When round penning became “popular” about 20 years ago with the reinvention of natural horsemanship in a bottled, pre-fabbed DVD set that seemingly everyone needed to buy along with a rope halter and some weird stick, part of this concept included the idea that after we invited the horse to stop and walk in toward us, for some reason we were supposed to stand with our back to him and our head down.
Again, we turned our back on a 1,000 pound prey animal who had just been running around, perhaps bucking and jumping.
You Turn Your Back Because Why?
The idea behind turning your back on a horse you have just exercised comes from the belief that we are acting in the same way that a lead mare might act while in a herd. When a lead mare is annoyed with one of the horses in the herd, she will run the horse out of the safety of the herd, which is dangerous for the horse who is left out alone. He offers submissive behavior in an attempt to be allowed to come back into the herd, and the mare, when she feels that sufficient time has passed, will turn around, allowing the naughty horse to slink back into the herd.
The problem is that this is NOT what we are doing when we are round penning or free longeing. We are not punishing the horse by making him run around. We are not “allowing” him back into the herd. We are asking him to move, using our role as the leader, in a walk, trot or canter. When we are done, we can invite him to stop and come to us, but that doesn’t mean that he has to apologize for being naughty- because HE HASN’T DONE ANYTHING WRONG. This is one of MANY fundamentally flawed issues with the natural horseman’s philosophy about round penning.
Running Your Horse Does NOT Equal Submission
If you listen to some of the scions of natural horsemanship, they will tell you to run the horse around until he submits. The problem with this is that horses often will not offer submissive behavior when they are being run around because (1) they are busy being chased by the person in the round pen, and (2) they haven’t done anything wrong. Horses often don’t exhibit submissive behavior when they are being run around- they offer that behavior when YOU STOP CHASING THEM. Try it- you will find your horse will start licking and chewing NOT when you keep running him around, but when you allow him to walk or trot.
We Are the Leader, not the Lead Mare
When we work with horses in the round pen or arena, we need to think less of a mare punishing a naughty horse, and more of two horses at play. When I turn Quixote and Lou Dillon out together, for example, Lou Dillon is the natural leader, and will run Quixote around. Lou Dillon is not running Quixote around because Quixote is naughty, but just because he is playing, and him pushing Quixote around a bit is expressing his natural leadership. When we think about round penning or free longeing a horse, then, we need to think of ourselves more of being like Lou Dillon- we are expressing our leadership position, but we are not punishing the horse.
Because round penning is not a human mimicking the actions of a lead mare and punishing the horse, then allowing the horse back into the herd, then it goes without saying that we should not be acting like a lead mare. We do not need to pretend we are a mare and turn our back and putting our head down when the horse is finished exercising. Rather, we can keep our head up, and merely turn our shoulder, inviting the horse in towards us. Instead of telling the horse that they are no longer “in trouble,” rather we are merely telling our horse that play time is over. They still acknowledge the human as their leader, but when we think of free longeing as a type of play as opposed to punishment, then the entire philosophy surrounding the exercise is completely different- and more positive, to be honest.
Keeping your head up also has a pragmatic reason behind it- safety. Turning your back on a horse can be dangerous. There is nothing wrong with trusting your horse, but you also don’t know if your horse might be scared while he is walking towards you, and he might spook and accidentally knock you over while your back is turned to him.
So, keep your head up. Establish your leadership position, but have fun with your horse. There are enough alpha mares in the world without you acting like one.