Round Pen 101

By David Shoe

It is your body position in relation to the horse that is telling him to turn in, turn out, or move forward.

I titled this article Round Pen 101 for three reasons. The first, to denote this is upper level horse training; second, to clarify that the round pen is the classroom; and third, to emphasize there is more to come - just like college classes with 101 through 402. I will guide you through the basic techniques and, like a college class, what you put into it you will get out of it. As you apply these techniques, you will begin to see the different responses from your horse, so I will also explain some of the subtle nuances you might not always hear about. Round pen training is hard work. It can be frustrating, and even dangerous, depending on the horse, his disposition and your level of experience. However, this method, used for setting up a communication and leadership system, will work with all horses, regardless of breed or age, as long as the horse is in good health and we commit ourselves to understanding the horse. So if this is the first time you have considered doing round pen training, or you have attempted it and felt unsuccessful, I offer you this step-by-step approach and strongly encourage you to try it.

The whole purpose of the training is to establish communication on the horse's terms by addressing two of the most basic concepts that exist naturally within all horses. The first is the pecking order. This process emulates what occurs within the herd and, if performed properly, will place you in the position of leader. The second issue is fear. Horses are animals of flight. Using this process will teach your horse to control his fear, and will give you a cue that can be used to tell the horse to calm down, pay attention, and focus on you.

What round penning is not:

Unfortunately, many people have the wrong view of round pen training. It has been viewed as running the horse to exhaustion or mindless exercise - these two things it is not. Others consider it chasing the horse, or forcing him to comply. It is both. I am going to chase him and force him to move. That is exactly what a boss mare or stallion does. As for insisting that the horse comply, horses are very black and white - there is no middle ground - so yes, I am going to insist he comply.

Besides you and the horse, you need only a couple of other things. One is a round pen. The debate over the proper size is endless - some say a sixty-foot pen, others a forty. For me I prefer a fifty-foot pen. The forty is too small and easy to get out of place with the horse. The sixty can walk you to death if the horse is not very responsive. For height, I believe all trainers would prefer a six-foot or higher pen. If the horse can get his head over the top of a panel, and he is being pushed and his instinct to flee is strong, he may attempt to go over the top of the panel.

You will also need some instrument to work the horse with. I prefer a thirty-foot soft-twist lariat. If you are more comfortable with a lunge whip, then use what you are comfortable with. It is important to remember ultimately it is your body position that encourages the horse to move forward; all other tools are used as an extension of your arm to encourage, IF needed.

Round Pen Training - 5 Basic Steps

1) Bring in the horse.

Once you have your work area established, bring in your horse. I always start the horse without the halter. The reason behind this is when you go to retrieve your horse in the pasture or out of the stall, he won't be wearing a halter (halters should not be left on horses - it is dangerous and unnecessary). You are about to teach your horse to pay attention to YOU, not a piece of equipment. You do not want to create the association of paying attention with wearing the halter. The horse will check out the round pen and his surroundings on the first lap around, but if you have the time, allow him to walk around the inside of the pen without you being in it with him. Once you enter the pen, it is all work, with the horse's focus on you.

2) Allow the horse to move off.

Let him go whichever direction he chooses, but if he needs to be sent off, I prefer him to move to the left (counterclockwise) first. Most horses have a weak or shy side; I have found most seem to protect their right side, and by allowing him to move left you remove some of the anxiety associated with this first trip around the pen. At this point, the horse needs to be moving forward at a trot. If he chooses to move at the canter, that is also acceptable, but you must have movement. Without movement you can't even teach the horse to stop. So to get the horse moving, and to insure the horse continues his forward movement, the trainer needs to be aware of a critical issue - body position. Imagine a line through the center of the horse, dividing him into two separate parts, those being the front and rear. When asking the horse to move forward, you always need to be behind that line and focused on the horse's rear/ hip. At no time can you be 'ahead' of the horse and expect him to continue moving forward. Imagine a line drawn through the center of the horse cutting him into two separate parts, front and rear front as seen in Figure 1. If you are ahead of, or in front of, that line while attempting to move the horse forward, it will block his movement. If you have difficulty with this, I recommend getting some water soluble paint and placing a mark in the center of the horse's hip. Use this spot as your focal point as you move the horse around the pen. As he goes around the pen, notice your distance from him as he moves. Since you only need the trot to begin with, you will have to judge your location to the horse based on the response he gives you - the closer you are, the faster he goes. Never get close to within kicking distance of the horse; if your horse is lazy and stubborn and not wanting to move, that is why you have the rope or whip. Use these tools to increase rate. Never sacrifice safety for performance.

3) Request an outside turn.

With the horse moving, you are now going to ask him to change direction and, more specifically, you are going to ask him for an outside turn. You want the horse to turn toward the rail and go the other direction. Remember, a specific request will ultimately get you a specific response. A general request will get you a general reply. When I ask my horse to turn, stop or move, I want a specific response. When my horse is running toward a highway and I ask him to stop, I positively want him to stop - NOW. As the trainer it is your responsibility to be very precise about your request. The turn to the rail is accomplished in the following manner.

Pick a post or other specific spot ahead of the horse so you can be without doubt as to where you want the horse to turn. As the horse begins to approach the spot, you will cue him by changing your location in relation to his. You will move ahead of the center line and directly toward his head. This direct angle into the path of the horse will close off his space and cause him to turn toward the rail. This will be the natural direction of turn for the horse for two reasons: first, you are assuming the role of another horse in the pasture and your action is perceived by the horse as herding; second, and more importantly, his turning away is a defensive action - it allows him to turn his hindquarters in your direction. Thus the trainer needs to be EXTREMELY cautious, and must exercise sound judgment in maintaining a safe distance yet remaining effective.

If the horse does not turn and continues forward in an effort to plow over you, step back and allow him to pass. Never place yourself in a position that could result in injury. If this occurs, simply be ready to ask a little earlier when he comes around again - adjust your timing and angle of approach until he does it. You can also decrease his rate of speed - when he makes the proper turn, your reward to him will be to relax the demand for increased rate of travel and allow him to move back into the trot. This pressure and release will be one of the keys to successful training.

If the horse turns to the inside, quickly move sideways to cut him off from going in the new direction, turning him again, toward the rail, so that he continues to move in the original direction. Your position may have invited him to turn to the inside; be aware of your angle of approach and your distance from him when you give a cue.

If the horse attempts to change direction without you giving him the specific cue to change, you should again stop him and drive him off in the original direction. It is important to remember you are taking the role of Leader. You will tell the horse when you want a change. If the horse is choosing when and where to change direction, then he will be acting as the leader. This translates into being above you in the pecking order. Remember, it is your body position in relation to the horse that is telling him to turn in, turn out, or move forward. As you reinforce this cue in each direction and allow the horse to relax after each turn, you will be able to use less forward movement toward the horse and into his direction of travel, and still receive the proper turn. When the horse gives you the turn to the rail with a subtle request, you are ready to advance to the inside turn.

4) Request an inside turn.

This is the second type of turn you will be teaching the horse. It is a much more difficult turn to teach and will require you to have more patience and a more keen eye for your body position in relation to the horse. It is important to remember we are moving to the horse's level of communication and, like another horse, correct body position is imperative. We must also remember the horse correctly views humans as predators. This is part of what makes the inside turn more difficult. We have already taken away the horse's first defense technique - the ability to flee. The inside turn requires the horse to be even more trusting and submissive. In turning in toward us, he is being asked to relinquish his second defense technique, the ability to strike with his hind feet. With that said, never forget that a horse is also capable of a charge with teeth bared ready to bite, and front feet that can strike just as lethally.

This turn, as I said, is more difficult - for both you and the horse - so be prepared to work through the issues that may arise. To achieve the inside turn, the trainer will need to allow the turn to develop. Some horses give it all at once; others give you the turn in stages. If the turn develops in stages, relax; ultimately the turn will become one fluid movement between you and the horse. Just like the outside turn, your body position in relation to the horse will be the key in being successful in getting the inside turn. As the horse travels the rail, know what you are going to ask for and when, and then execute your request. The steps for the request are as follows.

As the horse moves around the rail, you will once again cut his direction of travel AND at the same time be stepping backward. The steps used to cut the line of travel are lateral and back. (When you asked for the turn to the rail, you went in a direct line toward his head to reduce his space and herd him away in his turn.) As you move laterally and back, you step over the center line to cut the line of travel yet allow the horse enough room to turn inward. The horse will notice the difference in your position in relation to him, and he will start to search for the answer you want. Be aware that as the horse starts to turn in, you must be ready to reposition yourself and re-focus on his hip to ask him to move on in the opposite direction, completing the inside turn.

Do not be surprised if the horse turns to the rail. If he does, simply cut him off and turn him back to his original line of travel. Other responses you may see include: stopping but not turning, turning only slightly, or turning half way. All of these are responses you can build on, so accept them and do the following.

If you ask for the inside turn and the horse stops but does not turn, allow the horse a ten second break. This release of pressure will give the horse a moment to think and to ask, "hmmm, why did my trip around the pen stop?" While the horse is stopped, side step slowly to the center of the pen in a lateral direction. Your movement could be enough to get the horse to follow you with his head and complete the turn. If so, once he has had a few seconds to think about his actions, ask him to move forward again in the direction he is facing. Repeat the cue, stepping laterally and back. If the horse again stops but does not turn, allow him a few more seconds to turn toward you before side stepping toward the center. If he stops the next time, do not allow him the break BUT you need to allow him a three to four second time lapse to think. Horses need time to process information. If you move too quickly, he will never get it right; if you allow too much rest, he will never look for the new and correct answer. If he stops but does not complete the turn, he may only need a couple of seconds to process the thought and transfer it to his feet and move. But it is not instantaneous. You want the horse to begin to look for the next possible movement. Give him the chance to step inside but not the chance to relax and rest yet - move him off. In doing this you will tell the horse you are looking for something other than what he is giving you. The horse can only give answers or attitude. If he is searching for an answer, he will do different things until you reward him for the right one. It is a process of elimination for the horse … let him know he is correct when the pressure goes away.

As the horse moves out, allow him to go slowly at first, either at a trot or walk, a reward for getting the correct answer. It is important that he feel only slight body pressure from you. Once you have achieved the first inside turn, ask for it again until you are able to receive the turn in both directions and with a subtle request. Once you have mastered the inside turn, it is time to combine the two asking the horse alternately for inside and outside turns. You need to be consistent in the manner in which you ask and know in advance which turn you are going to ask the horse to perform. I recommend you say the direction aloud. In doing so you are making a statement of what YOU need to perform.

5) Face up on cue.

Once you are receiving the inside and outside turns consistently, it is time to teach the horse to face you on cue. The first part of this is to give the horse the cue for the inside turn. As he starts to turn, relax the pressure and give an audible cue. I prefer the kissing sound, made by puckering your lips and sucking in. Don't worry if you use this cue to tell the horse other things. This sound is enough to get his attention. Allow the horse to come to a full and complete stop. As long as the horse has his attention on you, allow him to stand.

If the horse looks away, kiss to him as a means to encourage him to look back at you. When the horse is facing you, step off to his right side and if he doesn't follow you with his eyes, ask him to look by giving him the cue of the kissing sound. Put yourself in a position that requires the horse to turn his neck. Give him the chance to look away only once or twice before you send him off for taking his eyes off you; then repeat the request for the inside turn and combine it with the kissing sound that says 'look at me'. As you get the horse to follow you with his eyes and bend his neck, be patient; as long as his neck is bent in your direction, allow him to stand. Eventually you will see the horse tire of standing in this position, and you will see his feet begin to move to realign his body so that he may continue to face you. This is 'facing up'. When this occurs, approach the horse and give him a rub. While standing at the horse's side, after stroking his neck and telling him verbally what a "good job" he has done, step back and kiss to him again. The horse will either do one of two things: turn and look at you, in which case pet him again and repeat the process; or he may decide to simply move off. If he moves off, let him. We can't make twelve hundred pounds do anything - he has to decide he wants to do it. Give him a minute, and if he comes back, great; if not, you can send him around the pen once and repeat the process of asking him to stop and look at you. Soon the horse will determine it is easier to look at you than walk away from you. Once the horse has faced up in one direction, make sure to repeat it to the other side so that the horse responds from either direction.

Be aware that you need to use sound judgment regarding the horses' responses. You will have to learn the balance between a horse blowing you off and not understanding the request. You also need to be sure to balance the time you allow the horse to rest and how quickly you drive him off - you could mistakenly teach him to run away after a correct answer as a result of not giving him enough time to process information. If at any time you think you or the horse is too tired to continue, take a break - Rome was not built in a day and you won't build a great horse in a day. There are no quick fixes, and the respect from your horse must be earned. Round pen training is fun, but not a game. It's also hard work, yet is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have with your horse. To have a great horse requires a great commitment. If you make that commitment, I want to help you reach your goal. I wish you the best as you embark on this journey, for now you stand at the gate to begin to truly understand your horse. Welcome to Round Pen 101.


About the author:

David Shoe's "no secrets" approach and philosophy of Leadership and Respect enable individuals to successfully build working relationships with their horses. He gives energetic, thought provoking, problem-solving and relationship-enriching clinics around the country. David's desire is to promote knowledge so horse and human can mutually succeed. David can be reached at 605-863-0225, and