Learning the Power of the Pen

By Becky Roberts

Do you ever stop to wonder what moments in your life you will revisit most often, when you are sitting on your front porch on a warm summer evening, with your great-grandchildren playing at your feet? I do. I collect and treasure these moments; I store them carefully in the safe recesses of my mind, in a place where they can be accessed with ease and frequency to prevent their deterioration from neglect. You know the moments I mean, we all have them, the birth of a first baby, the sight of a glowing sunset over the mountains, the look of wonder on a child’s face as she sees a foal being born for the first time. A few weeks ago I experienced one of those moments, a moment so moving and enlightening I felt compelled to write it down to share. So please, spare a few moments of your own to share in this experience – the awakening of a horse-training novice.

Over the past year I have had the privilege of studying various aspects of horsemanship under Sheri Holmes, owner of Sherlock Farms, Santa Fe, Texas. Among the skills I am in the process of acquiring is the use of the round pen. From my understanding, the round pen is a tool that can be put to many and varied uses such as disciplining a horse for a behavioral problem, educating an alpha mare to accept you, the human, as herd leader, or as a gentle, humane method of breaking a green horse. Unfortunately, the round pen can also be used as a weapon to frighten and subdue an unruly horse with the sad results I’m sure we have all seen in abused and badly behaved animals. However, in the right hands the round pen can be a powerful yet compassionate tool.

Let me introduce you to Frauline. Frauline is a fourteen-year-old Arab mare with a history of neglect and abuse. She arrived at Sherlock Farms considerably overweight and distinctly adverse to any human contact, refusing to be caught or petted. Slowly, over a period of weeks, she began to trust humans enough to be caught and haltered, although from her wide eyes and tense muscles it was clear that her fear had by no means abated. What had happened to this poor mare in her past to engender such fear and distrust of humans we could only imagine; the simple act of raising a hand in her presence would cause her to flinch and run, presumably afraid of being beaten for some transgression she did not commit or could not understand.

It is Sunday morning and Frauline is standing at the gate, pawing the ground. Gently, scratching her neck and talking to her in a low constant voice, Sheri drops a lead rope around Frauline’s neck, and holding it just tight enough for her to feel, slides the halter carefully over her muzzle. With lead rope attached Frauline is led from the safety of her paddock into the round pen, her head darting back and forth, as though searching for someone or something to save her from her impending doom. Once in the round pen I close the gate behind her, and Sheri immediately releases the lead rope, warning me to never take my eyes off Frauline as her reaction to being in this strange, new place cannot be predicted. If sufficiently frightened she could easily injure herself by attempting to jump the fence, or she might choose to attack. It is a tense moment for all three of us.

Frauline makes a dash for the fence, and with her back to us, strains her neck over as far as it can reach, calling desperately for help. No one answers. She looks around, still calling, her eyes hard and rolled back. Sidestepping, she circles the arena, always looking out and calling, searching for an opening or for a friend to lend assistance. We stand quietly in the center, watching carefully. Suddenly, with no warning, Frauline pulls her head back into the ring and springs into a flat gallop, round and round, quickly plowing a deep furrow in the sand. Her ears are flat back, eyes hard, neck tense and her body so knotted up every stride looks painful. In a low voice Sheri interprets Frauline’s behavior for me. Clearly, this frightened mare has been in a round pen before, but judging by her fearful reaction upon entering, it obviously had not been a pleasant experience. Most likely it was used punitively, with her being made to run to the point of exhaustion in an attempt to break her will. Sheri lets her run for a while, explaining that any attempt to stop her would only serve to stress her more. Frauline has given up trying to escape and is probably inflicting the familiar punishment upon herself to avoid the physical pain of the whip, and the mental abuse of her owner’s disapproving voice.

A few more revolutions and her pace slackens. With soft eyes resting gently in the region of Frauline’s rump, Sheri slowly raises the lunge whip from the ground, and with her other hand pointing in the direction in which Frauline is already traveling, gives the whip a gentle crack. The mare startles, hesitates, and then picks up her pace again, back into the flat gallop. Having established that the horse is both listening and responsive, Sheri, all the while keeping pace with the horse by walking rapid circles in the center of the ring, lowers the whip and calls to Frauline, asking her to trot. Two more circuits and Frauline drops her pace into a tense, uneven trot. She is clearly afraid as this behavior probably induced whiplashes in her past. Keeping her in a trot, Sheri steps across the ring, switches whip hands, points in the opposite direction and cracks the whip. Frauline immediately changes direction and picks up a canter. Sheri brings her back down to a trot then hands the whip to me.

“She’s all yours. You know how to do it. Make her yours, but don’t destroy her mind.”

Hesitantly, I take up the whip and keep Frauline moving in a trot, desperately trying to relax my body and eyes, but without losing her attention. I know that Sheri will correct any mistakes I make, but with such a frightened and green horse I’m afraid that even the slightest error will be devastating. The responsibility is overwhelming. Sheri stands motionless beside me, quietly giving directions, ready to step in if I make a wrong move. Frauline starts to cut corners; I step toward her and she moves back onto the railing. She tries to change direction, I jump across the ring to intercept her and crack the whip, pointing in the direction she needs to travel, and she turns back. She tries to run, I ask her to trot. She is testing me, she knows there is a new contender for herd boss and she knows I am green. I have to establish that I am the alpha mare, not she, but I must do so without inflicting physical or mental abuse.

I keep her in a trot, changing direction every few circuits, Sheri telling me how to read her state of mind from her body language. Her neck is wooden, her muscles bunched and tense; her eyes wide and rolled back, and she is blowing hard, more from fear than exertion. Her body is a bundle of tension, unable to relax, waiting for the blow. A few more circuits, I step across the ring, switch hands and change her direction. Momentary confusion ensues, a challenge, a crack of the whip and she is off. Several more minutes and direction changes and gradually her demeanor starts to change. She lowers her head, and her pace slows into an extended, smooth trot. Her neck is still tense but her eyes begin to soften and her gaze shifts toward the center of the ring. I bring her to a stop.

“Ho, Frauline!”

I lower the whip to the ground and step into her shoulder.

“Keep your eyes on her rump.” Sheri warns.

I stare furiously at Frauline’s hindquarters, struggling to fight the urge to look her in the face. Frauline stands tense, afraid and unsure of what is about to happen, her neck straining back out of the ring toward the safety of the barn. Then suddenly she turns her head toward me, waiting for her next instruction. She is still blowing hard, but now it is more from exertion than fear. It is over 90 degrees and she is more than 100 pounds overweight, and she is drenched in sweat. To keep her working for much longer would be verging on cruelty. I keep her standing, allowing her a few minutes to catch her breath. I raise the whip slightly in my right hand, point left with the other and walk towards her rump. No reaction.

“Trot, Frauline!”

 I crack the whip and she is off, back into that ugly, uneven stride with her head high and eyes wide. A few circuits and leisurely direction changes and suddenly she seems to melt. All at once her eyes soften, her neck drops and her gait extends into a beautiful extended trot, her back perfectly level, not a tense muscle in sight. Now I have her. This is the moment I had been hoping for; it is time to move in and make her mine. I crack the whip and move her up into a canter. She responds immediately. I run across the pen to be ready for her, switch hands, crack the whip and she changes direction. She tries to slow her pace back to a trot, but a crack and a kiss and she picks up the canter again.

“Pick a spot on the railing and just go for it.” Sheri says, “But you’ll need to move more quickly to be able to anticipate her.”

Thinking fast I select another spot on the railing, run toward it and intercept her, asking for another change of direction. This continues for a few more minutes, making the direction changes more and more frequently until she is literally turning on the spot, no longer attempting to challenge me. We are both breathing hard and soaked in sweat.

“Now!” Says Sheri.


I lower the whip to release her to reward her responsiveness. She stands with her back to me not moving a muscle. I stand in the center of the ring, trying to force myself to relax but in truth my heart is pounding and my mind racing. There is nothing more I can do today; we are both at the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. If she does not accept me as the herd boss now I would have failed; if she accepts me but shows signs of fear I still would have failed. I stand stock still, furiously staring at her hindquarters willing her to turn around. Still she looks out of the pen. I cannot tell what she is thinking. Minutes pass and stretch into what feels like years. But still I force myself to keep my position in the center of the ring, almost frantic in my attempt to relax.

 I’m about ready to give it up, when, like a miracle there it is. As though in slow motion, Frauline turns her head and looks directly at me. We regard each other for a few moments. Then she drops her head until her nose is just inches from the ground and walks slowly toward me gently working her mouth in a chewing motion. That is it; that was the sign I hardly dared hope for. My heart is singing and I want to shout for joy and dance around the ring. But I know that I can show no reaction. She walks right up to me and rests her head on my shoulder, breathing softly on my face. Slowly I raise my hand to scratch her neck. She does not flinch. Her eyes are soft and relaxed. I drop the whip to the ground and slowly turn into her shoulder and walk forward, hardly daring to breathe. Without hesitating she takes a step forward and follows. I turn right; she turns right. I stop; she stops. I back up; she backs up. Gently and slowly for the next twenty minutes we walk around together as one, Frauline shadowing my steps. Eventually she is cooled off so I release her for a well-deserved drink.

Next time she’ll be ready for a saddle and will no longer be afraid.

That moment when she dropped her head, started to chew and walked toward me will stay with me forever. Just thirty minutes earlier this had been a scared, uncontrollable horse. But now, without laying a hand on her, or even uttering an unkind word, she has been transformed into an obedient, eager, trusting companion.