Training ~ Round Pen/Square Pen - Part 1 ("Printer Friendly" version of this page)
You have probably heard of the expression “Join-Up” which is a trademarked term Monty Roberts uses to describe his process of round penning to get the horse to accept you as the leader. For purposes of this article, we are going to refer to a similar concept called “hooking on” to avoid any copyright infringement. Buck Brannaman, Pat Parelli, and John Lyons uses similar techniques and so do many other horsemen.
Many people are firmly entrenched in this approach to training. Buck Brannaman, Pat Parelli, and some other horsemen have the “big picture” when it comes to utilizing round pen concepts. And, there are some good things to utilize from Monty Robert’s and John Lyon’s training approaches too. But it’s only a small part of the purpose of round pen work. Their central theme is centered around using the round pen to get the horse to draw to you in an act of submission. Monty has made a living out of showing people how this one aspect of horsemanship can have a huge impact on starting a horse. While this concept is important, it’s only one piece of the greater horsemanship puzzle. Proponents of clicker training have a complete different take on this concept. By targeting, the horse will naturally draw into the trainer much easier because the horse can see the benefit to being with the person rewarding him. This approach works well for many horses and owners and can be a good alternative to the round pen. Unfortunately, people with poor timing and no feel aren’t going to benefit much from this either. Different horses respond to different things. They have different life experiences. Some were started correctly, some have been manhandled, and some don’t know that they are horses. If you could train every horse the same way by “recipe” every time out training would be much simpler.
Round Pen vs. The Square Pen
Do you have to own a round pen in order to train your horse? The answer is emphatically NO! There are other ways of training without the round pen to get the same, maybe even better results. You may spend more time, but you may actually have a better horse because of it. The reason is that you have to be more aware of your posture and position in relationship to the horse in order to get the desired result. You get to kind of “cheat” in the round pen.
The Round Pen
The round pen is a tool that can make your training job much easier if used effectively. Unfortunately, too many people use them as a place to run their horse in circles – just like they think longeing is for. The round pen comes in different sizes with 40, 50, & 60 feet being the most common. Round Penning is a term that is almost as over-used and misunderstood as “ Natural Horsemanship”. The idea behind round penning is to build an artificial environment, which is conducive to training the horse. It is almost ideal in that respect because the horse is forced to pay attention to you due to the curved nature of the walls. And, it’s relatively easy to push the horse out and to cut them off to force changes in direction. For the most part, the round pen is a good tool when used by a competent horseman. However, I’m not a big believer in using one. They do have their place when working with horses with very dominant attitudes -- wild horses, stallions, very cranky mares, etc. definitely benefit from the use of a round pen. Don’t take this wrong; if you have one then use it. But, there’s no reason to go out and buy one for the one to two horses that you’re likely to use it with. Invest that time and money into learning to read the posture of your horse and both you and the horse will be further ahead. Round pens do a few things for you that may seem harder to accomplish in a square area:
The Square Pen
Using a square area to round pen a horse? Why not? By Square Pen we mean arena, paddock, fenced pasture, etc. Using an area like this is more difficult than a round pen, but the end results are the same. The same Round Pen concepts apply; squaring up, the draw, posture, direction, and yielding. The obvious things that you’ll notice is that the horse has more freedom to move and doesn’t have to focus on you like they do in the round pen. This is not a bad thing; it’s just something else to be aware of. Corners and gates are natural stopping spots for the horse – they tend to get “stuck” in these spots. If you have an arena or fenced paddock, consider putting tube panels in the corners to keep the horse out of them at first. The straight fences or rails cause the horse to be in a neutral position as far as posture. You need to be much more aware of the horse’s posture, and where the head, feet and body are because the horse may not be bent like it would in the round pen. And, it may take more time. We’ve made this sound pretty unpleasant haven’t we!
Round/Square Pen Concepts
Whatever type of environment you utilize for training, round pen, arena, paddock, etc. the same principles apply. The work zone, posture, yields; squaring up, and the draw are all relevant concepts but may be put into use a little differently depending on the environment.
Another thing to avoid is wasting energy. Many trainers believe that you use the round pen to break down the horse – that is when the horse is completely exhausted and submits to you then you go to work on drawing the horse in and hooking on”. That’s the same type of logic that these type of trainers use to justify other “training” principles too. Any time that the horse makes more than two circles around the round/square pen, you’re just wasting energy and time. If the horse is bent to the outside, stop him by either moving into his space or using a tool (a rope, flag, etc.) to change direction.
The Work Zone
When working with the horse think about the area directly in front of your body. You may have heard us refer to this as the “work zone”. It’s the area between your arms and legs. If you understand the concept behind longeing you already know what this zone is.
Imagine that you are standing with a horse directly in front of you and the horse is parallel to you with its head on the right and the hindquarters on the left. The zone behind the horse (on your left) is the energy or power area. If you step behind the horse or use your left hand, or tools with energy you should get the horse to move off or out of the area from this pressure. The zone in front of the horse is the direction and space area. If you step in front of the horse (over to the side), you should get the horse to either change direction or stop – depending on your posture.
Here’s an exercise you can do to check this out. Stand with your horse directly in front of you about 20 feet. Ask your horse to walk off by using pressure (try waving your arm lightly). When the horse moves off, watch to see if they are focused on you (ear and eye). When you know you have the horse’s attention, step over into the horse’s path. The horse should stop. You just changed the horse off your posture. Now lower your shoulders and take a step backwards. Did the horse square up on you? Better yet, did the horse square up on you and then coming walking towards you? That’s the goal with this exercise.
The Feet Work towards soft feet. You want the horse to pick up his feet when he’s moving, not shuffle them. You also want the horse to move correctly, look for subtle things; in the canter does the horse ” bunny hop”? Is the horse on the right lead? If he is, don’t let him quit with this type of movement. This is the time to work on these things. Pay attention to diagonals (left front/right rear & right front/left rear) when the horse is walking or trotting. Get the horse to track up. Again, when you’re working on the ground this stuff all goes into what the horse expects under saddle. You should also be able to ask your horse to lift a certain foot without moving from in front of him, with no lead rope/halter.
Yielding A horse that knows how to yield (to a human) will yield to you in the round/square pen too. Probably the easiest yield to accomplish is the eye/shoulder yield. You do this by pushing the front of the horse over with your hand, lead rope or other tool. You’re just moving the horse off of pressure. It should be possible to ask the horse, at liberty, to shift his weight from front to back, or off one leg. At liberty and without touching him, he will be able to disengage his hindquarters by following your body position. Watch how the horse moves when you ask for direction. Ideally, the horse should move the correct foot when you ask for a change. You can ask the horse to yield wherever body part you want, it just may not be obvious how to do this.
With the horse squared up on you, make your posture “bigger” and direct your energy at the horse’s nose and the horse should step backwards. To teach this, you may have to walk towards the horse in this posture. Again, with the horse squared up on you, lower your shoulders – invite the horse into your space. You may have to take a step backwards. The horse should “draw” into you and take a step or two forward. While standing in front of the horse, step over to either side and push the front of the horse over with an eye yield from either side. You should be able to move the outside front foot when you ask for this yield. While standing in front of the horse, step over to either side and add some pressure to the mid-section or rear of the horse. You are yielding the hindquarters and they should move out of the way. And remember, the horse is never going to figure out what you’re asking if all you do is “drill” these things in. You must REWARD for appropriate behavior.
Believe it or not utilizing the round or square pen for these exercises is actually a form of free longeing. If you think about it, the same two concepts apply and you control both of them:
1). Direction: Where do you want to the horse to go?
2). Energy: How much energy do you want the horse to use to get there?
This is easier than it sounds. For example, if you want to longe your horse counter clockwise (to the left). Use your left hand to ask for direction, hold the lead rope (or wave your hand) with a little bit of pressure. Did your horse move into the direction that you asked? Twirl the rope overhand directed at the horses rear. Did the horse move off?The round pen simulates the 20-meter circle. When you get your horse working well in either the round or square pen, you’ll notice that the horse naturally gravitates towards staying about this distance out from you. What’s amazing about this is that you can get your horse to “round pen” in an open pasture and keep this 20-meter distance pretty reliably if you work with the horse.