Connecting With Your Horse in the Round Pen

In this article, we'll give you an overview of the 20-step program that I use as a foundation for lessons such as halterless leading, spook in place, and teaching a horse to stand tied. We'll assume that you've done some groundwork with your horse—ideally the bridlework lessons— and that you can work safely around him.

Years ago, i began training “unbroke” horses in a round pen. I’d use the inside and outside turns to develop control safely.

I’ve changed my training sequence in recent years, I still begin in the round pen with a horse who hasn’t been halter trained or who can’t safely be haltered or led. That lets me find a starting point for training, and gives me something to build on.

But if I can lead the horse, I begin with the bridlework lessons that we’ve been doing in this “Perfect Ground Manners” series. By the time I’ve taught the horse to give to pressure and move his hips and shoulders on cue, he understands the language of pressure and release, and he’s already learned to look to me for guidance and control. By beginning with bridlework, I can cut down on the amount of time I work in the round pen because the horse understands the lessons so much quicker.

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the “20-step” program that I use as a foundation for lessons such as halterless leading, spook in place, and teaching a horse to stand tied. We’ll assume that you’ve done some groundwork with your horse-ideally the bridlework lessons- and that you can work safely around him.

No Corners to Cut

  • Consider the round pen as a classroom rather than as a place to burn off your horse’s excess energy.
  • Put protective boots on your horse and clear the pen of any potential hazards.
  • Think of yourself as a traffic cop and let your body language communicate your wishes.
  • As your horse’s responses improve, refine your body language to be more subtle, less obvious.
  • Use specific patterns to help achieve your goals.
  • Apply pressure to ask the horse “please do this” and use an instant release of that pressure to say “thank you.”

No Corners
Training in a round pen means different things to different people, and there are plenty of misconceptions about it. The reality is that there’s no mystical connection with a horse in the round pen. A round pen is simply a corral without corners.

Because there are no corners, the horse has limited ways that he can “escape” the trainer’s pressure. That’s good in one way, since it narrows the options available to the horse and he finds the “right” answer more quickly. It’s bad, though, because a trainer can put a horse under too much pressure if he isn’t careful and specific about what he’s asking.

When I put a horse in the round pen, I have a specific training goal in mind. I don’t use it for exercise or to have the horse burn off energy. I use round pen work to develop control, so I can keep both the horse and myself safe.

Round pen training does not involve running a horse around the pen until he’s tired or he figures out that he gets to rest if he comes to stand by the trainer. Nothing could be further from what we do. We want to preserve the horse’s energy (and his soundness, of course), so we only want him to move as much as is necessary for him to understand what we’re teaching.

My goal is to establish control, so I try to limit the amount of time that the horse is out of control. If he’s running around the pen, he’s out of control. I do not tell him, “You want to run? Okay. Run until you’re tired.”

We also use the round pen lessons to build trust, and the horse learns to trust us when he figures out that we can control him without causing him pain. So anything that we do to hurt the horse is out-of-bounds.

Many people also make the mistake of using round pen training to get a horse to stand by them, but then they have difficulty getting him away from them. The horse becomes convinced that standing by the trainer is the right thing, and it can lead to a dangerous situation.

There will be a point when we want the horse to stand by us, but on cue, not on his own. Prior to then, we’ll want to develop a way to tell him to move forward, turn to the outside, turn to the inside, and stop.

Even though systematic training in the round pen has many benefits, it doesn’t solve every problem. Working a horse in a round pen won’t make him respond to the bridle better, because you’re not using a bridle. It won’t solve riding problems, since you’re not riding. But if the trainer is specific about only asking for one thing at a time and rewarding the horse promptly, a whole range of ground manners will improve.

That said, round pen training isn’t ideal for every horse, particularly horses with a tendency to be aggressive. I work with aggressive horses with the bridle because then I have specific, physical control of them.

During the course of your round pen work, if you sense that your horse is getting aggressive-throwing you dirty looks or coming toward you in a threatening manner-do not continue working the horse loose in the pen. Do not worry about “ending the lesson on a good note.” Halter or bridle the horse and work with him that way, asking small questions that he can answer with a “yes.”

You say you don’t have a round pen? No problem. You can use a small corral, though it’s easier without corners. The important thing is that you understand the principles because then you can adapt them for your own situation.

I often encourage people to look around their community to see if someone has a round pen they might use. I really only use a round pen for a few days’ worth of training in a horse’s life, so you might see if you could haul over to a friend’s for a couple of training sessions.

I put protective boots on the horse, since he might kick himself or bump into the fence during a turn and I don’t want him to get hurt. I make sure the pen is cleared of anything that could hurt or trap the horse or me. Then I lead the horse into the round pen and turn him loose, allowing him time to settle down in his new surroundings.

When I feel that I can safely begin, I enter the pen with a coiled lariat in my hand. Some people carry a lunge whip, but I can handle a lariat better. The lariat is just an extension of your arm. Think of it as a visual aid, not a weapon.

The horse is going to learn that when you pressure him, you want him to do something. When he does the right something, you relieve the pressure.

Initially, your horse won’t be able to read the nuances of your body language, but he’ll learn the patterns quickly. He’ll figure out that a certain look or body stance is followed by a motion, such as your moving toward him or threatening to throw the lariat. He’ll also recognize that he can do certain things, such as looking toward or away from you, to get you to relax your body posture.

Forget about using any sort of special body language and just be yourself. Your horse will learn what you want when you release him from any pressure. I tell people to think of themselves as traffic cops, and the rest will come naturally.

Imagine that you are going to talk to two spots on the horse-his nose and his hip. Learn to focus on a spot before you give the horse a signal.

The kiss sound, used just before or at the same time you physically signal your horse, will become a cue to “move.” It doesn’t tell the horse what to move or in which direction. But after a little practice, when you kiss, he’ll know you want some kind of action, and he’ll look to see what accompanies your kiss.

One tip that I’ve found useful is to pretend the horse has an imaginary line across his withers, just in front of an imaginary saddle. When you’re behind that line, you can “shoo” him forward.

Just look at his hip and move toward him or motion toward him to tell him to move forward. The moment he does, relax and allow him to continue. Don’t chase him. Give him a signal to move, and when he moves, relax. If he stops, then ask him to go again. Use as little activity as will get the movement you want.

When you are forward of that imaginary line, you are more or less blocking the horse’s forward motion, and can ask him to make a turn. We’ll use the terms “outside,” meaning away from you, and “inside,” meaning toward you, when we talk about turning the horse.

In the course of your work, you are likely to get confused. We can’t detail all the “what-ifs” in one article, but we can tell you that if you don’t overdo it, you’ll probably be able to figure out a solution.

If at any point you get worried, think the horse is getting too hot, or for any other reason you feel you should stop, then stop. You don’t have to get to any particular point in the lesson. If you are getting tired, walk out of the pen.

Don’t work your horse any longer or harder than you would if you were riding him. You can do all the steps in one session if he catches on quickly. Or you can take your time and just do a few each day.

The simpler you keep things, the quicker the horse will understand. You are just trying to explain your thoughts to your horse, so don’t get frazzled and angry with him. If he knew what you wanted, he’d do it right away. Just remember that pressure means, “Do something.” And release of pressure means, “Thank you. You did it right.” The quicker you can say, “Thanks,” the quicker the horse learns.

Into the Round Pen
I follow this particular sequence with every horse I work, so that I always know where I am in the training:

1. Go forward to the left.
Begin by getting the horse to move to the left, counterclockwise around the pen, ideally at a trot. Focus on his hip, kiss to him, and tell him to get moving. If the horse tries to change direction on his own, ask him again to go to the left.

2. Change direction from the left.
To ask for a turn, think about getting the horse’s nose to turn toward the fence. Focus on his nose and move toward the fence, far enough ahead of the horse that he senses you intending to block his path. You do not want to scare the horse or get close enough that he could possibly run into you. If need be, walk across the pen from the horse, so he has plenty of notice before the turn.

Ideally, the horse will turn to the outside-toward the fence. If he happens to turn to the inside, that’s okay for now, but be sure to have him complete the turn, not come in to you.

3. Go forward to the right.
Focus on the horse’s right hip and tell it to move forward. Make sure you’re not blocking him. The moment he moves forward to the right (clockwise), relax. Ideally, you’d like the horse to work at the trot, but an energetic walk is okay, as is the occasional canter. Running around is not okay.

4. Change direction from the right.

5. Change direction to the outside, from the left.
Now you’re going to be more specific, accepting only an outside turn. With the horse moving to the left, focus on his nose and move out ahead of him so that your body language “herds” him toward the fence. When he makes the outside turn, allow him to continue moving, or gently tell him to continue moving.

If he tries to turn toward you, drop back, focus on his hip, and tell him to go forward again. After a few strides, ask for the outside turn again. When the inside turn doesn’t work, he’ll eventually try the outside.

6. Change direction to the outside from the right, as you did from the left.

7. Practice outside turns until the horse does them consistently.
Be sure to allow the horse to travel more than halfway around the pen between changes of direction.

8. Change direction at specific points.
Choose a spot, perhaps six posts past the gate. You want the horse to make an outside turn, with his nose turning at that location. At first, you may have to start asking for the turn as the horse passes the gate in order for him to turn six posts later. When you and the horse get better at this, he’ll be able to respond sooner. Practice with different spots and see how close to the spot you can get the horse to turn.

9. Turn inside from the left.
By now, the horse is feeling good that he knows outside turns. So when you first ask him for an inside turn, he’s likely to turn to the outside, sure that he has the right answer.

To ask for the inside turn, move forward of the imaginary line and look at the horse’s nose. The horse is likely to slow, thinking that you’re going to ask for an outside turn. Instead of crowding him toward the fence, step back toward the center of the pen, inviting him to turn toward you. If he does, allow him to complete the turn and then gently encourage him to continue moving, now to the right.

If he tries to make an outside turn, interrupt the turn by telling him to go forward again. After a few strides, ask for an inside turn again. It may take several tries with you preventing him from making the outside turn, but after a few moments of confusion, he’ll figure out the difference and make the inside turn.

10. Turn inside from the right, using the same technique that you did from the left.

11. Practice the inside turns until the horse can make them consistently.
As the horse learns to read you better, you can stay closer to the center of the pen and make your movements increasingly more subtle.

12. Ask for turns, using this sequence:
• Go left and turn to the inside.
• Go right and turn to the outside.
• Go left and turn to the outside.
• Go right and turn to the inside.

13. Develop your own pattern of inside and outside turns, deciding in advance where you want the turn to occur.
You might want to put cones at various spots outside the round pen to help you visually.

14. Use outside turns to tell the horse to stop.
This is an important step in developing control, and horses vary greatly in how quickly they catch on. Ask the horse to go to the left. Ask for an outside turn. Allow him to go halfway around the pen, then ask for another outside turn. Allow him to go halfway around again, and again ask for an outside turn. Repeat several times.

When you feel that you can safely reduce the distance that the horse travels between turns, then do so, asking him to make a turn after he travels a third of the way around the pen, and so forth. Try to use less and less body language, which will encourage the horse to relax and watch you. When he’s consistent at a third of the way around, then shorten the distance again.

Continue using outside turns until the horse comes to a stop (normally facing slightly outside). Immediately relax and walk to the center of the pen, releasing him from all pressure. That helps him to understand that the sequence of turns was to get him to stop. The horse will most likely walk off, which is okay.

15. Stand parallel to the fence.
Now put all the pieces together. Try to use the mildest body language that will get the job done. Use a series of outside turns to get the horse to stop, as you did in Step #14. If the horse is facing outside, ask him to move forward and begin to ask for an inside turn. The moment he looks toward you (enough to be parallel to the fence), then stop asking for the turn. If the horse is facing inside, ask him to walk forward and begin to ask for the outside turn.

Be specific in focusing on the horse’s nose or hip to make the small adjustments required to get the horse to stand parallel to the fence. The moment the horse stops parallel to the fence, walk away to give him a reward.

16. Stay standing parallel to the fence.
This is a refinement of the previous step. Most likely when you move to the center of the pen, the horse will walk off. Now you are going to ask him to remain standing. If he walks off, then reposition him, using the same technique as before. Then move to the center of the pen again.

It will take a few times before he realizes that it’s okay to just stand there. When the horse can do this well with his right side to the fence, then do Steps 14, 15 and 16, ending up with his left side to the fence.

17. Both eyes, please.
This is a very important step. You want the horse to look at you with both eyes, but without moving his feet. Position the horse so he’s standing with his right side next to the fence. Walk to the fence about 15 feet in front of him. If the horse moves, reposition him, as you did before.

When he’s comfortable, kiss to him softly to ask him to look at you with both eyes. The moment he begins to look away, kiss again. If he doesn’t look at you, step toward the middle of the pen to cue his hip to go forward. Ask him to stop parallel to the fence again, walk to the fence out in front of him, and kiss to ask him to look at you.

Now practice this step from the other direction, with his left side next to the fence.

18. Look at me with both eyes; bend your neck.
With the horse standing parallel to the fence, again with his right side next to the fence, and you 15 feet in front of him, kiss to get him to look at you with both eyes. When he’s locked onto you, step to your right. If he looks away, ask him to look at you again.

You may need to slap your leg with the lariat or make some other move that reminds him that you’ll ask him to move forward again if he doesn’t look at you. When he looks at you, relax. You can even turn and step away, if you think that he needs a big release of pressure.

Ask him to move around the pen and then to stop parallel to the fence again. Walk to the fence, as you did before, and kiss to him. When he’s looking at you, take one or two steps to the right. The moment you lose his look, kiss to him. You may have to step to the left to get his eyes again before continuing to the right.

Play with this, continuing to step to the side and asking the horse to look at you with both eyes. (You’ll eventually be moving toward his hip, not toward the middle of the pen.) Your objective is to have his feet facing forward, but his neck bent as he looks at you. Even though we eventually want the horse to turn and face us, we want him to go through this step with a nice, deep bend in the neck. Be sure to do this step from both directions.

19. Turn and face from the left.
Ask the horse to move forward and to stop parallel to the fence. Kiss to ask him to look at you. By now, you won’t have to go to the fence. As you move toward his hip and he bends his neck farther and farther, he’ll eventually turn his body so that he’s facing you. Assuming that it’s safe to do so, walk up and pet him, and then turn and walk away. He might follow you or he might just stand there. Either way is fine.

20. Turn and face from the right.
Do the same exercise as Step #19, beginning with the horse’s left side parallel to the fence and getting him to turn his neck to his right.

Practice the last few steps until the horse will turn to look at you with both eyes no matter where you are in the pen. In a future lesson, we’ll build on that to teach your horse to lead with an invisible lead rope.

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