Round-pen basics

by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center

Often when I’m asked to help someone who is having an issue with his horse, I find that the problem originated on the ground and the symptoms are coming out in the saddle. In most cases, it boils down to the simple fact that our horses just aren’t paying attention to us. I have found that quality ground work in the round pen can significantly improve your bond with your horse, increase your horse’s ability to pay attention and understand what you are trying to teach, and even make your horse easier to catch.

Some of the most basic horsemanship concepts start in the round pen. By “basic,” I mean easy for your horse to catch on to and understand. I start in the round pen by positioning myself with my belt buckle pointed toward the horse’s girth, right behind the shoulder; this is known as the drive line. I then start (as I always try to) with a “hint.” This hint involves raising my hand and pointing in the direction I want the horse to go while clicking or kissing with my mouth. Next is the “ask,” where I apply light pressure with either my rope, a stick and string, or a flag. I then “tell” by increasing the intensity with which I am applying the pressure. If I don’t get a response, I will “demand” by lightly tapping the horse on her shoulder until I get her to move for me. If at any time during that sequence the horse moves, I stop applying pressure and just walk with her at the drive line.

Getting the horse moving is the first step in getting her to pay attention to you. Once she is moving, I like to put her through all three gaits: walk, trot and lope. I do this by starting with a vocal command and then increasing the pressure (or easing off it if I am trying to slow her down). Once you get the desired response, take the pressure away and stop the vocal cue.

After your horse is moving around willingly at all gaits, start watching for her to look toward you or flick an ear toward you. If you get any sign at all that your horse is paying attention, take all the pressure away. If your horse keeps going, just reapply the pressure and move her through the gaits again. If your horse stops, keep the pressure off and give her a break for a couple minutes. I like to back up or turn my back to the horse to make sure I am sending a clear signal that the pressure is off.

At this point, it is not uncommon for young horses to lose focus and start messing around. No big deal; just put her back to work until she wants to pay attention again. With this technique, you are simply making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. In time, your horse will learn to travel free and willing, and to look to you for answers and relief.

With horses that haven’t been taught how to properly round pen, it might take a while before they start paying attention. It is a common misconception that we are trying to wear out our horses or get them tired in the round pen. While sometimes a horse has to get tired before she starts paying attention, the overall idea is to get her to pay attention and look to you for answers, not to get her tired. Once your horse starts understanding these things, you will start seeing changes in her overall behavior.

Until next time, keep ridin’ with a loose rein.