(And Why I Believe It Is Doing More Harm Than Good))
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?
penning’ a viable training method?
Does the concept
of ‘round penning’ work within the horse’s psychological
So why the
disdain of round pens and traditional round penning?
the traditional way round penning is performed by 99% of horse owners, it
works solely within a NEGATIVE psychological framework instead of a positive
I will explain
but please understand that I will use some generalizations and over simplifications
here so we can get straight to the point.
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
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…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
also stated this very thing in his book “Considering The Horse”
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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