Round Pen Use and Abuse
As far as round pen work, in the past I would religiously go through the process of chasing every horse around the pen until he wanted to join me in the middle because that procedure was the popular thing to do and was being touted by all the “famous” trainers as a way to establish leadership and communication with a horse. In 2006 I began to mentally question the validity of using this procedure as a recipe included in the training of every horse. Why should I chase a horse around the round pen to begin our relationship? Should I not just start out by making friends with the horse and proceeding from there? I stopped doing “round penning” as regular part of my training program and only use it very infrequently now. The occasional times that I move a horse around at liberty in a round pen are now only for very specific reasons and only for a few minutes at a time. These times are always later in the training program when we may have discovered some specific issues that will benefit from the round pen procedure. These issues could include a horse that has a very difficult time picking up one canter lead, a horse that bucks with the saddle, a horse that is hard to catch in the field, etc.
I understand the procedure of chasing a horse around in a round pen (commonly known by such terms as “round penning”, “join-up” and “hooking-on”) is supposed to mimic how a lead mare in a wild horse herd performs discipline within the herd by driving away a trouble maker who then realizes he is out on his own in danger of predator attacks. He then circles the herd looking for a way back in. The lead mare, staying near the herd but positioning herself between the herd and the trouble maker, blocks him with her body language and posture and only allows him to return to the safety of the herd after she sees from him some signs of apology and submission such as lowering the head and licking the lips while giving her his attention.
While it is possible for a human to elicit this same instinctive response from a horse by recreating this “driving away and allowing to come in” scenario in a round pen, I find it mostly unnecessary and many times counter-productive. I have seen many abuses of this procedure by well-known trainers as well as amateur trainers. In one particular video by a very prominent trainer the horse is chased around the round pen frantically running away from the lariat rope thrown at its hindquarters and being blocked and made to change directions repeatedly. This abuse went on for a very long time. When the trainer finally allowed the poor, young colt to stop, he was panting, sweat was pouring off of him, he was exhausted and traumatized while the trainer congratulated himself on having been successful at joining up with this horse – really?
In another video by a popular trainer engaged in this round pen method, the young horse continually offered to turn in and join the human but either through ignorance of being able to read the obvious body language signals of the willing horse or some other agenda unknown to all, the trainer refused to allow the horse to join-up and just kept chasing it around the round pen and changing its directions for quite a long while. By the time the trainer finally quit this nonsense the horse had moved past the point of being able to learn anything and was now just exhausted and confused by the aggression and mixed signals of the human.
If I want to be friends with a horse and build a cooperative partnership with this horse, why would I start a relationship by aggressively driving the horse away from me? It just does not make sense to me. In 2007 I competed in and won two different colt starting challenges, one in North Carolina and one in Virginia. In both of these competitions there were three round pens set up in a large arena. All the trainers would work at the same time with an untrained colt that had been placed in their individual round pen. We drew numbers to see which colt would be ours to train for the weekend. We had one hour on Friday evening, one hour Saturday morning, one hour Saturday afternoon and the final hour on Sunday morning. This was a spectator event during a large horse expo.
While I do not agree with making colt starting into a competitive event with time limits, I agreed to compete when invited in an effort to showcase to the public what I believe are the correct methods for starting a young colt. In both of the competitions, all of the other trainers entered their round pens on Friday evening and began their first session by chasing the horse around the pen by waving flags or throwing ropes at them. This went on for quite some time with frantic colts tearing around the pens stirring up dust. At the same time I entered my round pen, halter and lead rope in hand, calmly approaching and retreating from the young colt until he could accept my presence near him and my soft caress on his neck. Let’s start out being friends and building trust.
While the other trainers were now finding it difficult to approach and halter their horses, after beginning with an aggressive chasing away of their horses, I had already calmly haltered my horse and had taught him most of the Six Keys to Harmony exercises. Needless to say, I was able to accomplish much more productive training while allowing my horse to maintain a calm and thinking attitude. I noticed in the other trainer’s future sessions with their horses they did not begin with chasing them away, but unfortunately, the lack of trust had already been instilled in their horses.
With the many horses I have trained and colts I have started in the years since I quit using round penning as a first introduction, I have found I have been able to develop much more quickly with these horses a relationship of trust, partnership, communication and harmony that transfers smoothly from the ground to the mounted work. Horses desire and enjoy a relationship of trust, peace and comfort. Why not offer this from the beginning?
Another consideration in circle work is that longeing on a circle or in a round pen causes the horse to lean to the inside. Due to the inclination of the horses body the outside hind leg impacts the ground tilted on the inside hoof wall and the inside front leg impacts the ground tilted on the outside hoof wall. Due to this edge hoof wall impact, the abnormal stress placed on the hock of the outside hind leg causes degenerative arthrosis. After the inside front leg impacts the ground the hoof turns flat on the ground causing compressive forces on the cartilage surfaces of the lower joints and severe strains on the ligaments of the fetlock.
For this reason and others, I do not use a round pen when I find that I need a small enclosure for early training or certain issues. I use a 60 foot diameter square pen. For many centuries at the great riding schools of Europe the small square was and still is used for this type of training. In a round pen, the horse makes very few decisions and is maintained in the same curved shape of the pen whereas in a square pen the horse straightens himself on the straight sides and bends himself going through the corners creating more gymnastic benefit. Also the horse has to make decisions about what to do with the corners. He can get stuck in the corner, continue through the corner or change directions in the corner. Therefore the square pen engages more mental and physical activity which is not seen in the horse mindlessly going round and round in endless circles.
I find for ground work warm-up, The Six Keys to Harmony exercises are so much more productive than longeing because in those exercises we are gaining the horse’s attention, re-establishing our relationship of leadership and gymnastically exercising each individual body part of the horse right and left, forward and backward. The few times I use longeing for ground work warm up I do so mostly at walk and trot in the horse’s normal cadence and rhythm. Rushing the horse during longeing causes them to stiffen their backs rather than being relaxed and using their backs correctly. I will lunge occasionally at a canter as long as the canter is relaxed with proper cadence and balance. While longeing I will move parallel to the horse to create a rectangle or long oval shape to diminish the harmful tilted hoof impact caused by the circle. Going over ground poles and low jumps is beneficial to include in this type of longeing in order to strengthen the horse and encourage rounding of the back.
Don’t just mimic everything you see popular trainers do or that you read on the internet. I encourage you to discover the horse for yourself, learn from the horse, be creative, use your imagination and common sense.
Offer lightness and enjoy the journey……….
Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe. In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza. Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.
His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines. Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.
Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.