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The round pen and round penning.

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

Is your horse a pleasure or a pain?

Most people that own or lease a horse do so because of the enjoyment they get from their horse, however there are many of us that do not enjoy our horses as much as we could. Do our horses enjoy us as much as they should? Horse personalities are as different as those of horse people. We all have our issues, some good and some not so good. Unlike ”horse people”, horses are unable to express their opinions on how they are handled, ridden, fed, etc. Our horses put up with our quirks as we put up with theirs. Over time, our riding and handling habits become the norm for our horses and our horses; habits become accepted normal behavior for us.

What happens when our habits are confusing to the horse, or we are not consistent in how we handle them? What may have started, as a personality quirk can quickly become a problem? Once we have a problem, what do we do? Some problems are not that serious so we just put up with it and eventually accept it as normal. Problems that are more serious we might fight with for a while, realize it is getting worse and then ignore it and hope it will go away. We adjust how we work with the horse so they do not have to deal with what is causing the poor behavior in the first place.

In my experience, problem horses have been taught to become problem horses by us, their handlers. Not on purpose but through bad advice, poor handling, inconsistency, ignorance, and unwillingness to try a different approach. Behavior problems are usually only a symptom of something deeper that causes the horse to exhibit potentially dangerous behavior. They will not go away unless we deal with what is the root of the problem. For example, a horse that kicks when I try to pick up his feet may not be worried about his feet being touched. He may be worried that he can not run from danger if his feet are restrained. That horse is willing to defend himself to ensure his survival. This is a trust problem not a foot problem. If I spend the time to earn the horses respect, I can gain the trust it takes for him not to defend himself. The solution to most problems is the same.

Horses are extremely sensitive animals and as such inconsistent handling easily confuses them. Timing and presentation are important factors when we work our horses. If my timing is poor, I may be rewarding the wrong thing and if my presentation is not smooth and confident, the horse will not be smooth and confident. When I am trying to put a saddle pad on a horse, I want him to be standing quietly. If he moved while I was lifting the pad towards him and I take the pad away and stop trying to put it on him I have rewarded him for moving. If I hold the pad up and wait until he stops moving before I take the pad away then I am rewarding him for standing still. I need to be aware of my timing so I do not teach him to move away when I want to saddle him. This is how poor, behavior starts. If I do not correct my mistake, my horse will not get better to saddle. This is only one example of how bad habits are taught to horses.

I have yet to come across a horse that did not have some sort of a problem. Some problems are extremely dangerous while others are only mildly annoying. Are your horse’s problems worth dealing with? Has the horse you bought for fun become a pain? Problems are not as difficult to deal with as they may appear. The toughest part of problem solving is admitting there is a problem to solve. When the time comes to deal with a behavior issue most of us should get some help. This is because we are possibly the cause of the problem. I do not suggest you send your horse out to be fixed. Rather have a trainer deal with the problem and then teach you how to continue dealing with it. If a professional trainer works with your horse, they will probably handle him differently than you would. You must be willing to change how you do things or the problem could come back. There are no such things as quick fixes so be prepared to work on it for an extended length of time. It could be weeks or months before bad behavior is replaced with a good habit. The more established the bad habit is the longer it will take to stop.

You might find that once you change your attitude towards a problem and start to address it your horse will resist you even more. Remember that it is always darkest before the dawn. Do not give up and in no time your horse will again be a pleasure.
© 2003 Will Clinging