Is round penning beneficial to your horse?
I am often asked by horse people whether or not they should round pen their horse. The answer is always “it depends” – on the horse, on the situation, on what you are trying to accomplish, and your skill level.
Round penning is a technique commonly used to establish trust, respect and confidence in a horse and to build a bond with a horse by becoming the benevolent leader to the horse. All kinds of problems can be resolved (or created, depending on the person’s skills) with this groundwork exercise. Many people believe round penning is just for starting colts or to “fix problems”. However, I find the round pen a good place to get a feel for a new horse, to read his body language while he is “free” of halters, ropes and lunge lines.
In the last few years, the term “round penning” has become almost synonymous with natural horsemanship. Unfortunately, many times I see people just chasing horses around the round pen, often with a twirling rope (very aggressive!), with the person’s core (belly button) pointing at the horse’s face (very bullish!) until the horse tires and submits. Often the only signs a person reads are the licking of the horse’s lips and the chewing (thinking and calm), the dropping of his head (submission), and the inside ear that’s facing the handler (focus). But what about the swishing tail (annoyance)? Or the clamped tail (fear)? The barrel (ribcage) that’s bending into the person (pushiness/rudeness)? The dropped shoulder? The hip that’s left in the circle? If you want a horse to respect and trust you, you can’t ignore any of a horse’s signs. It is his way of telling you how he feels. If you miss even a couple of signs, your horse will always be testing you (lack of respect) or never completely trust you. And this transfers directly to the work under saddle. By testing, I mean the horse will be testing (often times in very subtle ways) your awareness to determine if you are “good enough” to be his leader and to keep him safe. If you fail these tests, it will actually prove to the horse that he shouldn’t trust you.
Many people try to (instinctively) control the horse (and stop him from moving) by the head. It’s in our predatory DNA. An example of this is a person stepping towards the horse’s head to stop and turn him. This may seem natural to us, to go for the throat, but it is completely foreign to the horse. The horse sees a predator, often full of stress, coming straight at his head, which destroys the very trust the person has been trying to build. The horse will often turn head out (face first into the fence), with his butt towards the handler (as he should, as he has been asked to do by the person pushing his head out – head out brings hip in; it’s physics). This is a very rude gesture by the horse which was just caused by the person (“cause and effect”). Unfortunately, this method of getting a horse to change direction is seen all too often, and is even taught by well-known trainers. Remember that a horse’s “engine” is in the hind end, so we need to control his hindquarters, not his head.
Proper, horse-friendly round penning should be like this: turn your horse loose in the pen, pay attention to his every gesture, to every move he makes, and respond appropriately with your own user-friendly body language, with just the right push, in just the right place, at just the right time.
For example, pushing the horse’s inside flank will move the horse forward. Pushing the horse’s inside shoulder will move the horse over (away from you). If you want the horse to turn direction, step backwards approximately 180 degrees ahead of the horse, folding at your core and opening (bending) your hip closest to the horse’s head, to draw the horse in and allow him to politely turn in head first, with a level to low head. The goal, after all, is to have a relaxed, calm, confident, trusting and respectful horse, not a stressed, fearful, confused equine (click on link at the bottom to see video on round penning).
So while the mechanics of round penning may seem simple, knowing how to move and shape our body in order to act and react like a horse and shape the horse into a “feel good” body shape takes a lot of practice as we humans usually have to unlearn our innate human (predator) behaviour. Body language is essentially energy, so whenever we are with our horses, we need to be aware of the three energies that are always present: impulsive (pushing/herding), neutral (blocking), and drawing (opening/retreating). Horses are highly in tune with energies, and it is our job to learn how to properly use these three energies. It is also important to remember that the round pen is not the only place where the horse reads your body language, but every time (and as soon as) the horse sees you. The horse also needs us to be aware of his body language whenever we are near him. Remember that every time you are with a horse, you are essentially training, for better or for worse.
Many people belief that working a horse at liberty is better for building a relationship with the horse than working a horse on-line. However, some horses are too stressed to achieve any result and run around the round pen high-headed and counterbent (meaning their ribcage is shaped opposite to the circle they are running on and the head is up and looking to the outside of the round pen). A horse like this is much better off being worked on a lunge line, where I can shape his body. Remember, in the horse world, frame of body is frame of mind.
On the other hand, I sometimes use a round pen when more boundaries are needed, for example when lungeing a horse that pulls aggressively the lunge line. It is important to make sure though that I am not causing the horse to pull on the lunge line by sending impulsive energy into his head from my core.
Done correctly, round penning is a great tool to have in one’s toolbox of groundwork exercises as it gives the horse more freedom to move and is (generally) less stressful than having a line attached to his head restricting the movement. It also allows the handler to control the horse’s movement without having to touch the horse in any way. However, for some horses, the round pen is more stressful than a lunge line as it puts up a boundary, essentially trapping the horse from leaving (this is especially the case if the human round pens the horse with his core in the horse’s face). This, of course, can be more stressful to some horses than having a line attached to their head, because at the end of the day a horse can always escape a lunge line.
This all being said, for a round pen session to be successful, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a join-up. Join-up is what people generally consider the successful outcome of a round penning session when the human has gained the horse’s trust and respect and the horse accepts the person as a worthy leader and decides, out of his own account, to be with the human and follow the human. However, when your horse decides to join up with you, ask yourself this question: Is the horse joining up because he truly wants to be with you? Or is he joining up because he is overfaced and just gives up? The latter usually happens after the horse has been turned head first into the fence, scared and confused, then “joined up” afterwards, not because he truly wanted to be with the human, but just so he wouldn’t be turned into the fence anymore. I have seen numerous horses following the human around the round pen completely zoned out as a result of having to go as far as self-medicating themselves as a defence to a stressful round penning situation.
On the other hand, I have also seen many horses “pushing” the human around with a high head and pinned ears, instead of following the human with a low head and ears forward. That is not a join-up. That is a horse who feels dominant over the human being.
Due to their prey nature horses are very willing to submit. So it’s important to read the horse’s body language to understand what the horse is really feeling. Is the horse submissive but not willing, just going through the motions to get it over with (signs of that are tight tail, sullen expressions, tight mouth, staring eyes)? Is the horse high-headed and pushing the human instead of “following” the person? Or is he following the human with a low head, ears forward, curled tail, and soft facial expressions? It is not until you see a willing engagement from the horse that you have truly broken through the horse’s first layer of instinctual resistance and are well on the way to a true join-up.
So while correct round penning is a great technique for a lot of horses, done incorrectly or in the wrong situation it can easily destroy the psychological well-being of a horse.
Read your horse’s body language and pay attention to what your horse is trying to tell you and also be aware of what your own body language is telling your horse – in and out of the round pen.