Day One: How to Establish Leadership in the Round Pen with Your Horse

The first instant you step into the round pen with a horse you are either teaching it to trust you, to fear you, or to ignore you. This is true for professional trainers as well as the newest horse owners. Beginning round pen lessons always start without a halter or lead rope.

It is possible to establish a new beginning whether you already have a 10 year relationship with your horse or this is your first day together.  These steps and concepts are the foundation of my programs with troubled horses as well as to maintain right relationship with my own.

Leadership Goals with Horses

Worthy leaders want the same three things from their horses that God wants from us:

  1. Show up.
  2. Focus.
  3. Offer obedience.

Day One in the round pen is an exercise in focus. The fact that the horse is already in the round pen takes care of the showing up part. Your goal is to gain the horse’s focus – consistently.  In most instances that is the entire goal for Day One, and the beginning of every single day that follows.

Unless you can get your horse’s attention there is no opportunity for the horse to offer obedience. Remember a key component of obedience is the option to NOT be obedient. Horses that are forced into a behavior are coerced, not obedient. Leaders do not coerce.

On days one, two, three, or nine – until you can get your horse to focus, don’t be concerned about getting to the obedience part. If you address focus correctly, obedience will begin to come along naturally.

What is the proper way to turn a horse in the round pen?

Q: When you reverse a horse in the round pen should it always turn away from you?

A: This question is asked frequently. If I don’t specifically tell a horse which way to turn I don’t care. If I have taught the horse an inside turn and outside turn and ask for one or the other I expect to get it. But there is no “proper” way to turn a horse. If the request is simply for the horse to change directions, then the right answer is going the opposite way, not how it was accomplished.

Some instructors insist that horses must turn into the center every time. To do otherwise, they reason, is an expression of disrespect and could be dangerous. If a horse is never to turn it’s rear in your direction, how do you expect to ever brush its tail? Volatile horses preparing to act out won’t care if you ask them to turn  inside, outside, or upside down. You’ve already proven a lack of leadership by allowing the situation to escalate to a point the horse is ready to explode in fear or anger.

Three Things to Avoid when Working with a Horse

There are three tattle-tale horse behaviors that scream leadership failure;

  1. Anger
  2. Aggression
  3. Anxiety

In the round pen, stable, in hand or under saddle, whenever a horse exhibits any of these three behaviors it is proof the leader messed up somewhere.

Don’t Make any Move without a Purpose

When I enter the round pen with any horse I need to evaluate its mindset before making my first move. Does the horse fear me? Ignore me? Or is it overly familiar?

If the horse fears me I ignore it. I speak with the audience or a friend, or simply wander around and enjoy the surroundings without ever looking at or walking directly to the horse.  Sooner or later the horse will settle down and notice me rather than simply reacting to my presence. You cannot establish a relationship with a horse that is anxious or fearful.

Make no move before you know exactly what question you will ask the horse and precisely what the right answer is.

Sample first questions and the right answers:

Asking a horse a question on Day One in the round pen means making a request for a physical response. The most important point to remember is to make each question SIMPLE and SPECIFIC. Each question on Day One should be no more than one tiny step. Each Q & A that follows deals with what question I might ask a particular type of horse.

Q:  Pushy horse: A horse that does not respect my space will be asked a question with the least possible cue, like, Will you BACK AWAY? Backing away is a submissive action so it is both the safest option and one a pushy horse will (eventually) respect.

Oklahoma Round Pen Clinic

Oklahoma Round Pen Clinic

A: The moment the horse’s feet move in reverse I return to whatever I was doing and ignore the horse.  To the horse this means, you asked me to back with no more pressure than needed, and the instant I did you left me alone.

If the horse continues to be pushy I will ask for more backing steps and increase the size of my personal space until the horse learns I cannot be out-stubborned.

Q: Angry or aggressive horse:  This horse either ignores me, invades my space, shakes its head and neck, turns its rear to me or makes some other move that is the equivalent of giving me the “pony finger.”  I simply decide how I want the horse’s feet to move and ask that specific question by applying the least cue possible. The question may be to move to the right around the round pen.

A: The instant the horse turns to the right and takes one step I go back to what I was doing and ignore it. To the horse this means, you made me move and quit pushing when I did what you asked.

Q: Lazy or spoiled horse: Horses must be moving to be trained.  Horses that stand in one spot and just look at me will have to move their feet sooner or later. It the horse isn’t afraid it will be sooner. If the horse looks at me I will approach it directly from the front. Most horses will move away whenever they get uncomfortable or decide to play keep-away.  My question may be, Will you stand still if I walk up and pet your face?

A: If the horse allows me to march up and pet its face without moving feet or losing focus, that is the right answer. I pet once or twice, turn and go back to what I was doing.

If the horse moves its feet or looks away, that is not the right answer, and I will ask the horse to move out in the opposite direction of travel or focus. If the horse looks away from me to the right I ask it to go left using the tiniest cue possible.  This is a NEW QUESTION. The right answer is the horse turning and moving one step in the proper direction.  When that happens I go back to what I was doing before asking the horse to stand while I came to pet it. Right answer, no more question.

Horses learn that they may need to wait on me, but I will never wait on them.

Focus – Known when you get it and when you lose it

You must know when your horse gives you the right answer, which is Focus. Your goal on Day One in the round pen is to establish a beginning. That’s it. Victory comes when your horse keeps his attention on you even when you are ignoring him. Always quit the lesson while you’re ahead.


Willing Followership

Willing Followership

Whenever your horse is supposed to be standing still with his focus on you, both eyes should be visible. When your horse is moving around the round pen you want to have both the inside eye and ear trained on you. If you can’t see the inside eye and the ear rotates away, you have lost the horse’s focus and you must immediately ask a new question to regain it.

If the horse is moving around the pen, sometimes the right answer to your question is to stop and look at you with both eyes.  You must know what question you are asking so you know precisely and immediately when the horse gives you the right answer.

Anytime the horse has your attention you must have his. Anytime you are focusing on the horse he must be focusing on you. The instant his eyes look away it is time for a new question that involves where and how his feet must move. The moment you get the right answer – quit asking.

Moving Forward

Did you think Day One could be so complicated? It isn’t really. Every time you ask a reasonable question, use the least effort to ask, and then QUIT ASKING when you get the right answer, you are building a strong foundation.

Many trainers find it difficult to identify what question to ask and what answer is correct. That’s because they aren’t thinking simply enough.

This article is an overview of Round Pen 101 and certainly not exhaustive. You could write books on the subject of focus, leadership, and relationship with a horse. Actually, I’ve already written two (make that three.) If you have a question or particular challenge with your horse, please ask and I’ll do my best to address your particular situation.

Christian Horsemanship

Jesus Christ is the most perfect Leader; under the proper authority of His Father, as well as delivering perfect peace, joy, and freedom from fear to those who follow Him with perfect focus.  None of us can maintain a proper focus on our Savior 100% of the time. Remember that when your horse has the same problem paying attention to you. Be simple. Be clear. Every problem we have with God is our fault. The person responsible for every problem we have with our horse is standing right in front of him wearing our boots.

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  1. Karen T.:

    Thanks for your last response. I have gelding that bites if you try to pet him at feeding time. Other times he will pin his ears and stretch his neck to bite if he is with the mare. I try to stay calm and put my r. Hand or left hand up to protect myself and talk calmly to him. Then I lay my hand on his upper neck and stroke him a couple times and leave. So far he hasn’t bit me. Is this the best way to deal with it? Any advise is appreciated.

    • Lynn Lynn:

      Karen, the biting is a fear response. If you think about bullies, they don’t act out because they have such great self-esteem, but because they do not. Your gelding needs to build a stronger relationship with you individually so you have a foundation to stand on when he and the mare are together. Whether he bites from jealousy or a power-play, he needs the same lesson. The first two lessons I teach every horse are to back away and yield hindquarters. That gives me all the control I will every need to keep the horse out of my space and out of trouble. (You can read more about that in “Discipleship with Horses.”) Never feed a horse who isn’t pleasant. It rewards the fear. Teach your gelding to back out of your space consistently – every time. Eventually you can hang the feed bucket or stand between him and the feeder and ask him to back up and be patient. When he is, tell him he’s a good boy and leave him alone to eat. Over time you can walk in whether he’s eating or not and move him around without a negative reaction. You’re actually helping reduce his fear.

  2. Karen T:

    In your article about round penning do you use a training stick, or rope to assist in signaling directions to the horse?

    Also I have a mare and a gelding and when one is in the round pen the other one or both have fits about being away from each other. How should I handle that —–especially in terms of getting the one in the round pens attention on me.

    • Lynn Lynn:

      Karen, as the article noted, once your horse shows up (gets into the round pen) the goal is to earn its focus. This is the most difficult part for most people. The way you do that is to begin a habit of success where you ask your horse to do something easy, it does, and you quit asking. I always being with the smallest tool possible. Unless I am working with a pushy or belligerent horse I try to use nothing but my body. My first back up is an old lead rope without a snap, then on to a training stick.

      Perhaps the first thing you might ask your horse to do is “Move left.” You have to know what the right answer is. In this case, as soon as your horse’s feet begin moving to the left – DISENGAGE – quit asking. Go look over the far side of the round pen to see what’s happening at the neighbors or pick a weed. Eventually your horse will stop and look at you (or look at something else.) Get back into position and ask your horse to “Move right.” Use the smallest cue/energy possible to get feet moving to the right. The instant they do – QUIT asking and do something else for about 30 seconds or so. Ask something a little different each time. Once your horse figures out that you only ask for little things and quit as soon as it obeys, you will start becoming more interesting to your horse.

      When you first decide to change your history to one of successful leadership, try to work without the biggest distraction standing outside the gate. Trying to get the attention of a horse (child) when it is firmly locked onto someone else is a higher order task. It can be done, but takes a higher level of skill.

      There is a lot of foundation as well as step-by-step methods for gaining focus, etc. in the new book, “Discipleship with Horses.” Simple gospel principles also apply to horse training. For example, the 4 basic commands Jesus used are the same ones we give our horses:
      Come, Follow, Go(Send), and Yield. Working a horse at liberty or under saddle uses these commands. In every instance, the failure of a horse to do what you ask is by saying “No” to one of those requests. Longing is sometimes Come and more often, Go/Send.

      You’ll learn a lot from the book. But, I’ll always try to answer questions. If you send me a short video of your challenges I can make a more specific suggestion.

      Blessings, Lynn

  3. Dan Cooksey:

    Great post. When I first started doing round pen work with our horses my biggest problem was knowing when to stop asking. Now I fully adhere to your principle of ignoring the horse after they give a right response, no matter how small.


    • Lynn:

      Dan, you learned the same lesson because the truth is the truth is the truth. One of the things I discovered about supposed plagiarism is that recognizing truth isn’t limited to one person at a time. Lots of folks can arrive at the same place completely independently from others because truth is truth. A reader asked me to write this as she prepares to begin using a round pen in order to build leadership and gain focus. After I finished I realized it barely scratched the surface.

      There’s always more, isn’t there?
      Blessings, Lynn

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