The Use of the Round Pen: Applied Practical Horsemanship

By Bob Sagely


The roundpen is great for refining already good horses and for re-aligning the thinnking of horses who have people problems

In recent times the round pen has resurfaced as a popular tool for the horseperson (HP), both in the United States and increasingly abroad. Though it never really disappeared from the US West, the resurgence of its use by many backyard horse owners and professional trainers alike seems to be associated with what is deemed a "new" breed of HP. A common profile of the premier "natural horsemen" leading this movement is one who has worked or grown up on cattle ranches in the western US and typically includes having "earned their spurs" using the round pen to start horses under saddle. But the RP's history is long and its usefulness is not limited just to getting a horse going for the first few rides. It can serve as an effective tool that allows the human to shape, or reshape, the horse's natural and manmade behaviors and acclimate the horse to living and working with a human. It is great for great beginnings and terrific for refining or reclaiming an older horse. And just as its proper use is based on a thorough understanding of some basic horse psychology, its misuse has always generated stories that can leave anyone shaking their head in disgust. This can be true of just about any equipment in the equestrian world. This article explains my opinions on what that proper use of the pen should be and also gives the HP unfamiliar with this tool a reasonable set of expectations to work with regarding its use.

What is it?

Typical construction involves a circular enclosure from 45 to 60 feet in diameter and a top rail at least six foot high. Any smaller diameter does not afford room for the horse to "get away" and think things through if needed. Any larger is just plain too much work for us two-leggers. The fence can be of solid or open, permanent or portable panel construction. In permanent pens, and at least one manufacturer's portable setup, the fence can be canted outward to allow for less accidental rider to rail contact when riding. Some folks believe that a taller, closed or solid panel enclosure helps the horse to focus on the human and that may be true. But it seems also to be true that the sooner the horse learns to focus and be with the owner or rider, despite outside distractions, the better for the relationship. Expecting 100% focus 100% of the time is maybe more than we should expect but it is certainly something we can ask for and be pleased about should we get something close to that. As the ability to focus on us grows so do the elements of trust and confidence, both the horse's and our own.

There are many pre-fabricated, portable metal panel pens available on the market today. Care should be taken to ensure that they are of sufficient quality and strength for use with the handling of "rough" stock, though this should not be taken to mean rough handling of your horse in here. This merely refers to panels that are a little tougher and heavier in their construction and not intended by the manufacturer for just enclosing a horse for a purpose such as stabling or overnight camping. Care should also be taken to see that the way the panels are joined will not easily cause or allow injury to a horse. While the whole purpose of using the RP is to help the horse get around his natural inclination to flee, it happens on occasion that the HP misjudges the sensitivity of a particular animal or, as in any thing we humans do, stuff just happens. If the horse does "challenge" the panels they should hold up and be relatively "horse-safe". Solid construction should employ the same care. If you are skilled with a catch rope and plan to use one in the RP it is an advantage to have a smooth top edge so as not to catch the loop on a post and horse at the same time.

Along with safe construction it is important that the ground inside the RP has good footing for horse and human. Rockless is supreme, good drainage is surely preferred and a shock absorbing material very nice. Discussion of the best combination of materials is endless and often of a personal preference. Grass footing is generally going to be slippery to horse and human, but with much use the grass inside the RP will disappear quickly anyhow. Suffice it to say that rockless is one on which nearly all folks heartily agree while other ground surface choices have their various proponents.

Basic principles of using the round pen

As the horse's ability to focus on us grows, so do the elements of trust and confidence, both the horse's and our own.

A basic concept when using the RP is that a horse, being primarily a creature of flight response, can escape the pressure or uneasiness it feels from the HP by moving its feet and putting some distance between human and horse. With its feet in gear the horse can often find some solace and at the least avoid its second instinctual response, that of turning to fight. By using the space inside the RP appropriately the HP can provide enough room for the horse to stop and consider the perceived threat and maybe decide it is not so much so. The HP can then begin the process of establishing communication with the horse and developing in the horse an ability to cooperate with the human and to yield to pressure, at liberty, in hand and under saddle. The horse can think instead of react instinctually and begin to feel the differences in the HP's presentation of pressure.

A common misconception of the application of pressure in the RP is that you simply chase the horse around the pen. He has somewhere to go so some folks will just begin a mindless process that really does not engage the horse in any effort to think about what is going on. When the horse feels he must run, the thoughtless HP keeps the pressure on no matter what answer the horse tries to arrive at. So the horse does run until it can run no more. This is no better than lunging a horse to make him tired instead of doing some mindful lunging to engage his mind. It does not teach the horse anything to chase him around but it does get him in great shape so that today's ten laps takes fifty inside of a week to get him "tuned down". Very simply a horse will listen better when we talk more clearly to him. Chasing him around reinforces his fear. Letting him move and consider other answers to the dilemma of our presence and our requests will help him let go of his fear. Seems to me that initially many horses, when confused by our actions, think better with their feet moving or by putting some distance between us and them. My own experience has been that if the horse learns he can leave, should he feel the need, he is more apt to stay and think it through. This helps a horse to see we can help him through tough spots and the horse becomes more focused on staying with us to find the answers. This in turn helps build those areas of trust and confidence in us humans as something to stay with rather than get away from.

One of the sadder stories I have heard was of a pair of men in Arizona that, in the early heat of a Southwestern summer, ". did just what we saw a famous clinician do last week." They ran the horse to exhaustion resulting in its death. The most powerful tool we humans have when coming to a horse to ask for its cooperation is our mind. Thinking things through, knowing what we would like to have happen, yet being able to adjust and consider the horse's side of things too, is going to get us more than any piece of equipment or methodology mindlessly applied will ever get us. Making a connection with the horse through our thoughtful presence will allow for all else that we may use to be used to its fullest measure and benefit in building the relationship we want with the horse.

When looking at how to use the enclosed space of the RP to help a horse connect with a human, it is important to understand that a horse will be what he is and he will become what we help him to become. Some horses will be extremely willing to move right off and cruise around with the slightest of push, a raised hand, a taller stance or the swing of a lead rope. Others are so dependent or stuck on a human at the start that getting them to understand that moving off from the human is alright proves to be more difficult for them. And while some folks think that you should not ask a horse to leave you if he is willing to stay next to you, I have a different opinion on that score. I believe that chasing them off when they would stay is certainly not a good thing any more than I believe chasing them around the RP is a good thing. But being able to ask your horse to move away and then to come back in is a very good thing. This is about getting the horse to cooperate with you and to respond to your requests (the classic cues), whether from a rein, a lead rope or your body position and stature. And this builds what I think control of a horse by a human is really about. He learns to be with you and to cooperate yet maintains his individuality and independence or spirit. His mind controls his own feet and his reactions to our requests. We really only have control to the extent that the horse trusts us and is willing to comply, whether on the ground in hand, under saddle or at liberty in the RP or a fifty acre pasture. Our control of a horse is therefore fragile at best, if it exists at all. A constant realization on our part that no amount of equipment will exert more control over the horse than his own mind can will do more to build a quality relationship than any one thing I believe can be done between horse and human. A relationship with a horse is a two-way deal. We should truly honor that idea if we are to gain trust, build confidence and develop a relationship with a horse.

Some folks use extensions of their arms, such as driving whips or stock rods, in the early stages of developing a relationship in the RP and communicating what they wish the horse to do. Others use a catch rope (the cowboy lasso) which can also extend their on-line contact or just get the horse used to something that might usually put them into flight mode. Some will use ground driving in long lines which can be effective in teaching basic rein cues before riding for the first time. The horse learns what the pull of a rein means and after all he can only get so far away from you in the RP, so running off if he becomes scared or confused is not going to happen. No matter what practitioner's special gear and/or methodology you choose to use, the RP effectiveness resides not in these things but more importantly in the mind that the HP brings to the pen. Often a tough situation with a horse can be turned around for the better by simply changing the frame of reference we use to "see" what is going on or what the horse is doing.

Too often we assume the horse has motives and intentions it may well not have. My opinion is that horses will always give you the best try they can. Experience has borne this out for me. A positive approach to any difficult horse situation bears what many have told me were unbelievable results. I simply believe that any horse can. So a clear mindfulness of ourselves and the horse will help us succeed in any changes we would ask the horse to make. Anger and fear have no place in a horse/human relationship so we should not bring these things into the RP and we should do what we can to keep them out of the relationship altogether.

I try to use gear and methods that make sense to me and do not reinforce any resistance the horse might bring to the situation. Whether prompted by instinct or past handling, resistant horses are challenging to deal with. I promote building a cooperative independence with the animal, a different take than some RP users who seek to establish themselves in an alpha horse/dominant role. I happen to believe the horse won't ever see us as a dominant horse, we just are not going to look right or smell right. I also do not feel that domination is how I want to build a relationship with a horse. I am not convinced that it is necessary to take things that far. I think that the horse can learn to respect us and our presence without our resorting to the dominance model. The horse can cooperate with us if we show him that we can handle ourselves and the situation we are building with respect, trust and confidence. These things go from us to the horse and come back to us from the horse and combine to form a very powerful dynamic. So it is not really a matter of domination that I seek in the RP. Instead I try to use its confines to help shape the horse's mind and short circuit instinctual responses. To me the RP enables the horse to take time to learn we are just plain OK and that they can look to us for help in fitting into the world we want to create with and for them.

Depending on what you decide you are after, whether starting a colt under saddle or trying to reclaim an old and seemingly confirmed runaway, the applications of particular activities in the RP are many and varied. The basic idea here is that there is enough room but not too much room and it is round. A horse will be less likely to jam up in, or duck quickly out of, a corner because there are none. If he wants to run you can stand and watch and when he is done he is no further from you than when he started. That can cause him to think long and hard on what to do next. If mounted, you can just go along for the ride. Horses are not dumb critters and a few laps lugging you around and finding you still there, relaxed and waiting for them to pull it back together, will start them searching for another answer.

There is a diversity of opinion about how effective liberty work, directing the horse without benefit of halter and lead, is with a horse. What I know is that if you can get the horse to respect you and cooperate with you in the RP then it will begin to do so in other settings as you stay consistent and trustworthy in how you interact with him. This means that catching him in a larger setting becomes unnecessary as the horse will want to be with you and in effect will come and catch you when you show up at the pasture. And you won't have to hide the halter when you do. This will take time of course. So I think liberty work in the RP is a basic foundation builder for any horse/human relationship. With the horse "free" in the pen you can pretty quickly tell just how settled and comfortable it is being with you. A horse that is willing to stand with you, allow you to groom and handle various body parts, move at your request - a step forward, backward or to the side, follow you about the pen and stop when you do, is a horse that is ready for nearly whatever you would like to ask next. If the horse is not there yet, a few things can be done to help get to that place.

Some Basics in the Round Pen

For those who would like to experiment with the RP let's assume for the moment that you have a horse that leaves at first chance. These are a few basics to try to help him want to stay with you. Get your horse into the pen (I'll leave that part up to you) and turn him loose. As the horse then circles, you can stand in the center and just let it happen for a bit. A very neutral body position, relaxed manner, slumped shoulders and cocked foot (yours) will often be enough to drain a whole lot of energy from a horse. Chances are his mind will be outside the RP and that will be fine for the time being. At some point though it will probably be time to get more active. Stepping out of the center to a wall or rail you will become a closed door to the horse. He may reverse or he may just veer out around you. Be sure to make yourself larger to him by raising your posture and showing him more of you. Raise your arms if you must. Be aware that some horses can have lost all, or nearly all, respect for humans by the time you get them in the RP and will run people over. Keeping this kind of horse out of your space can take a good bit of confidence and awareness on your part. Above all, know your limits and stay safe.

If you get to the rail about a half lap ahead of the horse's approach to you the chances of the horse changing direction are much greater. In the early stages of developing any new abilities with your horse lots of room and lots of time to react are critical. After a successful turn-back you can let the horse go a few (not many) laps the other way from your center spot and then ask for a change of direction again. Staying in the center can be a very neutral spot. The horse has a choice of staying the furthest he can from you out on the rail or he can start looking for another thing to do. One thing he can do is to slow down and this is something you can use. When he begins to slow down you can step back, out of the center to the side opposite him and "give" him almost all of the RP. You may well get a stop and a little thinking about the situation by the horse. One of many things to watch for, along with slowing down and relaxing, is the horse's effort to look toward you with both eyes. The horse should begin to pay more mind to what is inside the RP (you) and less attention to what is going on outside the pen. Even for horses I have met for the first time I find this to be a consistent response. This is providing you have not fallen into the mode of chasing him and instead are asking him to respond to your presence and allowing the horse to stop and consider things when he shows the least effort to do so.

What may happen next is the horse will actually come to you or toward you and this is a good thing. Allow and encourage this, meet him halfway if he is willing. Reward him with suitable attention if he makes it to you or you make it to him. I consider reward to be standing at his withers and scratching or gently rubbing him thereabouts, grooming him as other horses would do. This is a fine opportunity to work on just standing there, being together and enjoying each other. Should he need to leave, you can ask for his attention and he may stay or he may go. If he needs to leave, let him but do not chase him. Once he is moving out on the rail, it is your call as to what and how much to ask next. You can let him go and stay neutral in the center, pull yourself to one side and see if he will stop or you can ask for more energy and life and then let him back down, a change of gait up and back. This again is to be achieved by body language or presence though many folks encourage the horse vocally or with a flag or catch rope. That is more a personal preference, I do not see it as good or bad, just as what fits the person and the horse.

A relaxed manner from you should reach out to the horse as should a more upright and forthright posture. Movement with the horse, driving him from behind the shoulder, pushing him with your eyes on his hips, all of these should effect a change in how the horse goes. Dropping yourself back to neutral should get him to see that he can too. Remember not to make too many circuits in one direction. Mindless circles are not going to help him see the differences in what you are about. Changing speeds and changing directions will help him feel what you are asking for and how you are asking for it. Endless circles at one speed will just let him disregard you.

There is so much more to what the round pen can help build between a horse and a human. Individual needs may dictate or oftentimes inspire you as to how this tool can be applied to help both horse and human. I find that riding in the RP can often be of help to the human and in the end more help to the horse. It provides a place where the horse can err in the human's eye and yet not have the situation become too scary for either party. For myself, I do not see that horses deliberately try to do differently than we ask of them. Seems to me that the horses I have been called on to help with over the years have all been about trying the best they knew how.

The difference between a problem horse and a willing equine partner has invariably been about changing the human's understanding of what and how to ask the horse for his cooperation. Learning to use the round pen effectively may be a key in helping an individual develop that different understanding, to begin truly seeing what our horse is capable of giving to us. I have found this to be so, I hope you find it to be so.

About the author -

Bob Sagely has both made a living and enjoyed a life with horses for over twenty-five years. He has worked as a cowboy, horse "trainer" and farrier and is fascinated by the sudden notoriety of the "natural horsemanship" movement. He was fortunate to have been started by men who taught him things that made sense to him and worked with the nature of the horse rather than against it. As a person who has depended on horses to make a living he has come to understand how hard the horse will try for a human if the human can bring things to the horse that make sense to it. He is now sharing his understanding and mindset with others who are looking to build a better relationship with their horse. "The horse is perfect and we just need to get good enough to deserve what they give us," is where he operates, while trying to get better himself all the time. You can email Bob at or visit his website to learn more about Sage Horsemanship and the learning opportunities he can provide for you and your friends, four-legged and otherwise.