The round pen, rope halter and lead rope. These combination of things seem to have become as much a part of each other as bit, spurs and whip have been over the course of many centuries. As opposed to bit and spurs, the round pen and the lead rope seems to have an image of kindness and friendliness whereas bits and spurs do not. “Working the horse gentle and without violence” is what I hear people say about it. When I ask people why it is so friendly, they mostly reply that it is natural to the horse to be handled in this way. Hence the term ‘Natural Horsemanship’ that is often used to describe a way of working with a horse with rope halter, rope and round pen.
Question is, is this way of working and handling the horse really natural from the horse’s point of view? What really is the effect on the horse’s physical and mental state?
Let us take a closer look at the biomechanics and mental factors behind working the horse in a round pen. I am now only going into the round pen itself. For my views and experiences concerning the rope halter, please read ‘bitless is not always bitless’.
Round versus square
In Europe we put horses behind or train them in square or rectangular paddocks, arena’s and picaderos since ancient history. Round penning or corrals seem to be associated with the ‘Far West’, the Cowboys and mustangs. Indeed, I presume the round shape is a good choice to chase in wild horses. Here I see a clear danger with corners either for the panicky horses themselves or the humans that need to handle them. Nowadays, the wild horse scene has become a rare image. Still the round pen is used and not only in the US, it has come to Europe. More and more we see the round pen being used for just one horse and often not a wild one at all. I have asked western trainers and trainers who call them selves horse whisperers or natural horsemanship trainers, why they use a round pen and not a square pen, to me known as a picadero or simple an arena. The answer I received was: “Because the horse can not ‘hide’ in the corners.” If there are any other reasons to it that you, reader, might know, please enlighten me. But so far, that is the only one I have heard over many years from many people. The horse can not ‘stop’ in the corners, or use the corners to change direction, brace himself etc. The use of the round pen, when googling, tells me it is first and foremost to ‘break (in)’ horses. Breaking a horse would indeed need a pen where he can not hide, stop or brace so that makes a lot of sense. However, where does that leave this ‘non violent’, ‘kind’, ‘gentle’ and ‘Natural’ training in relation to the round pen? I shall come back to that later.
First I would like to explain, why, if you want to work in a way that will benefit your horse, you better use a picadero (square pen). The answer to that is: because the corners benefit the horse’s physical development.
When a horse walks, trots or canters in a square or rectangular arena, every time he really goes through the corners, he lifts his shoulders and comes out of the corner more straight and uphill. Therefore the corners are a big part of the Gymnasium (= anciently known sequence of exercises that empowers the horse) for a horse who takes a corner produces a small Shoulder In. Shoulder in, is in fact a horse walking as if going through a corner, but then keeps his shape and walks in a straight line forward. Of course, when you work a horse free in a rectangular space which is to large, the horse will often cut the corners. That is why a picadero was invented. It is a square measuring 12 by 12 or 15 by 15 meters. Within the picadero, just following the track in walk, trot or canter will benefit your horse by lifting his shoulders each corner.
Horse correctly worked in a picadero with Body language, the corners help the horse to remain straight and balance in which he can go naturally uphill. Picture horsesandhumans.com
Hide and seek
The next benefit for your horse is the very thing which was called a disadvantage by users of round pens: The horse can ‘hide’ in the corners. So why would that be an advantage? Because you can learn about the best of way of handling that specific horse. If your horse seeks to evade you, he simply does not feel comfortable with you or sees any benefit in doing what you are asking. If your goal is the benefit of your horse, you are very happy with that knowledge. For you want to adjust your question or the situation thus ,so your horse does feel more comfortable. Only this way will he truly learn to trust you because he’ll know, the things you’ll ask him are for his benefit and never will harm him or cause him pain, fear or discomfort.
Horse able to go long and low because of correctly being supported by the corners of the picadero and the body language of the human. This way, the horse will not injure his shoulders. Also see: Forward and down: the story of the nuchal ligament. Photo: Horsesandhumans.com
Turning on the inside shoulder
“Okay, so the round pen does not have the benefit of the corners”, you might think, “so what”? Well, it is not just that the round pen lacks the benefit of the corners, it presents the horse with the exact opposite of this benefit. You see, the problem with the lack of corners produces a health hazard to the horse as soon as he starts walking, trotting or cantering along the track. Going round in circles is an unnatural move to a horse. A horse is shaped to eat from the ground and go, walk, trot and canter in sort of serpentine lines, never really round and never on a true straight line. In nature, just going straight constantly or round will never happen. So, the equine body is not equipped to do circles and straight lines. In a round pen however, the horse makes continuous circles. The effect of this will produce the following: The horse will pivot around his inside front leg and shoulder. This will, over the long run produce contra collection, crookedness and lameness. The horse will immobilise himself and will become very hard to work in hand or ride in lightness. By chasing a horse in a round pen, you chase the collection out of the horse and produce exactly the opposite.
Picture number 1: Horse chased in a roundpen completely pivoting around the inside foreleg. The only way to keep moving is to contract the lower neck muscles. This stagnete the use of the longissimus dorsi (long back muscles) and will put the horse in contra collection.
picture number 2: With this horse the problem has become even worse, his whole body falls to the inside, all the weight is on the inside foreleg. He therefore needs to keep his lower neck muscles contracted as to not tip over and fall on his nose.
Working the horse in hand in lightness
To help the horse develop his body in a way so that he can carry his human without harm up till at least 25 years of age, lunging on the soft cavesson is a basic tool. For many years I never had any problem, by some simple body language, to ask a horse to walk, trot and canter on the lunge. Horses usually like this work if done correctly, for here too, the danger of working the horse on his inside shoulder is lurking, if you do not do this correctly. But over the last couple of years more and more horses that are brought to me for training are almost impossible to ask for nice, free, proud and forward movement on the lunge. The first problem is that they will not want to move. The horses do not want to leave your side and constantly turn their head towards you and their hind quarters away from you. This is due to the following causes: First of all, these horses are in contra collection due to being forced to walk on their shoulders in the roundpen as explained before. A contra collected horse litterly moves himself in to the ground with his front legs. The only way a contra collected horse can move forward fast is by lifting the head way up high, contracting the lower neck muscles, for if he does not do so, he litterly tips over. The opposite of collection in which the head and neck supported by the contraction of the upper neck muscles lift the forehand by means of suspending the four joints in the hind legs. This whole natural system which every horse is born with is completely destroyed by chasing him regularly in the roundpen.
So that is why these horses do not want to go forward, especially on the small body language cues an untrained or well trained horse would go (note that in natural reaction, both should react the same!).
The second problem is that the horse will constantly turn towards you. This has two reasons. First the contra collection in which the horse has been rendered makes him constantly lean on his forelegs by means of his triceps. There is almost no weight on the hind quarters, therefore if you ask the horse to move, only his hind legs will be able to move from their place, as the front legs are completely immobile from the weight of the horse. To top that, I have seen trainers have the horse do this movement as an exercise, in which they constantly pressure the hind quarters to move whilst the horse keeps the weight on his front legs, which of course only makes the problem worse.
In addition, even if the horse would be able to move freely and proudly on the lunge, he surely would not dare. After all, he has learned that walking around a human is punishment and standing with the head close to him or following him is what the human wants and makes the harmful and pointless movement in circles end.
Lastly, there has been used so much pressure on these horses with an enormous amount of rope swinging, that the horse has grown completely deaf for small cues. All the lightness in the horse is gone. Often the limit of pressure used has gone over the top and the horse has decided to stop moving, no matter what. No rope or whip can make him move, whether he is hit or not. The reason lies mostly in pain in the body. Moving round in contra collection has become so painful, that standing and taking blows from whip or rope has become the less distressing option. Many trainers then give up, saying the horse is untrainable and hence people call on our yard as a last resort.
Because of this more and more occurring phenomena, I and my students have to put months into simply helping the horse off his shoulders, then to microshape, so he is able to react to tiny and soft cues of body language and touch again and lastly to get the horse to understand and trust that he is allowed to move freely, proud and foreward and that asking him to move is not a punishment but a means to help him improve his body.
Having said that, a horse that has been chased in a roundpen often will keep this sort of ‘lid on his energy’. The horse remains fearful to ‘give his all’, afraid that he then still will be pushed over his limits,as has been done before. His prey instinct tells him to remain enough energy to be able to flee from predators at all time. Understanding the horse and therefore ‘the way of the prey’ means that you shall never ever fatigue a horse! Only then will he trust his human enough to ‘give his all’. Horses that have been over pressured, lost mobility in their body by being forced to move in a harmful way and have been fatigued more than once, shall almost never truly dare giving their all again.
Antoine de Pluvinel tells us for a reason we should bring the horse back to his box as fresh as we took him out!
Correctly lunged horse. The horse is straight and moves ‘as if going through a corner’. The inside foreleg is underneath the shoulder, the most weight is taken up by the outside hind leg. The shoulder is free.
The round pen and the rope, is often an image that comes with so called horse whispering. However, if we take a closer look to what is happening in a round pen a lot of times, whispering, from the horse’s point of view, isn’t actually what is happening. On the contrary, if we look at this from the horse’s point of view, being chased with a rope in a small fenced area, no matter round or not, is no whisper. It is – in my view – down right yelling, screaming and terrorising.
But it is about ‘leadership’, is a phrase that is often heard. But what is leadership?
Dwight D. Eisenhower has the following to say about it: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” This, to me, says it all. Leadership is about inspiring others. This way you will lead by example. I in fact learned about leadership from horses! When we study natural horse behaviour we see, that the image we have of horses and their picking order is not their natural way at all. There is one thing that makes the difference between naturally following a leader or being bullied into coercion:
After many years of studying the birth of democracy, (or what democracy once meant), which was around the same time when the first ‘dressage for the horse ‘training book was written, and studying natural horse behaviour, I came to a conclusion:
Horses must have been the inventors of true democracy. Horse leaders do not force other horses to ‘follow’. They have no means to do so. Why not? Simple, the other horses simply can leave if they do not like a certain horse to be in charge. After all, once again, there is no fence! So some horses have their own idea on things because of intelligence and experience and other horse learn that following those horses will bring them good fortune. This in short is their reason for following a certain horse, or horses. So, when the leading horse leave, the other follow, but they do not have to, they choose to!
So, if you want to be the leader of your horse, ask yourself, and this is crucial – from the horse’s point of view – do you bring your horse good fortune? Hopefully I do not have to add here that this not about fancy rugs and bling bling bridles! Do you offer your horse that which helps him stay healthy and improve himself both mentally and physically?
Many say: “but this is how horses treat each other, I see it every day”. Within the fences yes, we can see that the anti social bully type of horses, that no one would get near in natural environment, have the glorious change of a lifetime. It is not their intelligence or experience, it is simply their strength that makes them ‘leader’. But take the fence away and all horses would run from him and never come near the bully again. It is only logical. A bully will make stupid choices and injure horses which will make their chance of survival much smaller. A true leader however, will only do what he thinks is best for himself and will allow others to join in, on his beneficial experience. Thus pulling the string, without really meaning to.
Freedom to follow makes leaders, closed confinements make dictators. We see it with humans too. A fence can be your ‘paycheck&mortgage’. You do as you told, even though your boss makes your life hell on a daily basis. What if you won the lottery? You would be gone in a heartbeat! But what if you have a boss that takes care of you and makes you feel you can expand your potential and creativity? You’d would at least wait until your boss had found someone new before you left, no way would you leave a boss like that in trouble. Or you would not work there anymore but stay friends with your boss. But it works also on a larger scale: think about the so called ‘Iron curtain’ around the former Sovjet countries or the wall of Berlin.
When you are within the fence with your horse, next time you train, ask yourself: if the fence would disappear, would my horse remain? Ask yourself: what reason would my horse have to remain with me? Believe me, ‘buying expensive rug’ is not a related answer for a horse.
So, chasing a horse with a rope is not a way to become his leader, okay, but then what is, you might ask. Good question! Indeed what? The thing is, that if, and indeed ‘if’ your horse elects you as leader, it will be because of many small things you do and don’t over the course of time.
If your horse learns that being with you, and following your lead, will bring him nothing but good things, then your horse will follow you. Do remember that even in nature, horses have their own free mind and will, even while having the best alpha horse’s imaginable. The same will count between you two. Your horse might starting consulting you – and if that happens, you are already really far! – in different situations he will always again chose whether to follow you or not. Every horse is different, every situation is different and you yourself can feel or be different day by day. Nothing is absolute in this. So I suggest you start working on your friendship first, by providing all things your horse needs, both mentally as well as physically. Next, whatever you do, lead by example! Read more of this in ‘human manners’
One training system for every horse?
Scaring a horse out of his wits with a rope within a fence will not make you his leader, you will probably agree. It can make you his bully if the horse is young or of a certain soft nature. But if you have an alpha type of mare, stallion or even gelding, you can be presented with a really dangerous challenge and rightly so. Only losers can come out of this, either an injured human, or a traumatised horse. Horses with true leadership qualities will henceforth often be rendered ‘un-trainable’ and dangerous, as they will choose to attack their chaser and with good reason, might I add. With which I touch on the subject of the following: often many training techniques are designed for ‘the horse’. But there is no such thing as ‘the horse’! Foals, fillies, colts, mares, alpha mares, stallions, geldings, traumatised horses, injured horses, anti social horses… or mixes between all these! Every different type require such a different way of handling! And even within these groups, every individual is different. There is no training system for every horse. Each horse requires his own unique training system!
Working with many ‘un-trainable’ horses over the past 20 years, this is the greatest conclusion I have drawn and the core of why within Natural Riding Art we have success with horses, most trainers are unable to work with.
Before you start training a horse, first ask yourself what your goal with that specific horse is. If you, like us, want a horse to become Equus Universalis; all he can be, both mentally as well as physically, please, do not chase your horse around.
By Josepha Guillaume