Removing Round Pen Rituals

Personal perspective on using a Round Pen

I find 95% of folks misuse a round pen, whether under the guise of "exercising," lunging or teaching the horse conditioned responses.

Let's use the example of learning to face the human and be caught. So many of the videos and real life scenarios I see of folks "working" the horse in the round pen, whether they are a professional or not, are incessantly "driving" the horse's movement with flags, whips, sticks, ropes, etc.

So as the human is continuously adding spatial pressure, even with the horse already usually moving at a high rate of speed- with rarely an acknowledgement of the horse's efforts and a release of pressure from the human- the horse learns, the only way to make the pressure go away is to stop, or quit fleeing. To me, this is a bullying tactic that only "works" because the horse is contained in a small area. What would happen if you were in a big pasture?

So the horse may physically stop and turn and face the center of the pen, but the horse's emotions and mental state is usually not relaxed, confident nor has the experience increased his trust in the human.

Each time the horse turns and faces sooner in the session, the human is usually taking this physical response as a "good" sign, because the person is focusing on the horse's behavior, not his mental and emotional state.

The problem with teaching conditioned responses like this and patterns is the day you change the routine, you get a fire breathing dragon instead of the docile horse you thought you had.

So what happened? Most horses learn the pattern in order to get the human to leave them alone. There's not a lot of thought or clarity, it is just a form of "escaping" the pressure created by the human. The human in turn incorrectly assumes that because the horse is being so "helpful" by automatically doing something they might ask of their horse, that the horse is okay. More times than not, he is not.

For me the round pen allows an opportunity in a safe place where the horse and I can have open two way communication. It is an opportunity to assess if the horse is mentally available to physically participate with me. If any sort of fast movement or continuous movement occurs, there's typically a brainless-ness and flee to it. The slower the horse can move in the pen, in a thoughtful and intentional manner, the more the experience will have a long lasting, positive effect on the horse.

Most horses that arrive with "behavioral issues" (which is often a symptom, not the issue) is a direct result of constant mental and emotional stress created by humans. The horse is rarely considered when the human has an agenda. So often the horses are bullied into doing things that really bother them and "all of a sudden" they act dramatic, resistant and dangerous.

No, it wasn't all of a sudden. Most folks do not notice, believe or address when their horse is "asking" for help in polite minor behaviors. It only is until the person can no longer ignore the escalating dramatic behavior displayed by the horse showing that he is having a problem, has fear, worry or concern that the persona then realizes the horse is concerned.

So as I start a colt, re-educate an older horse or fine tune a finished one, the round pen can be a tool. Could the same conversation happen while in the pasture, being led or tacked? Yes. It is not about location, shape of fence or teaching a patternized response. It is about a quality conversation that sets you and your horse up to be successful.

But folks are actually taught to create patterns and conditioned, brainless responses in the horse, not realizing that by doing so, they are teaching their horse to mentally shut down or check out. So the horse is now mentally unavailable and defensive towards the rider's opinion, and then the person wonders why it seemed so "good" in the round pen, but so different on the ride.

The importance of opening the door to a quality conversation prior to the ride, becomes overwhelmingly apparent if the horse is physically and mentally bothered, fearful, or insecure. If you're wanting to feel like you can influence what is ABOUT to happen, to help him learn to think through his concerns, this diffuses any potential dramatic behavior, BEFORE you get on. There's no need to "wait and see," what the ride will be like; if I see he's bothered now, it'll only get worse in the saddle.

By not offering a horse TIME to think through scenarios, learn to become reasonable in his emotions, but instead just attempting to physically exhaust him, will not address the root cause of his bother and is setting up the horse to be defensive during the ride.... "All of sudden..." is never actually a random occurrence, rather it is usually an accumulation of ongoing concern, where each experience has been filling the horse's emotional "cup," which has now overflowed and then the physical explosion happens.

As with everything, something that can be a safe, confidence building and supportive tool based in how it is presented by one person can also be a horrific experience for the horse if someone with ego, time limitations, and ulterior motives uses it...

Just my thoughts.

Are you too far away to participate in a lesson, training or clinic? Be sure to visit my new site dedicated to Remote Coaching to find out how I can help you on your journey of horsemanship.

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