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.
This is a really important post, Josh. The whole way you think about things and what you do in the round pen is so different than anyone else I’ve ever seen, and it is so much better for the horses — and for us! Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this blog. So nice that anyone, anywhere can read this!
Can’t wait for the next post. My gelding is predominantly spatial and — thanks to this post I now know — my mare is mental. Such a different way of looking at things. Not to label behaviors but instead help our horses find peace. Amazing!
Ditto the previous comment. Thank you Josh for your teaching.
Lately I’ve been working Mina in the round pen for just this reason. Our relationship is getting better and better and I’m using your philosophy to continue to enhance my relationship with her and to do more and more liberty work together as a team. Looking forward to seeing the next blog entries. Even though I am quite familiar with your way of doing things Josh, I find it really helpful to have the clarity of repetition so thank you for this. I also just can’t get enough about hearing about Pressure, Mind and Space horses and the different ways their characteristics can show up. Thank you Josh!
I thank you for sharing this information and look forward to the next post! I think what you do is incredible and I want to learn these methods!
We have 4 horses ages 5, 7-a rescue, 15 and 16, in various stages of training and exercising, in our 70′ round pen.
Two of our elder mares are VERY sensitive to pressure and I often have to step back from the circle of pressure to insure that, with one of the mares in particular, that she maintains a STEADY pace.
This mare, no matter what we do, she runs like she is being chased. And doesn’t stop.
Its only when I ask/say “…AND HO…” as I step back into the center, does she almost immediately slow and come straight to me. I love this about her frankly, as she seems to feel relief in my presence as she stops and stands. I get my connection with her.
My concern is, does it seem reasonable to >>keep my distance<< and relieve the pressure, so she slows up to the pace that she can maintain for longer? This feels temporary to me.
Or let her wear herself down some? This feels more natural but I still feel she is (running) from the pressure.
Or do you hear something else happening that I can change to help her to be more calm?
Thanks for the post !
Hello Kelley, and thank you for your question. We just added the second post in this series, which I hope will give you some ideas about how to handle this type of situation. If not, please don’t hesitate to reach out again!
Thank you for sharing Josh! I really like the process of meeting our horse’s needs. I am enjoying learning more and just recently got a round pen, it makes such a difference to have a place to get to know our horses more.
I like this! The concept of meeting their needs to help them come to a calm and relaxed state is so important, especially when we want them to modify their behavior. A calm and alert mind is one that can learn. #coolstuff
Josh has really helped my family of horses and us too at Chaganjuu Andalusians. This method of training seems so natural and understandable to the horse and the humans as well. It’s changed everything for us and how we work with our horses. I highly recommend Josh. Matter of fact the first time I saw Josh work,there was a resonance and I knew that my longing to find a way to work with horses that honors them and honors me was realized through his methods. I caught up with him on the way to the outhouse and said,” I could kiss you I’m so happy that this training style meets my needs and the horses too. It’s what I had dreamed to find for so long, but did not know where to find someone who trained in this way.” Josh is a blessing to work with. Welcome to some really satisfying horsemanship💜
Parts if this post should be framed and read daily by most of us, certainly me. It is clear and fosters what many want in any relationship, co-operation and peace.
Loving these blog posts, Josh. Thank you!