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The Round Pen - Part 1

Posted by Tanya Drayton on December 10, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Many people use the round pen as a handy spot to get work done with a difficult horse. Others use it for “exercising” purposes. In addition, many of the round pens I see block all visual stimuli to the outside with solid walls, which conveniently forces your horse’s attention on you.

 For many years, I’ve used round pens for those reasons and for safety purposes too since most of the horses I work with are usually “green”. A few years ago I started attending clinics offered by a gentleman horseman named Harry Whitney. He pointed out that if you used the round pen to “exercise” your horse by running or jogging it in circles for a set time limit that you were actually teaching your horse to flee from you. He then got my attention by asking attendees to entertain the thought that the round pen was in fact, a classroom the horse couldn’t easily leave. My imagination went wild.

You see many clinicians use the catch phrase “hooking-up”, referring to getting the horse to consistently mentally track on the individual working them. From my point of view however, they leave out an important element: It’s a two way street. In order to receive and maintain that “consistent mental track” from the horse, the individual working the horse needs to give the horse the courtesy of reciprocation. In other words, if you want his undivided attention then you have to give him undivided attention. The other important morsel of information they leave out is the fact that “hooking-up” begins the minute you enter the pasture to catch your critter and doesn’t end until you let him go.

I’ve also found that many illusions exist inside the walls of a round pen, some are the horse’s illusions and some are the humans. The human’s primary illusion is that the horse has to pay attention to them in there, especially if they are using an enclosed facility. The person tends to buy into the notion that if the horse performs every action the person asked for then they must be “hooked-up” and everything is hunky-dory. I would argue this: If you put me in a spot where I have performed a certain activity exactly the same hundreds of times, I bet I can physically perform that activity a hundred more times and my thoughts could be wrapped up in the latest book I’m reading. Horses can do this too. They can easily perform the task they think you want them to and all the while they are thinking about their buddies or the grain they may score at the end of the workout. The point is, mentally, they are somewhere else. Every time we work them without realizing that they didn’t actually hook up we prove them right and reinforce the behavior. Pretty soon, you’ve got a mechanical moving critter with a very remote look in its eye.

The horse’s primary illusion is that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter and that it is easier just to do whatever necessary to get it over with. As humans we can change this for the horse by allowing him the illusion that he does, in fact, have a choice in the matter. When the human sets up the horse so that its correct choices have consistently pleasurable outcomes, a horse thinks it has a choice and it becomes a willing and eager participant in the work routines.

So, when you enter the round pen with your horse, my advice would be to enter it entertaining the thought that you’re going to have an uninterrupted, two-way conversation with your horse.

 

 2010 Tanya Drayton, Equi-Praise

 


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