Round pen Annie
by Scott Phillips
Round and round and round they go.
A neighbor of mine owns horses. Let's call her Annie. Come to think of it everyone on the road owns horses. Some are pasture pets, some are ropers, some are reiners, some are trail horses. But everyone has at least two horses. It's akin to having a lawn ornament in the suburbs. If you don't have one, you're the odd one on the block.
Back to Annie. She's decent folk, no argument there. But I firmly believe that she considers the round pen a shrine. A temple, the confines of which is the only place to ride a.horse. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen her ride outside a round pen.
Her round pen is 35' in diameter.
Many people tend to use a round pen with good intent, but for the wrong reasons. A round pen isn't a place to burn off energy nor solve every problem. It's an excellent tool when used properly, but it is not synonymous with ground work. It certainly isn't a place to go for a ride!
Leaning on the tie rail at Annie's farm, I was a witness to same old routine. Annie walked into the round pen and her energy level went from 0 to 10 instantly. Her gelding broke into a trot. However she kept her energy at the same level, smacking the ground continuously with her lunge whip. I wasn't sure if she was working a horse or de-thatching the grass. I turned to an onlooker and said, "What is she doing?" Inquiring, of course, as to the purpose of her actions. "She's round-penning her horse!" she replied, admonishing me with a tone that implied I'd never seen a round pen before, let alone a horse.
What I didn't see though, was a purpose. There was no communication. Even though the horse was trotting as asked, Annie never let her energy level drop. Oddly enough, the horse appeared quite relaxed to me, perhaps even bored. He had obviously been through this before and had learned that there was no motive, no intention and no reward. Nothing was being asked of his mind. Annie however, was dripping sweat.
Being round and of limited size, the round pen removes several options for the horse. That can work for you, if it suits and serves your motive. Initial work with a colt is a good example. You can use that space to your advantage in developing your basic communication: teaching the horse to read your movements and energy. And learning to read and feel your horse's movement and energy.
Josh Nichol is one of Canada's top horsemen. My colt Chip and I recently enjoyed some time with him at the Eagle's Wing Ranch, near Athabasca. I've spent time with Chip since his birth. He started playing on obstacle courses in his first few weeks, and had his first taste of mountain trails at three months. He is very comfortable with people, yawning the first time I climbed on his back. In Chip's case, the round pen was a perfect venue to evaluate the training I'd done, and to clean up a few things. That didn't last long however, and Chip's first outing on a real trail, with me on his back of course, took place that week.
Recently Josh and I chatted about his views on the round pen.
"I find the round pen a great place to work on basic communication, and an opportunity for a horse and human to see where they stand with each other. Communication with a horse is talking to the mind, not the body. Understand the horse's needs with respect to communication: mind, space and pressure. Pressure should draw the mind, not chase the body. The round pen needs to be a safe place where the horse can hook on to a human by thinking through pressure rather than running from it. I like to use the round pen mostly to allow a horse the opportunity to freely express themselves. I can work with that, instead of just seeing it out on the trail as a surprise."
A key phrase here is 'freely express themselves.' Too often we see people using the round pen as a venue to make the horse work harder if he makes, in your judgement, the wrong decision. Turn your emotions off and allow your horse to voice his opinion and not be punished for it. Realize that you are working with his mind, not his body. Do not fall into a repetitive pattern of negative reinforcement by making the horse work harder when he doesn't do what he's asked.
Instead, use the round pen to set up situations where the horse can succeed. Positive groundwork accomplished in the round pen establishes your foundation for communication and leadership. Your horse will learn that when you are applying pressure, you're asking him to think, not run in fear.
Now that you and the horse are comfortable communicating, it's time to leave that confined area and give him more options. Particularly when riding, he needs to be allowed the opportunity to make the wrong decision and also the opportunity to assume responsibility.
The next time you head to a round pen with a horse, ask yourself these questions:
1. What is my goal? What are the specific things that we're trying to improve on? If you don't have an answer you won't know to gauge how well your horse-and you-are succeeding.
2. What am I looking for? What specific actions or signs am I looking for from my horse? Communication is a two way street; you have to be listening to your horse as well.
3. Do I even need a round pen? Should I be in the pasture, arena or on a trail instead? You'll find that communication with your horse becomes more natural and even subconscious when you focus on the task at hand, such as negotiating a trail or working a cow.
The round pen is a tool that can play a role in vital groundwork: developing the skills you need to communicate with your horse using energy, intention and body language, as opposed to your hands and feet. Those skills translate directly to what you do in the saddle. In concept it's simple. In reality it's a lot of work because as humans, we're used to manipulating our environment with our hands. If you grasp this concept and put it into practice then you're starting on the path of a true horseperson: working with the horses mind.
As for Annie, we're just hoping she doesn't get dizzy from all those circles!
Scott Phillips is a co-founder of Amazing Backcountry, and an executive director of the Canadian Cowboy Challenge. When not riding his horses in the mountains he manages Spudhorse, his equine software and marketing business. Contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org
AlbertaBits FALL 2013
PERSONALLY I USE THE ROUND PEN, AND ALWAYS HAVE, VERY SELDOM; WORKING WITH A GREEN BROKE HORSE [OR ONE YOUR BREAKING TO BEGIN WITH] AND THAT'S ABOUT IT FOR ME.
ANOTHER TIP [FROM A BOOK I HAVE WRITTEN BY AN EX USA OLYMPIC SHOW-JUMPING GUY]; GIVE YOUR HORSE VARIETY - HE WAS WRITING THIS IN HIS BOOK ON "JUMPING" - AND WAS TELLING SHOW JUMPERS TO DO MORE WITH THEIR HORSE THAN JUST JUMPING ALL THE TIME. HE WENT ON TO SAY, YOUR HORSE NEEDS SOME VARIETY, NEVER GET IN THE POSITION THAT YOUR HORSE SAYS, WHEN SEEING YOU, "OH NO, HERE WE GO AGAIN SAME OLD OLD STUFF." HE ADDED, FOR THOSE INTO SHOW-JUMPING, TAKE YOUR HORSE OUT ON A TRAIL RIDE, GIVE THE HORSE SOME VARIETY.