I have gotten a lot of questions about my post on Roundpenning 101, and I realized that I needed to take a step back and explain more about what round penning IS and ISN’T before I continue to explain more of the basics of HOW to round pen.
We have had a few horses come into the rescue who have, for lack of a better term, been “cowboyed” instead of being trained. The goal of people who train this way is not so much as to teach the horse what is expected of them as to get the horse exhausted so the horse won’t try to fight what the rider is doing. They put the horse in the round pen or arena and then RUN the horse until the horse is literally exhausted. If the horse stops, the person will hit him with the whip. This is NOT free longeing. This is NOT round penning. This is abuse. It is very obvious that a horse has been abused in this way as, when we try to work with them in the round pen, they run around in fear, afraid that they will be hit or chased with the whip. The horse doesn’t pay much attention to the person in the middle for anything except to escape the human- his goal is merely to get away from that person and hope that the person doesn’t hurt him.
Let’s stop accepting THAT as round penning. Let’s stop pretending that running a horse around until he is exhausted is training. It’s not. When I first started working with horses and reading about “natural horsemanship” I thought something like that was- I thought that I had to get the horse to lick and chew and put his head down until I could allow him to stop because that was what all of the “natural horsemen” said was natural. But after working with horses, I realized that’s not how horses work at all.
What Round Penning IS NOT
First of all, running a horse around in fear until he’s exhausted should NEVER be part of your training regimen. The horse should be comfortable at all times, and should be paying attention to you because he respects you- NOT because he fears you. If the horse is afraid of you, you’ve already lost.
Secondly, the idea that we are supposed to keep running horses until they are exhausted, a la Monty Roberts, is absolutely ridiculous. I have worked with horses for 34 years and have run a rescue for 16 years. I work around horses everyday. Horses don’t run each other until they are exhausted- they run a horse off if he is naughty or the horse doesn’t want him part of the herd for whatever reason- but it’s not for MILES. It’s not for MINUTES. It’s for a very short period of time, and the majority of the time the horse is just pinning his ears, picking up a foot, swishing his tail, or baring his teeth.
Horses don’t need you to exhaust them before they feel that they can trust you. Horses don’t lick and chew while they are running- they lick and chew when they’re allowed to STOP running. The licking and chewing isn’t a “please help;” rather, it’s more like, “you’re right.”
Let’s recap: Round penning is NOT:
Running a horse until he’s exhausted.
Chasing a scared horse around.
Running a horse until he “licks and chews.”
What Round Penning IS
So what IS round penning, and how is that different from free longeing?
I’ll be honest, I often interchange these two terms, but the goal is what really differentiates them.
Free longeing is basically longeing a horse without a line. That means you are asking the horse to walk, trot and perhaps canter, based upon the horse’s needs and abilities, both to the right and to the left. Just like when you longe on the line, you should start with a walk, then move up to a trot, then warm up to a canter. You should not have the horse just start running around. I will go more into this in later posts, and how I train the horses to ensure that they are performing the desired gait, even without the line. The goal of free longeing is exercise- you are more focused on ensuring that the horse gets the appropriate amount of exercise for his age and ability. Free longeing can take place in a round pen or arena or large paddock- the idea is more for the horse to move in the direction you wish at the gait you desire. The horse should listen, but whether he submits and comes in and follows you around is not the desired goal, although I’ll be honest- if a horse will free longe appropriately he will most likely do that, anyway.
The goal of round penning is to get the horse to listen, but more appropriately to accept the leadership of the person. Many natural horsemen use the word “submit” but I would like to get away from using that term- it denotes a relationship where the human is always right and knows everything and the horse always has to defer to the person. That’s not how a partnership works. There should be a leader, and the horse defers to the leader because he TRUSTS the leader, not because he has been beaten down and feels he must submit. I will acknowledge right now I am NOT always right. I DO NOT always know everything, and sometimes my horse has literally saved my life because I listened to him. Let’s agree that, as humans, we are fallible and that’s OK. Being a good leader means accepting that aspect of ourselves and being willing to learn and change.
As is in the name, round penning should be done in a round pen just so the horse and human are in a safe but confined situation. If the area is too large, the horse can just run away and ignore the person- and the person will spend all of her time running after the horse, trying to get the horse to listen to her. If the area is square, the horse will often get stuck in the corner and can get scared and want to jump out. A round pen should be large enough so the horse doesn’t feel confined, but small enough so the person doesn’t feel she’s having to chase the horse.
Remember: Round Penning Goals
Again, you must remember that while the goal of round penning is to ask the horse to accept the leadership of the human, this CANNOT be done with fear; although the horse may want to challenge the person, the person should ALWAYS allow the horse a way out, and the goal is not necessarily for exercise but to ensure that the horse is listening to the person.
Whenever we get a horse in, I start with sessions in the round pen before I move to the arena. This gives me a better idea of the horse’s personality- and it tells me very quickly if the horse has been “cowboyed” which tells me a lot about the type of training he will have had, as well as his history of working with humans.
In order to establish leadership, you really only need to do two things: get the horse to move his feet and change directions. The horse doesn’t have to run- walking is fine. Sometimes horses who are fearful- or who are trying to challenge me- will try to change directions. I just make sure the horses are moving, and are moving in the direction I want him to move. If he changes directions without my asking, I will change him back to the direction we were going originally- sometimes he will run around a few times before he will listen, but I won’t hit him with the whip and I won’t put myself in a position that will allow me to get run over, either. It may take a few times around, but I will then ask the horse to turn around. I won’t chase him after he turns- that is just being mean. The horse is going the direction I wanted, so that’s the end of that conversation.
After I am confident that the horse will go the direction I want, and he continues to move forward, I can ask him to “come in” or I can ask him to stand. Depending upon the horse, his history, how confident he is, I might ask him to come in towards me in the middle of the round pen and “join up” in lieu of a better term. He will often lick and chew at that time. He should stand there while I pet him, and then will often follow me in the round pen. Some horses do not trust me enough for any number of reasons, and the best I can do is to ask the horse to stand quietly and allow me to walk up to him without him running off. I will accept this as well, and often the horse will then lick and chew once I touch his shoulder, and will follow me at that time.
To recap: Round penning IS
Asking a horse to move forward.
Asking a horse to change directions.
Asking a horse to stop and stand.
Asking a horse to accept the leadership of a human.
Remember that anything you do with the horse should be done with respect and the understanding that each horse is different, learns differently, and comes to us with different backgrounds. You should never use a one-size-fits-all approach when training or working with your horse.
In the video below, I am working with Lou Dillon. When Lou first came to Hanaeleh, he would run and run and run when in the round pen- he was visibly scared and he would not listen to the person in the middle. He just kept running because he was frightened of what would happen to him if he stopped. After working with him for a year, you can see how relaxed he is in the round pen, how he listens (watch his ear focus back toward me), and will change from a walk to a trot to a walk when asked.