I usually start young horses with the round pen before transferring that knowledge to the longe line.
Like the “Discovery Ride” described in an earlier post, my first round pen work with a new horse is designed to find out what the horse already knows. In my three-year-old Warmblood True’s case, the answer was “not much.” Which is fine! He’s a baby, just learning about the human world.
I test him for my top two round pen peeves: fear and whoa. Fortunately, True has not learned to race around the pen in fear. Sadly, a lot of young horses have, at least in the West. There is rarely a need to apply pressure to a young horse, just so we can relieve it later. But many people don’t know that.
Brain-based horsemanship demands a calm quiet mind. Calmness and quietude allow horses and humans to concentrate on each other, to learn in an encouraging environment without fear. Fear is the enemy of learning—it pumps up all sorts of stressful hormones and upsetting brain chemicals. When they course through the body, they interfere with the brain’s ability to wire neurons together so learning can occur.
I want True to walk, trot, and canter quietly and at a slow to medium pace in the round pen. And for the most part, he does—though he’s a little confused about “walk.” He doesn’t know the voice commands for any gaits yet, but they’ll be easy to teach largely because he is not afraid of his surroundings.
You might not be so lucky with a young horse in a round pen; I’m usually not.
To calm a horse who runs in fear around the pen, ease her with your voice, looking down at the ground, slumping your body into less space, leaving the whip outside the pen, walking slowly toward her on a partly frontal angle, or even leaving the pen if necessary. When you can touch her, soothe her jangled nerves with long strokes and a low slow voice, and start over again.
If she’s really upset, lead her around the pen at a walk with a halter until she learns that nothing in the round pen will hurt her. This can take five minutes or 50, one session or twenty: we’re workin’ on equine time now, so we have to put the clock away and stop when it’s time for a reward, instead.
Some horses are so over-sensitized to the round pen that I have to move their early lessons to a more neutral location, like a small arena. If there’s no small arena, I’ll start with a 30’ longe line. Whatever makes the horse relax and listen to me. At the same time, I’ll begin turning the frightened horse loose in a round pen with no people, zero expectations, and half a flake of hay. Just let her explore and munch for a while to begin learning that the round pen doesn’t have to be the site of hard scary work.
Next time you see someone racing a horse around a pen, ask yourself what purpose that actually serves. Is it pressure? Yes. But why do we have to have pressure to learn? We don’t.
The horse’s brain can learn far more quickly and effectively without pressure. Racing around till he submits or gets tired or licks and chews simply encourages the horse’s natural penchant for fear. That kind of treatment isn’t really groundwork, it’s frightwork. Instead, start with calmness and encourage the horse to maintain it at all gaits.
True passed the fear test by showing little concern in the round pen, but he failed my second test—the whoa. Kind of an important glitch! We’ll consider that one next time.
Stay tuned, and happy riding…
Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.