-By Charles Wilhelm-
There has been a lot of recent discussion on Facebook about the use of a round pen. Several well-known trainers say that round pen work is just chasing a horse around using their flight mode. It is true that we do use the flight mode because we want to get the horse’s feet to move. One of the easiest things to train a horse is to have it go forward as most horses will move their feet and not shut down. When we control the feet, we control the mind of the horse, which is a key to training. So, should we or should we not work our horses in a round pen?
I started using a round pen about 25 years ago. At that time not much about round pen training was understood and people thought I was sort of crazy. I learned how to work in a round pen from John Lyons and I saw what a great job he did and how effective the training was. I believe the round pen is an extremely valuable training tool for several reasons, which I would like to share with you.
First of all, it is a very safe training environment with round edges, smooth sides and no corners. Some people like to work in a square pen, and I will discuss that a little later, but you spend a lot of time teaching the horse to stay out of the corners. This is an exercise in itself and I don’t see the benefit, plus it is harder on the horse. I like to keep the horse moving and not worry about corners.
You don’t absolutely need a round or square pen to work in. I have worked horses on a 12 or 14-foot line. I call this a round pen on the go. On a line, you will usually have to put up with pulling and resistance. The horse may bolt and want to run away and an excited or frightened horse can drag you a long way. A round pen is a much more controlled and safer environment.
The diameter plays a role in the usefulness of the round pen. I personally don’t want anything larger than sixty feet across, anything larger and you lose a connection with the animal. Here at the ranch I have a sixty-foot round pen as I occasionally get warm bloods here for training. Larger horses have a bigger stride and cover too much ground to be worked in a smaller round pen. Also, if the horse is really edgy, has a high flight response or is fearful, a forty- or fifty-foot round pen is not large enough. I don’t want anything larger than sixty feet across because it can be very hard to keep a horse moving particularly if the horse is lethargic and doesn’t want to go forward. As I have gotten older, I like a little smaller round pen, even as small as 45 feet across but it depends on the horse I am working.
When we control the horse’s feet, we control the mind and it allows us to make a connection. In other words, we can hook up with the horse. What this means is that the two of you finally come to terms and you establish a relationship with your horse. The round pen is a place to start working together in harmony with your horse and gaining his respect. You can make a connection and have the horse following you around like a puppy dog but the horse may not have any respect for you. It may be pulling on the lead, bumping into you and being rude and pushy. The round pen is a place where you can start to establish the horse’s respect for you. When I have connected with a horse, the horse recognizes me as the leader and starts following me with his eyes and yielding his hindquarters.
There are some people that do chase their horses and run them until they submit. You do not want to run the horse just to get it to submit. Forty-five minutes of running around will do nothing but wear you out. We can use their energy or lack of energy to our advantage but we need to accomplish something more positive. I was on the East coast at a Horse Expo and I watched a clinician, who shall remain nameless, spend an hour and a half in the round pen and he ended up on the rail and the horse was on the inside. There was never a connection or joining of the two. I later had to use that same horse for a round pen demonstration, which I was not thrilled to do. However, within about ten minutes I had the horse turning in to me and doing both inside and outside turns. When I asked the horse, it came trotting up to me.
So, what was the difference? The difference was my intention. I had a clear game plan. I was consistent in my actions and I controlled the horse’s feet. The other clinician never controlled the feet. He didn’t ask the horse to really do anything. That is not the way to make a connection. My booth was 30 or 40-feet away from the round pen and I watched the entire performance. The stands were full and people were standing 8 or 9 deep around the edges. I was sorry to see so many people be misinformed about round pen usage.
We need to engage the mind of the horse and get the horse to think that it is better to be with us, that we don’t represent a threat. The horse may still be timid but we can begin to gain its trust. At a Horse Expo in Reno we were working with two wild mustangs. One mustang would come up to me when I was outside the pen. The other one would run when I was 50 feet away. Each horse is different and you have to tailor your approach to fit the animal. When I worked the mustang with the high flight instinct, I walked quietly into the round pen. I stood very still as I didn’t want the horse to go over the rail. I stood with my head dropped, shoulders relaxed and I let the horse run on its own. When the horse got a little tired and began to relax, I asked for a change of direction. Within five minutes the horse began to stop and pay attention. That was when I was able to touch the horse for the first time. That first connection allowed me to get a hold of the mustang.
That type of horse takes time and patience. Even at that, a horse that likes to move is easier to work than a horse that is lethargic. Some people like to work a horse in a square pen and I have done that when nothing else was available. You can teach a horse to round pen in a square pen but you have to teach the horse that it is uncomfortable to be in the corners. Every time a horse goes in a corner, you must drive it out. To me, that is more stressful for the horse. It takes time and effort for the trainer as well but more importantly, that type of activity does not create a connection. There is no connection until the horse begins to move around the square pen without stopping. When the horse goes into a corner, it is controlling its own feet. I make it uncomfortable to be in a corner. Once I get the feet moving consistently around the pen, I can choose when the horse will change directions. Within minutes a horse will start paying attention to me as I have made a connection with the horse by controlling its feet.
The round pen is a very useful tool. I like to have the horse do both inside and outside turns because that is controlling the horse’s feet. I can start teaching the horse transitions from walk to trot to lope. I can teach the horse to turn and face me and come to me. When I go into a horse’s stall, I do not want a horse to turn its hindquarters toward me. I want the horse to turn and face me.
So how can we utilize this very useful tool? It can be used for many different types of exercises and training. As I said, this is where I often begin by getting a horse to connect with me. I can also work with a horse to start de-spooking exercises. If I am working a wild mustang, it is a place where I can start getting close and making the first touch. If I am re-schooling a horse, it is where I can start establishing respect, the key phrase being “start to establish” respect. The round pen is a good place to teach a horse to go over a tarp, a pole or other objects. If the horse gets away, he can’t go very far and can’t get caught up in a corner. I use the round pen to teach my horses flexibility. It is also a good place to start the first half dozen or more rides on a horse, depending on the nature of the horse. You can also start teaching a horse to be ridden without a bridle. I have a DVD that many, many different and effective ways to use a round pen.
Just like any other piece of equipment, because a round pen is a piece of equipment, it can be abused. Some people run their horses ragged and still don’t get any positive results. The horse is still not paying attention and there is no connection to the trainer. Over many years, at various Expos I have coined the phrase, “It is not the equipment that trains the horse.” It is not the equipment and it is not the exercise that trains a horse.
There are a lot of great exercises from a lot of nationally known trainers that do quite a good job. You see the magic in an exercise but when you try it, you don’t get the same result. This can happen in a round pen, as well as another environment because it is the way an exercise is done that determines if it is effective. It is what we do with the equipment we have available to work with that will get the best out of the horse. And remember, it is always about the horse and it is never, ever the horse’s fault.