ROUND PENNING

(And Why I Believe It Is Doing More Harm Than Good))


I don’t care for round penning at all. Round penning has become one of the most, if not THE MOST, abused tool in horsemanship today. Now that is a bold statement, but I will stand on that statement very firmly. It is, in my opinion, so abused that I refuse to work a horse in a round pen while performing demonstrations. Perhaps I should clarify that I refuse to do ‘round penning’ during my demonstrations.

Is the round pen a viable training tool?

Yes.

Is ‘round penning’ a viable training method?

Yes.

Does the concept of ‘round penning’ work within the horse’s psychological make up?

Absolutely.

So why the disdain of round pens and traditional round penning?

Because within the traditional way round penning is performed by 99% of horse owners, it works solely within a NEGATIVE psychological framework instead of a positive one.

I will explain but please understand that I will use some generalizations and over simplifications here so we can get straight to the point.

Horses are social herd animals. They are also prey animals with a flight/fight instinct. Although, the flight instinct (self preservation) far outweighs the fight instinct within them. It is important to the survival of the individual, the herd and the species, to remain within the groupings of a herd. In other words, there is safety in numbers. Herds are dominated by a stallion, but in reality are lead by, and taught by, the lead mare and subordinate mares within the herd. When a horse does something that is not acceptable within the rules of the herd, a higher ranking horse or the lead mare will run the horse out away from the herd and not allow that horse to return easily. The horse may circle the herd on the fringes but the lead mare is ready to drive him away and keep him separated. This separation, within the horse’s psychological framework means isolation and isolation means sure death from a predator. Eventually the isolated disciplined horse performs gestures of repentance such as licking the lips, lowering the head, assuming a softer more submissive posture, and in some cases performs the opening and closing of the mouth mimicking the “baby talk” of foals. Only then will the lead mare allow the horse to return to the herd. The horse has submitted, shown respect back to the lead horse and now knows its place within the herd.

It also has to do with the ladder of social hierarchy. Those who dominate, do so out of being able to control the other horse’s movement and control space. If a horse gets too close to another horse’s personal space, the second horse will either send the horse away in retreat out of his personal bubble, or will move himself out of the way and allow the approaching horse into his real estate. Either case, the one who moves and leaves is the submissive or subordinate horse. As long as the dominate horse can move her subordinates around at will, she will be viewed as leader…or perhaps just higher up on the ladder than those below her. It is about movement and controlling that movement of lesser horses feet and controlling real estate. Again, this is all generalized and over-simplified but I think you now get the idea. Now back to round penning…

Round penning works on this innate psychological hard wiring in the horse’s brain. We cannot change this hard wiring, so why not use it to our benefit, right? Right.

So why am I against it and why do I say that it works on the negative aspects of herd dynamics? Well, let’s examine a typical horse owner training or working their horse on any given day.

The owner arrives at the barn, grabs a halter and lead and heads out to the pasture to catch their horse. For sake of argument, let’s say the horse is easy to catch or even comes to the gate willingly when the owner calls it. The horse is compliant. The owner now halters the horse and leads through the gate and to the barn…compliant. The horse is now either tied to the hitching post or put in cross-ties and groomed. The feet are picked up and cleaned out, The horse may be clipped, mane banded or have a shedding blade to remove the shedding coat in Spring. Typical grooming duties…compliant. Next comes the saddling and while the horse may or may not feel the need to jig his feet a bit, the horse is still relatively compliant. All is well.

So the owner proceeds to grab a long lunge whip and take the horse out to the round pen. Horse follows along still compliant. (Hang in there with me, you will see my point in just a moment) The horse owner opens the round pen and leads the horse in, closes the gate and removes the halter from the horse….compliant, Up to this point, the horse has been willing and compliant.

BUT HERE IS WHERE IT ALL CHANGES….

Now all of a sudden the compliant horse is sent out away from the two horse herd (the owner and the horse). No more safety in numbers. The owner has now moved to the center of the pen and begun ‘DRIVING’ the horse out away from the safety of the herd leader (the human). But what terrible crime has the horse committed? Up to this point the horse has been compliant and willing. In his mind he hasn’t done anything wrong and yet, he is being disciplined and banished from the herd. On the mental and emotional aspects of horse training, this is working on the negative. In this example, the horse was trying to please and proving himself to be subordinate and respectful and yet, it wasn’t good enough. He is being disciplined and corrected for no apparent reason. So if all that trying wasn’t good enough, he may be thinking that he should try other ways to please.

If ‘natural horsemanship’ is not so much about techniques or methods and more about philosophy of being kinder and more gentle toward horses, and if it is about ‘seeing things from the horses point of view’, then you can see why this method of round penning actually may have a negative impact on the horse.

Another reason why I am against round penning as it is performed by hundreds of thousands of horse owners, is that they do not understand the principles behind the running of the horse in the pen. I blame this on a well known clinician’s method of round penning which was very popular several years ago. His entire method of horse training is based on achieving a connection with the horse in the round pen. This “join-up” came at a time when any form of ‘natural horsemanship’ was merely seen as more of an underground movement and not well known to the masses. It was certainly a better alternative than what was being done with horses at that time. So why am I against this trainer’s interpretation of round penning? Watch the tapes and what you will see is a horse that is run approximately 30 laps in one direction only to be turned in the opposite direction and run another 30 more. And 95% of these laps are done at a canter or fast trot.

Once again, this clinician is applying the herd dynamic of essentially driving the horse out from the herd until it shows one or more of the signs of compliance. At that time, the horse is then allowed an opportunity to stop and rest and ‘join-up’. The horse is very sweaty and out of breath. Again, it is solely based on the negative approach of discipline and correction.

Besides my objections stated above, what bothers me most is that this is where the majority of the abuse stems from. See, we as humans tend to lean toward a “fast food” mentality and that includes our horsemanship as well. We don’t want to take the time to truly study and understand the “hows and whys” behind things, we just want to do them. So while this well known clinician may indeed be using herd dynamics and horse psychology when performing his round penning method before large audiences, the vast majority of that audience will take home with them nothing more than the concept that if you run a horse around in circles and get him tired, he will beg to join-up with you and be a more respectful and willing horse. And THIS is where the abuse starts for millions of horses!!!

So the owner goes home and stands in the middle of their round pen and begin tossing a rope at their horse’s hindquarters t move them off much like the well known clinician did during his presentation. So they run their horse around and around in circles in the pen. But the human hasn’t learned all the principles and concepts behind that method so they just imitate or mimic what they saw the clinician do. But their timing of the release of pressure is not adequate enough to provide a proper release of mental, emotional and physical pressure. So the horse gets confused and may not turn when directed, or will speed up and run through the signal to change directions, or run right through the owner. Or they may even stop quickly at the gate pushing it with their chest to get out, whinnying to other horses that it has been separated from.

The human standing in the center of the round pen gets frustrated because the horse is being “disrespectful” and not listening to them, so they run them longer or harder. The horse is now more confused because it just followed the direction of the body signals that it read coming from the human…but the human was frustrated and wrong so now the horse is not performing correctly either. Again, the horse gets confused, the human gets frustrated and the situation worsens exponentially from that point forward.

Not one positive thing has come from this experience. Not for the human and most certainly not for the horse.

The next factor is a two sided coin……on one side, while round penning done correctly does in fact help build some stamina and develop balance and even suppleness to a degree, performed incorrectly, it only develops the body and does not create a well balanced training regimen for the horse mentally and emotionally as well as physically. So while the body develops over time, the mind gets numb. Nothing is worse than a horse who has been made ‘brain-dead’ by endless mind-numbing circles. But to the average horse owner, this is what they perceive to now be a respectful and quiet ‘partner’. No, it is not. The horse has essentially shut down any mental and emotional thought to be able to cope with the mindless lunging of circles. There is no real partnership in this type of training.

Horse owners erroneously believe that lunging their horse in the round pen is “exercising” them. I have been teaching clinics at barns where a horse owner has their horse stalled 24/7. They show up once or twice a week and take the horse out of the stall and into the round pen and “exercises” them for 40 minutes. They may or may not even ride. After the round penning is over, they brush the horse down, put him back in the stall and throw him a flake of hay. What complete and total mental and emotional anguish for this horse!!! And the whole while the horse owner believes that they have a relationship or partnership with their horse. After all, it IS their dream horse and they just love him soooo much. Again, this is why I state that round pens are one of, if not THE MOST abused tool in horsemanship.

Sometimes it is only because that is what they have been taught either by their well meaning horse friends or the local trainer. Look at any traditional horse book on the shelves at your local bookstore and you will see traditional round penning, and their traditional philosophy behind it, being taught in those books. They advocate lunging and round penning over and over again as a way to calm an over-anxious excited horse…or to get some respect from the horse….or to exercise them after being in a stall for long periods of time….etc., etc. And the authors of these books are only propagating the same gospel they themselves have heard preached but never took the time to examine for themselves. After all, in their minds, they have done it this way for a thousand years and the highest Spanish and Germanic schools of horse training do it this way so it must be right.

Mark Rashid also stated this very thing in his book “Considering The Horse” …

“However, at the same time, I also realize that many horse owners simply don’t know any better. They handle horses the way they’ve been taught and have never been introduced to any other way of handling them. Just like me, they will never know the difference if someone doesn’t make the effort to show them, or they don’t make the effort to find it. It has been my experience that most horse owners, when they realize that horses do indeed have a point of view, try to make an effort to work with the animal, instead of against it. Old attitudes can be changed. Sometimes it simply takes a little more effort and time than we’d originally thought. “

The other side of that same coin is that most people perform round penning in that manner is due to their own level of horsemanship not being adequate to meet their horse’s mental, emotional and physical needs. The only way they can cope with the higher level of their horse’s mental and emotional state is to wear them down physically first and then wear them down mentally and emotionally.

In simple terms….THEY DRAG THEIR HORSE DOWN TO THEIR OWN LEVEL INSTEAD OF RAISING THEIR LEVEL TO MEET THEIR HORSE’S NEEDS!!!

I hear people tell me all the time, “I have to round pen my horse for awhile before I ride him, or he is a butt.” ….Or…..”My horse has too much energy and so I have to lunge him in the pen for about 20 minutes to wear him down so I can get on him.”

If we go back to traditional round penning only develops the horse physically, then what took the owner 5 or 10 minutes to accomplish with this horse in the round pen, now takes 30 minutes several months down the road because the horse has developed physically and their stamina is now at a higher level than before. Well, if the owner couldn’t handle that horse’s stamina and felt a need to wear them down before riding, how much more “wearing down” do you think the horse needs now? This is a never-ending vicious cycle!!

What these people are truly saying is that they know of no other way to work their horse mentally and emotionally other than to exhaust him physically. I will state this here and now, if you find yourself HAVING to round pen your horse for more than say one minute or more than 4 laps in any direction every time you want to ride or work, there is a serious hole either in your training or your horse’s training. And I will bet dollars to doughnuts that the hole in the training belongs to you. Why? Because you are supposedly the leader of this partnership. Your horse didn’t pick you, YOU picked him. YOU brought him into YOUR world. So it should be YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to raise YOUR level of horsemanship to meet his needs. Period.

Let me tell you a lesson that the late great Grandmaster Ed Parker used to use frequently. Grandmaster parker is widely known as the Father of American Kenpo and highly respected and regarded. He is a legend in the martial arts world. He was able to translate complex physics, and martial arts principles, concepts and theories into a very simplistic ideas capable of being understood by everyone. His contribution to the martial arts world is phenomenal.

Grandmaster Parker would draw a straight line on the floor about five feet long and then ask the students, “How can you make this line shorter?” Students would study it and give all sorts of answers. Erasing, cutting the line into pieces, etc., etc….GM Parker would then draw a second line parallel to the first only much longer. “Now how does the first line look to you?” Everyone immediately would yell out, “Shorter!!!” To this, GM Parker would simply state, “It is always better to improve and strengthen your own line. Make it longer. Make it stronger. It is always better to do this than try and cut your opponent’s line shorter.”

The Zen-like lesson learned here directly relates to horsemanship. As I stated before, people have given up on horses too early. Why? Because the horse was above their level of horsemanship. The horse’s line was too long. So they worked on erasing and cutting the horse’s line down to the owner’s level of horsemanship. They drag the horse down. Instead, had they tried to improve their own line…tried to better and strengthen their own line, the horse’s line would have seemed shorter. In simple terms, instead of raising their own level of horsemanship to meet and surpass the horse’s level, they chose to drag the horse’s level down to their own

But most people don’t see it that way. Most of the blame falls on the horse. The vast majority of people will tell me that they know how to ride and that they have been riding since they were 3 years old, and in fact, started mustangs for their dearly departed grandfather at age 5. They have perfect hands and seat and know everything there is to know about horses. They are quick to point out that they have “been into horses” a lot more years than I have been alive on this earth. You know what, to tell the truth, that means absolutely nothing to me. Most importantly, it means absolutely nothing to the horse. So if there is any hole in the training, according to them, it must be the fault of the horse. <sigh> And if they cant drag this horse down enough, they sell him off and buy another and begin the entire process all over again with the new horse. These people never really have a horse for life. They never have a true “partner”. The horses somehow always have issues and so they continue to bounce from horse to horse.

We will be covering more on the topic of dragging the horse down to the human’s level and blaming the horse for every thing later on.

The “ideal” training regimen, whether inside or outside the round pen, would provide a well-balanced level of mental and emotional as well as physical activities and training. And it should ALWAYS focus on the mental and emotional aspects FIRST. If this is done properly, the physical will follow along quite nicely. Think about it for a second, you cannot have the horse’s respect and mental and emotional control and not have the physical control to go along with it. It’s impossible. If you have complete mental and emotional control, you will have the physical control as well. But 99% of the people performing round penning don’t balance out the training regimen. They focus strictly on the physical training and physical behavior and so they never truly grasp the horse’s mental and emotional state and these are the two components of the horse that offer the relationship that a partnership is built on. So the relationship is always one dimensional.

Let me ask you this….Do you want your horse to be with you because it has no choice? Do you want it to be with you because if it doesn’t than you will discipline it and force a way to make it be with you?

I don’t ever want someone watching me to go home and mimic what I do without ever having full knowledge of how and why I do certain things…the principles and concepts behind my methods. Oh I know that there will always be those people who are just imitators. I just don’t want anything that I do to become a stumbling block between horses and their humans.

RADICAL THINKING, ISN’T IT?! Don’t do traditional round penning or lunging in the round pen. Step outside of the pen. Raise your own level of horsemanship to meet your horse’s needs. Find better ways to stimulate your horse mentally, emotionally and physically. Find better ways to create an opportunity for join-up. Be able to ride your horse while it is fresh and not completely worn out. Have much more fun with your horse. Have your horse want to be with you as a respectful, trustful and most importantly - WILLING PARTNER.

This is why I prefer to share with my students and clinic participants a better way of achieving a join up or creating a partnership. A method that works within the POSITIVE dynamics of horse psychology. I would prefer to take longer and build a partnership where my mare is with me because she WANTS to be with me and is willing to stay with me not because she has been essentially forced into being in a partnership but rather that she believes I am a leader and partner worthy of being around. Coming from a horse, this is the highest form of praise a human can receive.

But first, as in any new endeavor, you need to prepare yourself to make changes. Regardless of training experience, regardless of peer pressure, etc., only YOU will be able to open yourself up to not accepting what is the norm and making changes. And the goal of those changes should be for the betterment of you and your horse. Nothing else matters and no one else matters. At the end of the day its only you and your horse.

Are you courageous enough to take a stand regardless if it means that in the end you are standing alone….?