Years ago, i began training "unbroke" horses in a round pen. I'd use the inside and outside turns to develop control safely.
I've changed my training sequence in recent years, I still begin in the round pen with a horse who hasn't been halter trained or who can't safely be haltered or led. That lets me find a starting point for training, and gives me something to build on.
But if I can lead the horse, I begin with the bridlework lessons that we've been doing in this "Perfect Ground Manners" series. By the time I've taught the horse to give to pressure and move his hips and shoulders on cue, he understands the language of pressure and release, and he's already learned to look to me for guidance and control. By beginning with bridlework, I can cut down on the amount of time I work in the round pen because the horse understands the lessons so much quicker.
In this article, we'll give you an overview of the "20-step" program that I use as a foundation for lessons such as halterless leading, spook in place, and teaching a horse to stand tied. We'll assume that you've done some groundwork with your horse-ideally the bridlework lessons- and that you can work safely around him.
No Corners to Cut
- Consider the round pen as a classroom rather than as a place to burn off your horse's excess energy.
- Put protective boots on your horse and clear the pen of any potential hazards.
- Think of yourself as a traffic cop and let your body language communicate your wishes.
- As your horse's responses improve, refine your body language to be more subtle, less obvious.
- Use specific patterns to help achieve your goals.
- Apply pressure to ask the horse "please do this" and use an instant release of that pressure to say "thank you."
Training in a round pen means different things to different people, and there are plenty of misconceptions about it. The reality is that there's no mystical connection with a horse in the round pen. A round pen is simply a corral without corners.
Because there are no corners, the horse has limited ways that he can "escape" the trainer's pressure. That's good in one way, since it narrows the options available to the horse and he finds the "right" answer more quickly. It's bad, though, because a trainer can put a horse under too much pressure if he isn't careful and specific about what he's asking.
When I put a horse in the round pen, I have a specific training goal in mind. I don't use it for exercise or to have the horse burn off energy. I use round pen work to develop control, so I can keep both the horse and myself safe.
Round pen training does not involve running a horse around the pen until he's tired or he figures out that he gets to rest if he comes to stand by the trainer. Nothing could be further from what we do. We want to preserve the horse's energy (and his soundness, of course), so we only want him to move as much as is necessary for him to understand what we're teaching.
My goal is to establish control, so I try to limit the amount of time that the horse is out of control. If he's running around the pen, he's out of control. I do not tell him, "You want to run? Okay. Run until you're tired."
We also use the round pen lessons to build trust, and the horse learns to trust us when he figures out that we can control him without causing him pain. So anything that we do to hurt the horse is out-of-bounds.
Many people also make the mistake of using round pen training to get a horse to stand by them, but then they have difficulty getting him away from them. The horse becomes convinced that standing by the trainer is the right thing, and it can lead to a dangerous situation.
There will be a point when we want the horse to stand by us, but on cue, not on his own. Prior to then, we'll want to develop a way to tell him to move forward, turn to the outside, turn to the inside, and stop.