Questions beginners ask about how to offer leadership to a horse in the round pen are difficult to answer because the trainer’s actions are 100% dictated by where the horse is focused and what his feet are doing at any given moment. What I do depends entirely on what the horse does. Since I can’t predict what your horse will do it’s impossible to just draft a list of steps and tell you to go work through them.
I can, however, offer you 5 rules that apply to every training session. Beginning round pen training is done at liberty, with no halter, line, or tack on the horse. There are many ways to balance a horse, correct a canter issue, or introduce collection, etc. from the ground in a round pen. Since you can’t build on a foundation that doesn’t exist, your first goal is to get your horse to focus on YOU and not confuse the issue with the pressure of a bit, reins, cavesson, girth, or rope.
God doesn’t rope or drag us to obedience; He calls us with grace and saves us by faith. The purpose of beginning round pen training is to begin building a foundation of faith so your horse may overcome his prey nature.
Unbreakable Rule #1 – Know what you want before you ask your horse to move and when he does it right QUIT asking.
I’ll share the two very simple goals of round pen work and the basic method for accomplishing them. There are only two reasons why your horse doesn’t do everything you ask; he is either unable or unwilling. This basic truth is covered in all three ministry books and in many articles. If you need a refresher on the subject, subscribe to this website by putting your email address in the box on the upper right and download the free ebook or, Only two things matter when you begin playing with your horse in the round pen: FOCUS and FEET.
First Step in Round Pen Exercise – leave the horse alone
The first step toward gaining focus is to do NOTHING except get the horse into the round pen and pretend to ignore him. Horses I work with in clinics don’t know I exist until after I observe them in the round pen first. Your horse already knows you, so just put him in the round pen without a halter and close the gate behind you as you exit.
Unbreakable Rule #2 – If your horse isn’t calm and balanced you can’t move forward.
Let your horse nurdle around in the pen until he is calm. There are some horses that are traumatized by simply being in an unfamiliar round pen or surrounded by strange sights, sounds, or smells. Don’t put your horse in a place you think will frighten him. It’s fine if he’s a little snorty or nervous, but it is NOT good leadership to dump your horse into a trap he thinks may be life threatening. Enter the round pen when your horse is calm and again, do nothing. Many horses think they have to start running around frantically the minute they enter a round pen. It takes a lot of time and great patience to convince a horse he doesn’t have to run if that’s the only experience he’s ever had. I want the horse to calmly wonder, “Hmmm, wonder what she’s doing here?” Curiosity is far better than fear or aggression. Review Day One – How to establish leadership in the round pen with your horse
How can I tell where the horse is focused?
Horses don’t hide comic books inside their school books or mask their emotions. Since horses don’t pretend it’s not difficult to figure out what holds your horse’s attention.
All eyes and ears on the same thing!
Where is your horse looking? Where are his ears directed? A horse’s ears are like radar – always trained in the directions of greatest interest or importance. All you have to do is follow his eyes and ears to know what has his attention. Many times your horse will have his ears turned in different directions. That’s fine as long as one is turned toward you.
Your initial goal is to get one eye and one ear interested in you. Start small. Learn to read your horse and ask for very little at the beginning. You can ask for two eyes, the horse to face you, come, or answer more precise questions later. First… you need an eye and an ear. DON’T try to keep his focus at the beginning. Your goal is simply to GET it. See Rule #1.
Once I have the horse’s focus I will ask him to move his feet. The instant the feet do as I ask I quit asking. Likewise, the moment the horse’s attention leaves me my sole priority is to get it back? How do I get it back? By asking his feet do something other than what they are doing at the precise moment I lost his attention.
When and how should I ask my horse to move his feet?
It is time to move your horse’s feet when:
- You lose his attention
- He gives you the “pony finger”, or
- If he stalls out and just looks at you as if to say, “Okay, so I’m looking at ya, whatcha gonna do now, Bigshot?”
In any of these 3 instances, direct your horse to move his feet the opposite way they were going the moment his ears left you, he gave you “attitude”, or he dared you to come up with something new. If your horse was moving left ask him to move right. If you were bouncing a whip on the ground and he moves away keep bouncing until he stops. If he walked up to you when you told him to stay or stop, ask him to back up a step. If he backs up on his own, drive him forward. If he was standing still when you lost his attention or got “the pony finger”, send him out at a brisk trot.
Success secret: Only ask your horse to do something when you are 98% sure he will do it. You lose a ton of leadership credibility if you ask your horse to do something and he says, “No” and you can’t fix it. In the simplest terms, have him do the opposite of whatever he was doing when you realized he was doing wrong. Before you get to this point you must understand and be able to apply pressure where, when, and how in order to get your horse to move his feet the way you direct.
Unbreakable Rule #3 – If you aren’t making progress or your horse is escalating in anger, fear, or frustration, STOP what you’re doing and break things down to a smaller step. Repeat until you get the right response.
In early lessons you won’t push for more than one or two new responses. Know what your goal is before entering the round pen. Once you accomplish it – or fail miserably – QUIT. Your horse can recognize a failure of leadership instantly. The moment he crosses into distress from fear or anxiety he’s got your number. Quit long before that happens and think about your goal and whether the horse is unable or unwilling to do as you ask.
Unbreakable Rule #4 – Most emotions except love do not belong in training sessions.
The Holy Spirit speaks in a still small voice and so should you. You can’t yell or beat a horse into faith and you can’t work with a horse that is highly emotional. When you get frustrated, get out. If you get mad, get out. If you get overwhelmed, get out. Hopefully it is love that motivates your commitment to follow the rest of the unbreakable rules.
Recap of Beginning Round Pen Training
- Work at liberty without any tack or halter.
- Know exactly what you hope to accomplish before entering the round pen; be prepared to change the program if your horse isn’t responding as you hoped.
- Always start every lesson with an unruffled horse.
- Your only goal at this stage is FOCUS. Work to get one eye and one ear directed at you.
- The moment you lose your horse’s focus move his feet in the opposite way they were going when he broke his attention on you.
- Know what movement you are asking for and QUIT asking the moment you get it.
- Don’t ask for something you aren’t 98% you can get.
- Always give the horse the benefit of your doubt.
- Leadership promises freedom from anger, aggression, and anxiety. If you or your horse begin to get emotional it is YOUR responsibility to return everyone back to a calm peaceful state.
- If you don’t get the results you expect, break the lesson down into even smaller steps until you get a “Yes.”
The most difficult skill horse trainers must learn is what to ask for and when to quit, which brings us to –
Unbreakable Rule #5 – End every lesson with a horse that is happier and more confident than when you began.
You should always put your horse up or out in a better frame of mind and spirit than you found him. If you master the philosophy and application of round pen training you will be among the most elite trainers in the world and will be a worthy leader deserving of your horse’s faith. Question? We’re here to help. * * * * *
Click book cover below for easy links. Read more about the 5 Unbreakable Rules in
Discipleship with Horses – Journey of Joy.
Now available on Amazon. Kindle, Nook and paperback.