In the old West a roundpen was a place where cowboys took young horses that had never been handled to be bridled, saddled and broke to ride — often all in the same session. Ranch hands didn’t have a lot of time to spare for subtleties. They needed to get a horse broke fast and into the remuda ready for a long day’s work. Roundpens were usually just a flat area enclosed with a circle of sawed-off saplings to keep a horse from escaping and running off.
While the methods of ”breaking” horses have changed, roundpens can be found not only on ranches, but on almost every show barn around the country. The benefit of having a horse confined in a small area with no corners to duck into has not been lost.
The roundpen of today bears little resemblance to the twig and twine affair of yesterday. And neither does the horse’s experience in one. Today roundpens are primarily portable affairs, made up from steel-pipe corral panels that can be purchased at many farm- and ranch-supply stores or from specialty manufacturers. Enough panels to make up a roundpen can be snapped together in less than an hour, and they’re easy to move if you decide you picked the wrong spot for your roundpen. The hardest part of putting up a roundpen today is trucking in sand for footing and raking it level.
While putting up a roundpen is simple. Working a horse in one is not. It is not the same thing as sending it around on a longe line. Longeing is often used as a way to exercise and condition a horse — roundpenning rarely is. The work in a roundpen is geared toward building a line of communication with the horse — without any line attached. Mindless circling is not the name of the game. Gaining a horse’s attention and confidence is. Of course a roundpen can be used to exercise a horse — even to turn one out to get a little free time and fresh air. But when the handler is in the pen with the horse, the rules change.
Other than for lessons in driving on longlines from behind, the horse isn’t normally on any kind of line. In fact, it usually doesn’t have anything on it at all — not even a halter. The handler, however, needs some way to extend his or her reach in order to stay out of range of the horse’s hind feet.
This is usually accomplished by carrying a soft rope coiled in one hand. It is held in the hand closest to the horse’s hip. The end of the rope can then be tossed toward the hind feet to get the horse to move forward while the hand closest to the head points in the direct of movement.
The idea of working with a horse in a roundpen (notice, it’s not ”working a horse” but working with a horse) is to get the horse to accept the dominance of the handler. It’s moving him around for a lap or two, or even a half a lap, then asking him to turn and go the other way. Then turning him back the other way again. A horse has to slow down and think in order to change directions that quickly and once you’ve got him thinking you’ll soon see his attention starting to focus on you instead of trying to find a way out, or looking at what’s going on outside the pen.
It’s important that during your session working in the roundpen you keep your position in the center of the pen. You should be moving your feet very little, other than to step across the pen to get in front of the horse to cause it to turn. You don’t want to be walking a smaller circle inside your horse’s larger circle as you might do on a longe line.
You want to stand still, and be firm and clear in your directions until you get the horse’s attention focused on you. You will know that happens when you see him lowering his head and cocking his inside ear toward you.
If you keep your body energy and your eyes down you should soon see the horse begin to make his circles smaller and smaller, moving in closer to you. When that happens don’t get miffed that he’s coming off the rail and chase him back out. Instead, feel complimented. You have just been acknowledged as his leader.
That kind of connection happens by allowing the horse to rest when it does the right thing. Horses don’t learn when the pressure is on. They learn when it is released by being allowed to rest when they do the right thing.
Give the horse a minute to chew on it. If you are clear, calm and consistent you will convince the horse that the most comfortable place to be is with is the handler or in whatever spot the handler wants him in.
Making a Connection
Pressure is the operative word in the roundpen. You need to know when to apply it and when to let up. It’s very easy to overdo it. Just looking at a horse applies pressure. Waving your hand or turning square toward the horse with your body energy (shoulders, arms) up applies pressure. Raising your hand or tossing the rope applies more pressure. Pressure usually causes a horse to speed up or, if you step in front of the horse’s girth line, causes him to turn. Removing the pressure will usually result in the horse slowing down or even stopping.
You can stand still in the center of the pen and slow the horse’s gait from a canter to a trot and even to a walk simply by lowering your arms, your energy level and averting your eyes. If you then stand quietly and turn your back to the horse (but keeping it in your peripheral vision, of course) don’t be surprised if the horse walks up and stands behind you. It’s a great moment when that happens and you should turn slowly and, keeping your body energy down, gently stroke the horse to say ”Thank you.” That kind of connection is what roundpenning is all about.
It’s important to remember that in the roundpen the horse is captive. The handler must know when to put pressure on and when to take it off. And pressure must be removed quickly when the horse responds by doing the right thing. Of all the things to learn about how to be effective in the roundpen, that is probably the hardest. You want to be fair to the horse and learn to recognize when it makes the slightest attempt to do what you want it to do. What you don’t want to do is drive the horse into the ground. If you learn the techniques and do it right you will have a horse that recognizes you as the leader and will be willing to follow your commands.