This is a non-commercial, independent website, owned and written by Nancy Kerson, for the benefit of actual and potential adopters of BLM Mustangs and Burros and similar animals.
Round Pen work is a system that works with the horse's natural mind, to build a strong foundation for all horsemanship endeavors. People often misunderstand it and think it is simply a way to exercise the horse, to get the horse to "run off steam." Not so.
HOW IT WORKS:
The training that I am calling "Round Pen Work" - for lack of a better term (although it really has nothing to do with the type of pen used) works in 3 important phases: Movement, Direction, and Connection.
MOVEMENT: We can reach the horse's mind through movement. First, we get the horse moving, by pressuring it from a safe distance, using a rope or lunge whip as extensions of our own hands, to elicit movement.
As the horse learns to move at our request, we can scale our request down to where it is barely perceptible to a human onlooker. We continue asking for movement until the horse's movement becomes smooth and relaxed. Some horses will move rapidly, frantically, at first. Others will be balky and "shut down." Either way, we ask the horse to move until it can do so softly, calmly and easily, with the same relaxed and flowing gait the horse would use to play in the sunshine on a spring day.
When the horse begins to move softly, we'll notice a light cadence to the feet, and we'll see the first signs of connection: an ear cupped toward us, the head dropping to a more relaxed carriage, and we should see the horse occasionally licking and chewing. Licking and chewing is an outward sign that the horse is thinking about it, "digesting" the experience.
DIRECTION: Next, we direct that movement - fast and slow, walk, trot, lope, reversing direction, turning in and out. It is important to eventually get both an inside and an outside turn, although you may only get one or the other at first.
The inside turn allows the horse to focus both eyes on you.
The outside turn makes the horse "change eyes."
Remember, the horse has two sides to its brain, and you have to train both sides.
The ability to change eyes - that is, to be watching you with the eye on one side and then to turn and switch to the other, is very important in horse training.
CONNECTION: When the horse realizes that it is you directing its movements, not just its own idea, it is ready to accept leadership from you. It is "connecting" or "hooking on." Monty Roberts calls it "Joining Up." Once it has accepted your leadership, the horse's mind can connect deeply with you. This connection is the basis for all future training.
Ask the horse to turn in toward you (the "PRESSURE"). Step back as a reward (The "RELEASE OF PRESSURE"). When the horse has connected with you, he will take a few steps toward you and allow you to reach out to touch him. When you walk away, he will follow. It seems like magic, but it's within anyone's ability to learn!
Eventually, with practice, the horse should be able to turn and walk all the way in toward you, and stand quietly next to you. This won't happen the first time you try it, but it's something to work toward. Without connection, you are simply either dominating the animal into "submission", or conditioning the animal's autonomic nervous system to respond to a given stimulus. While there is nothing wrong with the latter, and if we are to be absolutely honest, our relationship with our horse DOES have aspects of dominance and submission (horses are hard-wired this way - look at their herd pecking order), we may want more than this. Connection allows trust, safety, and willing partnership to develop between horse and human.
WHAT IF YOU DON'T HAVE A ROUND PEN? No problem. Use the same concepts of Movement and Direction to build Connection, regardless of pen shape.
The round pen is nice because the horse's movement is unrestricted. But a highly reactive horse can just keep running, without ever paying any attention to you, which is a complete waste of time. In the square or odd shaped pen the horse will hang up in the corners at first. But the horse will have to start paying attention to where his/her feet are, as well as to your direction, your "pressure." Pretty soon s/he will be paying attention to you, and starting to connect with you. Teaching the horse not to hang up in the corners turns out to be a very valuable lesson that will pay big dividends later on.
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