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:
- Show up.
- 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;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.