Know what your goals are. Don’t just round pen to wear your horse down and don’t round pen unless you have a specific goal in mind for training. For example, when I round pen a horse the first thing I want to teach that horse is to look at me for direction. Then I want to teach that horse hand signals and body language that I will use every time I am with that horse. So let’s say I want that horse to turn to the right when I am free lunging it, or have it on the lunge line, or just standing in front of it and need it to turn for some reason. If the horse turns to the right when I point that direction, then I have accomplished a specific goal. What if I want that horse to just stand still without moving off? I can teach it that too by using the round pen.
Why use the round pen to teach these things? Have you ever watched a herd of horses communicate with each other? They use their ears, eyes, nostrils, facial expressions, tail switching, legs for kicking or threatening a kick, nose out for pushing, etc. Obviously, we as humans can’t mimic some of these things, so what does this tell us? Horses use lots and lots of body language to communicate and are very specific with some of their commands towards each other. The ones we can mimic are our legs (arms for pointing), eyes ( for pushing), chest (moving towards a specific body part for pushing), voice and of course, the dreaded crop (as an extension of our arm only). A word here about the crop. Please, please don’t use it for punishment or in anger towards your horse. Use it as an extension of your arm to reach specific body parts of your horse while your body is out of the way, or to tap specific body parts to teach a cue. The only time I would ever crop a horse to hurt it is if I were being attacked and needed to protect myself. Horses in a herd have the freedom to move away from each other to show submission and acceptance. However, since we want our horses to stay with the lesson and not have to chase them around, the round pen allows your horse that freedom of movement to move away from us without going too far. When they submit and accept, they will lick, chew, drop their head, move their ears forward to listen to us, start to look at us with both eyes and want to come into us and follow us around. Some call this joining up. That is what we are after when I talk about getting our horses to look at us for direction. And we don’t have to kick them, bite them, beat them or chase them around until they are about to drop to get this attention.
The first thing I want to do to establish myself as the lead mare in my two “horse” herd in the round pen is to push the horse away. Watch how horses push a new horse away from the herd when first introduced for days until they gradually let that horse into the herd. I am doing a shortened version of that. I push the horse away asking it to move whatever direction it wants to say, I am in control here. Then I start telling the horse to change directions, inside turn or outside turn, it doesn’t matter, just as long as it turns when I say. They choose the speed in which they go around the pen. That is their freedom. After telling the horse to turn then I get more specific about which way to turn. Again, just stand in the middle of the ring quietly to let the horse know that it is doing it’s job and you are in control. When asking it to move or turn, walk towards it’s rear or shoulder pointing the direction you want it to turn. It will quickly pick up on your hand signals, because you are also pushing with your chest to move it away from you in a certain direction. Horses don’t like to be pushed and are more than willing to do what you ask rather than be forced to perform. Play with this, take your time and practice, practice, practice. The more you repeat the lesson, the more firm it becomes in the horses mind and the better you get at training.
Watch for more on round penning in the future when I will go into more detail about specific requests such as; standing still (round tieing), walk, trot, canter on voice command, going over poles, etc.