The Round Pen – The Good and the Bad

Some years ago I made a video about how to use the round pen as a training tool. This is now used as a teaching resource at Charles Sturt University in their Equine Science course.

Yesterday I received an email from one of the students with a question about it that I thought I would share with you. The email follows:

Hi Kate

I’ve been watching your video on round pen training, which our lecturer has given us as a resource. I’m loving watching your technique and body language, as well as your lovely horses. Harry is the paint stallion that went to Sydney, isn’t he? I was hoping I could ask you a question to clarify something. A lot of the trainers that use the round yard who I’ve watched online place great store on the horse only turning in. Outside turns seem to be strictly Verboten! So I was wondering why your technique uses both inside and outside turns in the round yard. I hope you don’t mind me asking.

Ciao

And my reply:

Hello,

I think the library has an old copy of that, before I revised it to take out the words ‘respect’ because I don’t think people understand what it means and misuse it, and also ‘trust’ because I don’t think it is a construct the horse can comprehend. I replaced that with ‘get the horse to understand that you control speed and direction’ and added a lot of DO NOT chase the horse. DO NOT chase the horse was there before too but you really can’t say that enough!

I released this video 6-7 years ago and quite honestly mainly in response to that shockingly bad study conducted by Kruger – The Round Pen Technique or whatever it was called. She had several serious problems in the study and it seemed to me that the academic community went for the round pen, which is a tool like any other, over the use of the pen itself.

In brief, these are a few of the problems I found with that study but it’s a long time since I looked at it.

  1. It wasn’t a round pen – one would think it hard to do an experiment on a round pen in a square pen but apparently not. Square pens have corners and necessitate chasing as a result.
  2. The pen was not safe as it was simply a rope dividing off an arena. Horses could have gone through it or been injured.
  3. She had 2 people in the pen – one was a photographer. It is VERY confusing for the horse to have 2 people in there and they will feel chased as a result regardless of what you are doing.
  4. She specifically ‘chased’ the horses – for 30 mins! At Canter! OMG, what is this a test of? If I recall correctly they had 2 or more horses that couldn’t continue because they were sweating profusely….Really?
  5. They were apparently testing Monty Robert’s ‘Join Up theory’ – OK, it’s a theory but has no scientific work behind it at all – frankly, I wouldn’t give it the time of day. It should be obvious that chasing a horse, in any situation, is never a good idea and hopefully wouldn’t even get ethics approval today. All it says is that if you chase the horse around for long enough, bring it to a stage of learned helplessness, it will stop and stand in the middle with you. Surely this is equine-common-sense. Has the horse learned anything? No, other than to be afraid of you. I never chase a horse in a round pen, or anywhere (like lunging), but after I dismount, wherever I am, 85% of horses follow me home without being led – it’s not magic, I believe they do it because they have nowhere else to go really and know I will take the saddle off etc.
  6. They never changed direction or asked the horse to engage its brain at all. Simply chased it in one direction for 30 mins. If I have 30 mins to spend with my horse I want it to be learning something positive, getting stuff right, being praised and gaining confidence – the exact opposite of what goes on here.

It was really a combination of this paper and the academic’s response to it that lead me to starting on the journey I now find myself on in research. Not because I wanted to change how people use round pens, I barely use mine at all theses days, but because the information coming out was not ‘user-friendly’ and didn’t seem to address the ‘grassroots’ riders.

But that’s another story……

On the turns:
1. First and foremost I am always teaching. I don’t’ chase a horse in a round pen and I never tire a horse out in a round pen
2. I teach turns and come to me
3. I teach outside turns first for 2 reasons a) they are easier for the horse to learn. All horses turn outside more easily than inside because it is the ‘way out’. If they don’t then this tells you that this particular horse is more confident than others perhaps. B) Outside turns keep the trainer safer. If a horse is very ‘chargy’ or has been made aggressive by being chased in the round pen or something else, he can come through the middle on an inside turn and kick at the trainer easily – very dangerous.
4. Once the horse has mastered the ‘easy’ turn you have begun to engage his brain. When you go to teach the more difficult thing he is already paying attention so it should be easier for him.
5. Come to me is a progression from inside turns.
6. If I was to use the round pen, I would only teach outside turns once, so do a few of them, and then move on to inside turns and stick with those. Inside turns are more useful for teaching flying changes and demonstration stuff but the entire process should only be 20 mins in total.

I no longer teach the round pen as a lesson step with the turns and come to me unless people specifically want it. When I break horses in these days I have them on a long rein for first saddling so that they don’t go to close to the edge of the pen and kick and hurt themselves. I have never let horses ‘buck it out’ in the pen – like the horse on the ‘First Saddling’ DVD of mine that had been taught to buck in that way.

I also don’t teach the round pen lesson on its own any longer because people find it almost impossible not to chase the horse and this doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I rarely use it myself really. All my young horses know inside, outside turns and come to me but beyond a bit of play, that’s it. The pen’s a great tool for learning to long-rein, canter, changes and other stuff but for chasing horses around into exhaustion – I’ll leave that to Monty.

As our knowledge increases we learn better ways, easier and less stressful for the horse, and change our methods. It is exciting times for both horses and equestrians and there are lots of great people around working hard to make a difference to horse welfare.

I hope this answers your question. Give me a call if you’d like to chat about it or anything.

Cheers,

Kate

If you have a training question simply email Kate (kate@kandooequine.com.au) and I will get back to you.

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