pen. That is an indication that the horse sees you as a worthy adversary and one worth keeping any eye on. That is what we want him to think right now, because he has to respect our power and authority before he can move through the other stages. Other signs include a lowering of the head, increased relaxation, licking and chewing and deep sighs (see part 1 for more details on the language of horses).
There is a very important technique you must understand in order to keep the horse moving forward in the round pen; it is known as working the balance point of the horse. All horses have a balance point, which is more or less at the girth area. If you position yourself behind the horse's balance point, he will move forward and away from you. If you position yourself in front of the balance point, he will stop or turn around and go the other way. You must always be aware of the balance point and make sure you are not blocking your horse's forward movement by getting in front if him. You can work the balance point by moving closer to it or in front if it, to push the horse to the rail, turn him around or stop him. All horses have very good spatial awareness, but not all humans do. Round pen work requires the handler to have very good spatial awareness.
You will be using your body language and your round pen tool of choice to communicate your wishes to the horse. At this stage, it will actually be more of a demand than a wish, but as we progress through the steps, your wishes will become whispers, then mere thoughts.
It is important that you are cognizant of what your entire body demeanor is saying to the horse; they are far more perceptive to body language than we are. You will also very intentionally use your eyes, your shoulders, your arms and your feet to communicate to the horse. Direct eye contact is a sign of aggression to the horse; looking away is non-threatening and releases the mental pressure caused by direct eye contact. Therefore at this stage, when you are "aggressively" driving the horse away, you'll want to look him square in the eye; when you want to give him a break, turn around and walk away from him.
Your shoulders also communicate to the horse. High square shoulders and an out-thrusted chest show assertiveness; low, rounded shoulders will assuage your horse and slow him down. Use your eyes to look away from the horse at the same moment you drop your shoulders and turn away and he will be drawn toward you. Along with the shoulders, you can use your arms by waving or pointing as another sign of assertiveness; low and quiet arms are less alarming to the horse and will allow him to relax.
Finally, horses communicate a lot with their feet; so it is important to use your feet both to communicate where and how fast you want the horse to move and to communicate your emotions and determination to the horse. Horses stomp their feet when they are mad, they paw when they are frustrated, they are defensive with their hind feet and can use their feet to communicate kick threats on many more levels than most of us recognize. You can use your feet to add emphasis to your demand to move off by stomping your feet, just as a horse would. You should be walking in a concentric circle with the horse to drive him away; as long as your feet are moving, his should be too.
You may also have to throw your rope or use your stick on the horse in the beginning to convince him you mean business when you say, "Hup to!" There are two types of horses: ones with too much go and ones with too much whoa; pull to slow or push to go. If your horse is lazy, this may be the most difficult stage of your round pen training. If your horse has too much go, this stage will be simple, but the third step will be tough.
At this stage, the horse may not respect you at all; in fact, it is quite possible that he feels dominant over you (to find out, see the reader's quiz in my first article). Combine this attitude with laziness and you may be in for a real battle to drive your horse away from you. Be sure you keep a safe distance from the horse, use your tool to pressure the horse (constant irritating pressure is better than hard pressure) and do not back off until he is moving away. At this stage, I want the horse moving away from me with deference, not just a nonchalant, "Okay, I'll do it if you make me."
A few caveats are worth mentioning in this stage of round pen work. First, the horse may not just roll over and let you take the dominant position. If he is accustomed to being in charge, he may be reluctant to give up that power and so he may kick out or otherwise threaten you. It is critical that you use your tool to keep a safe distance and stay out of harm's way; do not give the impression that you are scared or backing down. Backing off at this point will only serve to convince the horse the he is, in fact, in charge.Once the horse is moving off and away from you upon request, he is subordinate to you and you are ready to move on to the next step.
This step happens almost simultaneously with driving the horse away. You must convince the horse that you not only control when he moves, but you also control the direction that he goes. Drive him assertively around the pen in one direction, using direct eye contact, raised shoulders and fast feet, keeping well behind the horse's balance point. You will be waving and driving at his hip, not at his front end, because that would make him turn around. Your horse may try to turn around on you, just to see if he can challenge your control. But if you are having trouble with your horse constantly turning and getting frustrated, chances are it is because you are getting in front of the balance point and blocking his way.
Once you can keep the horse moving in one direction, you must turn him around and make sure you can also make him go in the other direction. The horse can turn around two ways: toward you or away from you, an inside turn or an outside turn. In my opinion, you should never let a horse turn toward you at this stage. You are in the midst of establishing dominance over this horse and if he is feeling reluctant to give up his power over you, it is quite possible that when he turns toward you he could charge you. When a 1200-pound raging horse is coming straight at you, with teeth barred and ears flat back, the round pen gets very small. At this stage, I always want the horse turning away from me to reinforce him moving out of my space. The horse must be very contrite, respectful and subordinate before I will allow him to move into my space to make an inside turn.
To turn the horse away from you or to make an outside turn, you will step in front of the horse's balance horse to block his direction and then wave toward his nose to move it away from you. This may be a rather abrupt turn for the horse at first, but as the horse becomes accustomed to your signals, he will be turning in a controlled maneuver, rolling back over his hocks. Be careful not to over do it and ask the horse to turn too often, because that may make him tense and irritable at a time we want him to start calming down and focusing on us.
When your horse is maintaining a steady speed in both directions and is making smooth and responsive outside turns, you have your horse's subordinance and focus and you are ready to move on to step three.
By now your horse should be calm, relaxed and maintaining a consistent and respectable distance from you as you move him around the pen and it is time to work on controlling his speed. If you back off of him, he will slow down to maintain his comfortable distance. If you speed up and move closer to him, he should mirror you and speed up and move off. This is when a keen spatial awareness is useful; your horse will find a comfortable distance to keep from you when you are working him and he will be very conscious of it. You can open or close this space to control your horse's speed.
Directing your eyes toward the horse, lifting your shoulders, waving your arms and speeding up your foot steps will cause the horse to speed up. Deflecting your eyes, lowering your shoulders and arms and slowing your feet will allow him to slow down. By asking for numerous transitions from your horse, slow trot to fast trot to slow trot, walk to trot, trot to walk, you will be establishing a line of communication between you and your horse; you are beginning to speak the same language.
Gradually the horse will become more and more dialed into your signals and will begin to match you step for step. At this point you can also start working on the stop cue. To ask the horse to stop, simply take one step in front of his balance point and stop your feet and drop your eyes, shoulders and arms down. Basically, the horse will learn that when you stop, he can stop, and by now he is eager to rest.
If the horse does not immediately stop, just hold your position and wait. He'll stop eventually. If he seems to be totally ignoring you, you may want to squat down closer to the ground to make yourself even smaller. Usually this change in landscape will make him take notice.
This step may be difficult with a hot-blooded horse, or a horse with too much go. It is easy to drive him off, but a challenge to make him slow down, relax and stop. Even a very forward horse does not really want to run around in a circle, so eventually he'll figure out your signals, if you are consistent and patient. With a hot-blooded or highly sensitive horse, you'll need to really slow down your signals and make them extremely subtle. For instance, you can control the speed of most Arabs with just a shift of your eyes away to slow down and toward them to speed up.
With enough practice, you will be controlling your horse's speed just as if he was your dance partner and you were the lead. Once you can do smooth transitions, you have gone well beyond subordinance and focus and are operating on respect and trust. If the horse is obedient to you, he respects you and your wishes; the trust comes as he learns that if he is obedient, he won't get in trouble and will in fact, is rewarded.
It is important to release the pressure and reward the horse constantly as you work him, whether you are riding or training from the ground. In the round pen, the pressure you put on the horse is mental, or indirect pressure (as opposed to physical or direct pressure). To release the pressure, simply turn and look away from the horse. This will make the horse want to turn and face you and perhaps even come to you and hook-on, which is the ultimate response we want. You can further reward the horse by letting him rest and occasionally strolling up to him (with eyes diverted and shoulders low) and rubbing him on the withers in a friendly gesture.
Establishing a Dialogue
Once the horse is moving obediently away from you, doing smooth outside turns, making fluid upward and downward transitions and halting on cue, you are ready to ask the horse for an inside turn and teach him to be more discerning of your cues. By now he has shown enough respect and deference that you should be comfortable asking him to move into your space.
The inside turn is much more difficult for you and the horse and it should be executed slowly and methodically. Bear in mind that the horse must have some way of distinguishing between the signals for the inside and outside turn; that is how you build a dialogue with your horse. For the outside turn, you stepped in front of the horse to block his motion, then waved toward his nose, moving toward him to move him out of your space. Now you want to draw the horse's nose toward you. In order for the horse to move toward you, you must back away so he is not invading your space when he turns.
You'll ask for the inside turn in slow motion, by moving slightly in front of the balance point, so he knows he will have to turn around, but then turning your back away from him (a movement much like preparing for a backhanded swing of a tennis racket) and drawing him toward you. Once his nose comes toward you, you have initiated the inside turn ; gently follow though with the swing and use your arms to gesture toward the nose to keep it moving in the direction of the inside turn.
Most horses will not immediately cotton to the inside turn, especially since by now you have done lots and lots of outside turns. Two things will help him learn this turn: consistency and repetition. If he turns the wrong way (outside turn), immediately turn him back around and ask again for the inside turn. Keep asking for the turn by giving the same clear signal, until he gets it right, and then give him a break and copious praise.
You'll have to make sure you are asking for the inside turn slowly and that you are moving out of his space to allow him to turn in. It may help to have someone watch you to make sure your cue is distinctly different from the cue you used for outside turns and to make sure you are giving your horse enough space to turn.
You'll have to teach the inside turn on both sides of the horse and you'll want to stick with inside turns until he is turning consistently on your signal. Then go back to outside turns. He'll be a little confused at first but in short order, he will learn that he has to pay really close attention to you and focus on taking directives from you, in order to know which way to turn.
Once your horse is turning both inside and outside in both directions and responding to random signals to turn this way or that, your work is just about done in the round pen and your horse is now obedient, respectful, focused and you have established a dialogue between your horse and you and he has come to trust that you say what you mean and do what you say. Your horse is now ready for the final step in the round pen.
The horse is said to be hooked-on, in your hip pocket, joined-up or teamed-up with you when he comes to you, stands submissively behind you, is totally relaxed and follows wherever you lead. Your horse make hook-on at any tie during the round pen process, but you should still go through the entire process in order to build a string foundation on the horse. Once the horse hooks-on, you should lead him around, turning circles in both directions, so he becomes habitually hooked-on. This reinforces you as his leader.
Your horse may be reticent at first and reluctant to hook-on, especially if you have had to work through challenges to your authority. Be patient and give him all the time he needs and he will eventually give himself over to you. At first, you may have to approach your horse rather than him coming to you, in order to make friends with him and make him want to be with you, by rubbing him on the withers and whispering sweet nothings in his ear.
If you sense the horse wants to come to you but his feet are stuck in one place, try criss-crossing a path at a perpendicular angle to the horse, moving slowly with your eyes and back turned away from him. As he follows you with his eyes and head, he will gradually unstick his feet and come to you. Be sure to turn your back to him to allow him to come into your space. Give it time and be patient; horse time moves much more slowly than human time.
Once you have moved through all five round pen steps, the relationship between you and your horse will be totally different and much more meaningful. Generally, once I have established this kind of relationship with a horse, one based on respect, obedience, trust and leadership, I will discontinue round pen work; it is no longer needed. Any time we hit a bump in the road, we may go back to the round pen to remind the horse of his place in my herd. The round pen experience can be useful for horses both young and old, trained or untrained, whenever the leader-follower relationship needs work.
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