A round pen can be an excellent tool. It creates a very safe training environment with the round edges, smooth sides and no corners. It should have sides at least six feet high so a horse can get his head over the top of it. Some people work in a square pen but you spend a lot of time teaching the horse to stay out of the corners, which is an exercise in itself. I don’t see the benefit and I think it is a little harder on the horse.
Also, the diameter plays a role in its usefulness and I personally don’t want anything larger than sixty feet across. Anything larger and you lose a connection with the animal. It can be very hard to keep a horse moving in a larger round pen, particularly if the horse is lethargic and doesn’t want to move. More than sixty feet is harder on the horse and the handler. You don’t want anything smaller than forty feet across but fifty or fifty-five feet can work well. I like the larger sixty-foot size and that is what I had at the ranch in Castro Valley, as I occasionally had big warm bloods in to train. Larger horses move faster and cover too much ground to be worked in a smaller round pen. Also, if a horse is really edgy, has a high flight response or is fearful, a forty or fifty-foot pen is not large enough. I have had horses in the sixty-foot pen that I’m not doing anything with, and I have about the softest posture in the world, but the horse just runs around on its own.
So, how can we utilize this very useful and safe tool, the round pen? It can be used for many different types of exercises and training. I often begin by getting a horse to connect with me, in other words to recognize me as a leader and start following me with his eyes and yielding his hindquarters. I can also work with a horse to start de-spooking exercises. It 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 horses flexibility. It is also a good place to start the first half dozen or more rides on a young 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 covers many, many different effective ways to use a round pen.
Just like any tool, it is how we use that tool. Over many years at the various horse Expos I have coined the phrase, “It is not the equipment that trains the horse.” Now, it is not the equipment and it is not the exercise that trains the 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; it is the way an exercise is done that determines if it is effective.
We do use the flight instinct to get the horse to move around us and away from us. You do not have to run a horse into the ground but you don’t want the horse to walk either. You want good forward movement without the horse looking around or thinking about what is outside. The horse needs to put energy into the gait you ask for. Also, you want the horse to be thinking about you.
One of the things we haven’t discussed that is very important is that when you control a horse’s feet, you control the mind. And that is what is neat about a round pen: it is a small, quiet, safe environment and it makes it easier to get control of the feet. When you first start round penning you horse, you want at least a good forward trot, at minimum a good working trot. If the horse gets lazy at that, I will push it to a canter. I want a horse to go forward consistently at any gait at any time and I always want the horse to go forward consistently.
When a horse is stopping and thinking about something else, we are not moving the horse enough. We are looking for consistent forward movement, which is controlling the horse’s feet. The idea is to push the
horse to start thinking about who we are and that we are a force to be reckoned with. That may sound harsh but it is not when you consider the dynamics of a horse that is out with a herd. Out in pasture, a horse will run another horse around almost running into the fence and then will run it back the other way. What that horse is doing is establishing leadership.
Leadership is also what we need to establish but that does not give us license to run our horse into the ground. To establish leadership, we must get the horse to go forward and to go forward consistently. Then we ask the horse to change directions. In the beginning it does not make any difference if it is an inside or an outside turn, we are simply controlling the horse’s feet.
Next time I’ll discuss more on establishing leadership and building trust.
Charles’ warm and relaxed demeanor has made him a favorite at regional and national clinics and demonstrations. Charles offers extensive hands-on learning programs for every level of horsemanship. He may be reached through his web site: http://www.charleswilhelm.com/