Training horses through relationship is a dance. You respond to what your horse does and he responds to you. Drafting a simple set of steps doesn’t work because the process is action and reaction, finding a rhythm, making a connection, and meeting your horse where he is so you can lead where you intend.
This 2015 video shares my first session with six-year old rescue horse, Journey. His responses were mostly normal and I expected to be riding him in a couple of weeks. But first impressions can be deceiving. Journey is the most dangerous horse I ever worked with yet became the most responsive horse it’s been my privilege to train. None of the many stallions I trained over the years held a candle to the challenges Journey presented.
One of his reactions in the video hints at future trouble, but I wouldn’t recognize it as such until weeks later. Did you notice it? Transforming any horse from reactive to responsive is a process built on the right basics – beginning with day one in the round pen.
These aren’t steps to follow, but rules to guide you.
Working at Liberty
Round pens offer two primary benefits, safety and freedom. The shape eliminates dangerous corners and lets you work at liberty. That means a round pen must be round and sturdy. Perhaps not perfectly round, but the closer it is to round the better it is for your horse’s balance, development, and concentration.
Obedience at liberty is true obedience, like walking a tightrope without a safety net.
Beginning round pen training is done without halter, line, or tack. Everything you teach your horse in the round pen at liberty will be tested in his stall, paddock, and eventually pasture. You want him to do as you ask no matter where he is. With halter or without. With fences or without.
God doesn’t rope or drag us to obedience; He calls us with grace and saves us by faith. The purpose of round pen training is to begin building a foundation of faith.
Here’s a quick list of the 5 rules. Read on for brief expansions of each rule.
5 Unbreakable Rules
- Make it safe.
- Strategically ignore your horse.
- Ask precisely.
- If anyone gets emotional, quit.
- Let the horse win.
Your horse doesn’t do what you ask for one of two reasons; he is either unable or unwilling. Few people really know the difference. This is the most important skill you need to effectively train a horse.
Does failure to obey mean he doesn’t understand or isn’t capable? Is it “I can’t” or more like, “I don’t want to”? If you aren’t sure, always give your horse the benefit of your doubt.
Never, ever punish a try.
Rule #1 – Make it safe.
Unfamiliar surroundings, sights, and smells traumatize some horses. It’s okay if your horse is a little snorty, but it is NEVER good leadership to dump your horse into a trap he considers threatening.
One of the promises you make to your horse is that you won’t hurt him or put him in danger. Inspect the round pen itself and the footing. Are there sharp bolts or protruding wires? Holes? Rocks? Slippery grass?
Rule #2 – Strategically ignore your horse.
Counterintuitive, isn’t it?
Round pens are tools, nothing more. Like bits and spurs, success comes from using them with skill. Moving your relationship with your horse in a new direction means doing something different.
The first step to earn your horse’s focus is doing NOTHING. Pretend to ignore him. If you have round pen history, you’ll have to change the game.
One way to signal that change is coming is letting your horse chill out in the round pen for an hour without company, several days in a row. Let him explore. Nap. Survey the neighborhood. Maybe even get bored.
The round pen is a good thing. It should serve both you and your horse. If your horse doesn’t enjoy his time in the round pen, you need to figure out where your plan got off track.
Curious horses are engaged. Ignoring a horse often whets his wonder… “Wonder what she’s doing here?”
Rule #3 – Ask precisely. Quit.
Know what you want before you ask. When you get the right response, QUIT asking. Don’t underestimate how difficult this is. I’ve worked with World Champions and highly qualified trainers who get this wrong.
Know precisely what you want your horse’s body to do. Ask for the smallest movement. When you get it, QUIT! Your horse will figure out you only ask easy things and quit when he does it. Most horses never experience such simplicity.
It’s the number one way to earn their attention. The video illustrates this rule well.
Two things matter when you begin playing with your horse in the round pen: FOCUS and FEET. Yours and your horse’s.
You can’t build on a foundation that doesn’t exist, making earning your horse’s focus your first goal. Focus is the beginning of relationship.
How can I tell where my horse is focused?
Horses don’t pretend, so it’s easy to see what holds their attention. What’s he looking at? Where are his ears directed? Horse’s ears are like radar – turned in the directions of greatest interest. Pay attention to his eyes and ears. Sometimes horses turn ears in different directions. Your goal is to get one eye and one ear turned toward you.
Learn to read your horse and ask for very little at the beginning. Ask for two eyes, for him to face you, come, or answer more precise questions later. DON’T try to keep his focus at the beginning. Your goal is simply to get it.
Once you reliably have your horse’s attention, ask for movement. Ask something tiny and EASY. When you get it, say “thank you” and quit asking. This is where you stop requiring his attention, which is the very reason you’ll begin to earn it.
When and how should I ask my horse to move his feet?
Move your horse’s feet when:
- You lose his attention
- He gives you the “pony finger”, or
- He stalls out or challenges you to do something bigger
Remember Rule #1 – Make it safe! Don’t get in deeper than you can get out.
Rule #4 – If anyone gets emotional, QUIT.
Your horse must be calm and balanced to properly focus on you. Likewise, you must be calm and balanced to properly concentrate on him. You have to read him as much as he has to read you.
If you aren’t making progress or your horse ramps up in anger, fear, or frustration, STOP what you’re doing and break things down to smaller steps. Turn negative emotions into productive movement quickly or quit and regroup.
Anytime YOU feel frustrated, angry, afraid, or confused, STOP. Talk over the problem with a knowledgeable friend. Think. Don’t mess with your horse when either of you are emotional.
Leaders lead. Better to pick it up again tomorrow than dig a hole today.
Rule #5 – Let the horse win.
Finish on a high note. Even if you had to quit because someone got upset or confused, you need to end with a win. Take a break. Get it together. When you’re ready, go back to the pen and do something simple. Even if it’s a carrot stretch or rubdown.
Don’t get greedy. If your horse exceeded your expectations in ten minutes, take it and run. Don’t push. You’ll learn how much to pack into a lesson and the limits of your horse’s attention span.
End every lesson with a horse that is happier and more confident than when you began.
“You’re trying to figure out a way to meet a horse to where he can understand. And to me, it’s not to train a horse, it’s to try to get the horse with you where it’s one mind and one body. You may spend your whole life chasing that, but it’s a good thing to chase.” – Buck Brannaman
You can train a horse or you can seek unity of mind, spirit, and body. Once you’ve experienced this equine-human trinity, you’ll never settle for less.
Questions always welcome!
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A reader asked, “How much is enough?” Her question continued, “Should a lesson be measured in time or number of skills or steps covered?”
What a great question! The answer varies with every horse/owner combination, but there are a few foundational rules you’ll learn in this short video.
For more, check out the Gospel Horse series of books.