richard wintersRound pens are very popular at stables and ranches across the country. Yet, I’m not sure that people always have a good plan on how they’re going to work their horse once inside the round pen. Any time we work with our horse, it’s important to have an objective and be able to clearly communicate our ideas in a way that our horses can understand.

When a client brings me a horse for training, I like to begin opening the lines of communication while working in a round pen. It’s a safe environment for me to introduce myself to the horse. I can learn a lot about a horse and establish my leadership in the first and second sessions.

Here are a few things that I keep in mind when I work my horse on the ground at liberty in a forty to sixty foot round pen:
1) I want my horse to learn how to travel around the pen in a consistent manner without inadvertently changing directions.
2) I want him to stay out on the rail and not cut the corners when moving around.
3) I don’t want to have to beg him to move — In other words, I do not want to have to run around the pen chasing him to keep him moving.
4) When I take the pressure off my horse by backing away, I want him to turn and look at me. This is how I will help him understand how to face up in a willing and respectful manner when I step into the pen to catch him.

My body position is very important as my horse moves around the pen. I want to direct the energy toward his hindquarters. If I step towards his front end, I take a chance of cutting him off and he inadvertently changes direction. I want to see my horse move around with purpose. You don’t need to be aggressive as you send your horse around. However, you do need to be assertive. During this exercise, I want to see my horse begin to move around the pen efficiently. In other words, if it takes twenty pounds of energy to trot or lope around the pen, and my horse is putting forty pounds of energy into it, then I really haven’t helped him relax and he’s really not in a receptive frame of mind. I am looking for that point where my horse is not only physically warmed up, but he is mentally warmed up and engaged as well. This is the point when I will invite my horse to turn in and look at me. As I prepare my horse to turn in and face up, I envision my round pen as a clock. I’ve been keeping subtle pressure at my horse’s hind end, encouraging him to keep moving around the pen. As he trots around to 12 o’clock, I back straight up to 6 o’clock. (I won’t do this when he’s loping because things would probably be moving too fast and he would miss my suggestion.) In doing this, I’m taking all the pressure off my horse and trying to create a “draw” and inviting him into my space. I’ll back all the way up to the panel of the round pen. At this point, he has to make a decision. He can stop, turn and look at me (that’s the bare minimum positive response). He can keep on moving around the pen (if so, he’ll come right up to me anyway). Or he can turn into the fence and go off the other way. If he turns away from me, or if at any time he shows me his butt rather than his face, I’m going to chase him out of the way. I want him to realize that he can be comfortable if he faces me. If he chooses to be evasive and show me his rump, it will turn into more work for him. This round pen game exemplifies the horsemanship principle of “making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult”. This is how horses begin to hook on to us at liberty and willingly follow us around the pen. It’s not because we’re big pals, or that I’m a horse whisperer. It’s simply because a horse realizes that being with me is the best deal for him. Keep in mind that I mentioned backing straight away to 6 o’clock. Many people start backing up in a semicircle. Body language is what your horse understands, and it’s important that we are clear and consistent with our body movement and posture. Some horses learn this behavior quickly and want to come right in and be with you. Others offer the bare minimum and will only stop and face up. Once you’ve established this behavior, it’s important that you don’t allow your horse to come in to you whenever he feels like it. Keep your horse consistently moving around the perimeter of the pen until it is clearly your idea for him to come in.

Whatever you do, your goal should be to engage your horse’s mind and not just chase him around until he’s hot and sweaty. Having a plan when you step into the round pen will help you develop a horse that is not only physically fit, but mentally and emotionally fit as well. Please Google “Richard Winters Horsemanship YouTube Channel” for footage to compliment this article