There is much debate about round pens and how they are used. I believe most of the debate stems from the misuse of the round pen as a training tool rather than good round penning practices. The round pen is a valuable training tool if used correctly. Like the spur, the “carrot stick” and many other training aids, the round pen can be misused. It is important to understand the theory and philosophy behind the round pen, without it the round penner is simply chasing his or her horse in circles.
The round pen creates a safe, controlled environment ideal for certain horse-training situations. The round pen should mainly be used to teach ground manners, to start young horses and to deal with behavior problems. The round pen should not be used to exercise your horse, this just teaches a horse to run around in circles with no purpose. Gawani Pony Boy calls the round pen a “classroom”. I believe that it should be a learning environment used to teach specific lessons.
There are those that argue that “chasing a horse around in circles is not natural”. Little that we do with our horse is natural. 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 can not run away, he is more likely to get instinctively defensive. When this instinct is in operation their 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. I want to push a horse away, as another horse would, 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 their body language will tell me if I am too passive or too aggressive. I want to elicit the desired response with the mildest pressure possible, but as much pressure as needed.
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. There are many factors to consider in regards to horses that try to jump out of the pen. The horse’s instinct to survive is over-riding his ability to think. This may be the case if the handler is chasing him. Round pen, size may also 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 an environment that is secure. 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 horses in their fears 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.
© 2003 Will Clinging