Round Pen Training Concepts
by Adrianne Lake
So what exactly is a round pen?
If you’re familiar with horses you have likely heard of the round pen or round corral. You may have heard it is an invaluable tool to train horses with. Or you may have heard it is the most abused tool in horsemanship. Actually, both are true. It really depends on how it is used. Most training methods can be abused and misused. This article will help you understand some of the training concepts used in a round pen. The round pen can be a great place to communicate and tune up your horse. Unfortunately it seems too many people watch a clinician or trainer in a round pen and attempt to copy them without fully understanding what they are doing. It is crucial to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it and exactly how to do it when working with horses.
A round pen is a training area with no corners. They are usually 40 – 60 ft in diameter and at least six feet tall. They are made of metal piping or solid panels. A proper round pen is safe with no place for a horse to catch a leg (or anything else) and is high enough to deter the thought of jumping. It can be used for training or turning out sick or injured horses in a safe space. I will be referring to round penning in this article as a training space. The round pen can be a great place to communicate and tune up your horse.
My personal opinion is that if done properly, round penning a horse can vastly improve horse and human relations. Training is about communication and respect and a round pen is a wonderful tool to help with this. Round pens make training simpler because it limits where a horse goes which makes it easy for us to drive a horse and influence its movement. A round pen encourages your horse to focus and makes it difficult for him to tune you out. It can be great for refreshing older horses and dealing with young or “problem” horses. A round pen is an area where a horse can be allowed an opinion safely.
This isn’t a “how-to” article.
This article is an introduction to round pen concepts. There are many subtleties in properly using a round pen as an aid to train horses. When round penning it’s especially important to understand equine body language and execute correct timing. Horses are individuals and there isn’t one way of doing things that works for all horses. That is why it’s so hard to learn and teach training techniques like using a round pen. It’s difficult to come up with a successful formula because so much depends on the horse’s personality and history. Horses are forgiving animals and most training mistakes can be corrected or changed, but it is much more efficient and easier on the animal if it’s done correctly the first time.
Hopefully you came across this article because you wanted to properly research and learn about the art of round penning. That’s wonderful! Good for you! But please read more articles. Watch informative videos. Attend clinics. Listen to different opinions before forming your own. Before attempting any round pen work for the first time it is a good idea to have a trainer or coach there who knows what they’re doing. One can never know everything there is to know about horses. There is always more to learn. That’s part of the beauty in it. I can’t count the times I’ve changed my personal opinions. You can’t expect your horse to understand humans. We need to learn how to understand and communicate with them. Reading this article is the first step. But don’t stop here! Watch, read, listen, watch some more, and then participate. Your horse will thank you for it.
What is a round pen used for?
You could think of a round pen (or round corral) as a learning area for both you and your horse. “Round penning” is a general term used to describe working with horses in such a training area although it often refers to convincing a horse to “hook-on”. The possibilities with round penning are endless! Common uses for the round pen include:
*Establishing leadership and boundaries
*Enhancing effective body language and communication
*Influencing behavior and movement
*Desensitization and confidence training
*Hooking-On and Monty Roberts’ trademarked Join Up method
*Bonding and trust issues
*Working with the horse at liberty
*Safe area for the first ride
*Gentling mustangs or “wild” horses
*Simply hanging out or playing with your horse
Round penning is not about driving your horse around in mindless circles. Good horsemanship is about influencing the horse’s mind. His body goes where his mind is. Round pens have nothing to do with lunging. If you feel you can’t work with your horse unless he’s tired then you have other issues that should be dealt with. Attempting to physically dominate a horse is a dangerous battle. A better solution is to earn his respect. When you have a horse’s respect they become focused and willing to please. They are much safer because its understood that invading your personal space, pushing you around, or ignoring you is not acceptable. You need a horse’s full attention to train them efficiently. If his mind isn’t focused, you’re wasting your time. A round pen can be a great way to help your horse think about what he’s doing and encourage him to accept you as his leader. If your horse respects you and regards you as a good leader, the rest will come much more naturally.
A round pen isn’t even necessarily required to “round pen” your horse (although it is easier to begin with). You can use a square pen. There will be corners to negotiate, but if you can learn how to get the same results with a square pen your horsemanship will have benefited because of it.
Round pens and communication.
Round pens are for communication. Communication with a horse when training with a round pen often consists of an on-going dialogue of questions, answers and responses. You may ask the horse for something, the horse answers by responding in some way, and then you respond. The idea is to make the desired response easy and obvious for the horse. For example, you may ask your horse to move off by sending him away. The horse might answer by moving away. You respond by relaxing. If his answer was not moving away, you “ask the question” with stronger body language or cue from a whip. Positive reinforcement is the response you give when the horse does something correctly. This may include releasing pressure, giving a pat or scratch, or relaxing and softening.
It’s so important to be like a parent and stay consistent with your responses while doing round pen work. It’s also crucial to time your responses correctly. If you wait too long or respond too early, the conversation is lost in the horse’s mind and he won’t understand. Body language, position (yours and the horses), and positive reinforcement has a lot to do with this ongoing dialogue. While round penning all these things come together to form a “language” that horses understand. If one thing is amiss, the whole thing is unintelligible to the horse.
So try to be aware of the questions, answers, and responses between you and your horse. Learn about body language -how to position yourself to influence your horse and understand what your horse is saying. Learn about proper timing. Know when to ask, answer and respond. Know the exact moment to give positive reinforcement. Understand that in the beginning everything will be exaggerated. All this may seem confusing at first, but it can come to be second nature with practice.
Hooking On or ‘Join Up”.
Monty Roberts was the first person to coin the phrase, “join-up”. Some people may say “hooking” or “latching” on, but the concepts are similar. The idea is to send your horse away, drive him around with assertive body language, and wait for signs of submission. These may include dropping the head, licking and chewing, slowing and relaxing, turning an ear toward you, and attempts to look at you with both eyes. You want the horse to focus on you, not anything else. When the horse gives signs of being ready to hook-on, you back up and “draw” the horse to you with more passive body language. This may not work the very first time. When the horse has hooked-on successfully, he will usually follow you around and accept you as the “alpha” or leader.
There are many subtleties to doing this and I suggest researching methods by trainers such as Monty Roberts, John Lyons and Pat Parelli.
The round pen can be used for so many things! You can work on yielding, Pat Parelli’s the Seven Games, bonding, observing how your horse moves and reacts. Spend some time just being with your horse. Play!
Horses are large and fast animals. Always be careful when working with your horse, especially if they are at liberty in a round pen. It’s a good idea to wear a helmet even on the ground because many accidents happen with groundwork. Don’t attempt something you aren’t sure how to do; most horse related accidents and injuries are preventable. Use common sense, and be prepared!