While you certainly don’t need a round pen to train a horse, using one does offer some real benefits, particularly when it comes to building a connection with your horse in a relational context. What the round pen provides is a wonderful middle ground, where the horse can be allowed to move their feet and express their thoughts with significant freedom, but not to such a degree that it puts the human at a disadvantage. Used well, that middle ground is a great place to begin meaningful communication, to show the horse that we can meet their needs, and to build a foundation of trust and peace in our training.
My approach to the round pen might be a bit different than what you have seen before. While the first priority for many people stepping into the round pen is to establish dominance, usually by making the horse move, mine is to honor my commitment to the horse’s welfare. I want to understand what is important to the horse and meet those needs. By doing this, I find that I am able to best earn the position of leadership with the horse, which encourages them to want to work with me, rather than forcing them to submit to me.
As you may have heard me talk about previously, a horse has three primary needs regarding communication and survival: Mind, Space and Pressure. They need to know what their connection is to the external environment and herd (Mind), who has earned the position of leadership through calm and clear spatial conversations (Space), and how they should deal with potential stressors (Pressure). My goal is to calm their mind, create clear communication spatially, and help them understand how to think under pressure. In short, whatever the horse’s worries are, my responsibility is to alleviate them. For example, if a horse is unsettled because being in the pen has separated him from his herd mates, my job is to provide leadership and connection so that he no longer feels alone and vulnerable.
However, it is important for us to recognize that having a human working to meet its needs through the means available to us is not a natural state of affairs for the horse, so we have to help them understand what we are doing and be able to prove to them that the whole horse-human interaction is a good deal. During this process, they will bring their nature to the conversation and respond as they feel is necessary.
Therefore, we shouldn’t perceive the horse as disobedient when they act like a horse, as they know no other option in the beginning. Fleeing, kicking out, neck-wringing, ear pinning, and mentally leaving are not misbehaviors — they are simply the horse’s first natural options. This does NOT mean that we allow dangerous behaviors, only that we work with our horses in such a way that they soon feel no need to exhibit those behaviors.
When such normal expressions do appear, my task is to give the horse different options within our relationship to communicate and thrive. There are a number of things we can do in the round pen to show the horse other ways to respond that will actually make them feel more at ease in the world and help keep us safe at the same time.
The first thing is to determine what your horse’s primary need is. Are they more of a “Pressure” horse, meaning they are sensitive and scared of pressure? Are they primarily a “Mental” type, strongly focused on their own thoughts, but not really scared? Are they mainly a “Spatial” horse who is mentally present, not fearful, and who may push into your space seeking spatial interaction? While all horses are a mix of the three types to varying degrees, figuring out their most prominent characteristic will give you an important advantage in the round pen, because once you know what is important to the horse, you will be able to meet that need and bring a level of peace.
In my next post, we’ll take a look at how we would begin to work with the three types of horses in the round pen.