by Joe Pallas
One of the best ways to get started training a young horse or any horse for that matter is at liberty in the round pen. First-what do we mean by “at liberty”? All that means is that we remove all control and training aids from the horse-so that there’s no halter, bridle, or lead/lunge line. Aside from being inside the round pen, the horse is basically free. A bridle or halter, of course, doesn’t really matter, what’s important here is severing direct control between the handler (you) and the horse.
Why is it that round pen training is so effective when training a young horse?
If done correctly, round pen training allows you to build leadership and trust with your horse in a fundamental way that he naturally understands. And this can be done in an essentially safe environment-something that’s really important to keep in mind. Safety should always be your priority with equines. The less training a horse has, the more control we need to maintain safety. And when training a young horse it turns out a round pen is just what the doctor ordered. When done at liberty, the horse is free to move and work through his fears without feeling panicked or confined-even though in reality the horse is confined, by the virtue of being in a round pen he can move off from a scary stimulus if he chooses to do so. Now nothing is perfect-and there will be occasions when a horse feels panicked in a round pen or even escapes-I’ve seen that happen. But in the vast majority of cases, a round pen will safely confine a horse-while giving him the ability to freely move.
Earlier we mentioned that round pen training is really effective when training a young horse. And in fact its a great tool to use when starting any horse. Let’s see why in more detail.
The first reason is that a round pen produces a setting within which it is pretty easy to establish leadership-a vital step in training a young horse. This is due to the way that horses naturally establish their heirarchy in a herd (wild or otherwise). Every group of horses that lives together has a hierarchical structure and every horse knows his rank. One thing you will see dominant horses doing is making the other horses move around. I once herd a phrase that sums this up: control the feet, control the horse. In the round pen, you mimic this behavior by controlling the movement of your equine in four basic ways:
You tell him when to move
You tell him what direction to move
You tell him how fast to move
You decide when he can come to a stop
Even better-by working at liberty you’re going to be controlling the movement of your horse using energy and body language. So its all going to seem quite natural to the horse-and he will instinctively see you as his trusted leader. Another aspect of working at liberty is that you are also building communications-another vital step in training a young horse successfully. Your communication skills which you start off in the round pen will carry over to riding-by applying pressure to the appropriate spots on the horse. In the round pen, when working at liberty, you learn to apply pressure with energy and body language. This makes the round pen not just valuable to your animal-it makes it a great training school for you too! If you are able to master communication with your horse using only energy and body language-think about how effective you’ll be when riding and using your reins and legs. You will be able to talk to your horse from the saddle light as can be.
As one specific example, if you want your horse to move out while in the round pen focus your energy and body language on his hip area. At first, you will need a tool to help out-but you should have good success without actually touching the horse as time goes on. Suppose you keep a lead rope with you. You can swing the lead rope in the direction of the hip, without actually striking the horse to ask him to move out. But what you should really be thinking about is focusing your gaze on the top of his hip-and directing energy there. Focus your gaze on the spot where you would actually tap the horse with your crop if you were using that method.
If the horse doesn’t respond, and he may not the first few times, then up the volume. Swing the rope more vigorously, and then let it strike the ground. If the horse still doesn’t move, then at this point direct contact may be necessary. But you will find with practice that less direct contact is required.
Don’t be discouraged if you don;t have complete success at first-nobody becomes a horse whisperer in a day. Keep practicing! With time you will find you need less actual contact with your horses to get them to do what you ask. Round pen training is a great place to start training a young horse or a horse you don’t know, to brush up with an old horse or to just work on your own equine communication skills.
David McMahon is a freelance author who is owned by 3 horses. For more information, please visit Gentle natural horsemanship.