Principles of Ground Work

Part 3: The Round Pen

by Allison Trimble


November 2014
Photo courtesy Coastal Equine

I use the round pen for a multitude of situations, from foundation training, to confidence building in riders, to re-training horses. It is an extremely valuable tool that I often see misused. For instance, it is a critical mistake to use it exclusively to wear a horse down. Though a good sweat can make for a more trainable horse, the goal should always be to gain ground in the horse’s mind, through engaging his body. The focus is on creating a healthy working relationship in the round pen, not creating a place for the horse to blow off steam.

The main goal of using the round pen is to build on the understanding of pressure and release using the horse’s natural space “bubble.” By doing this you will be building on the foundation of what makes a horse truly broke. The handler should always be seeking to gain the focus of the horse, applying pressure when he mentally leaves and backing off when he is attentive. These are the building blocks of training. The ideal situation would be to drive the horse with limited but specific energy, and to stop, draw or turn the horse with similar (subtle) cuing. The desire is for the horse to be reading the energy level and position of the handler and responding accordingly.

I personally do not endorse using a lunge whip. I believe that they cause disconnect between the horse and human, and this does not work toward the primary goal of round pen work. Increased pressure should be attained by the handler escalating energy. I often carry the lead rope, as an extension of my arm, to use for increasing energy in the horse if they are not responding to my initial cues. I find that most people who use lunge whips simply stand in the center of the round pen and chase the horse with the whip without giving it any cues using their body.  What this accomplishes is a tired horse; it does not move toward the goal of connection.

There are four basic things a horse needs to be able to do in the round pen:

  1. Drive: The handler must be able to apply pressure behind the driveline of the horse to perform all three gaits.
  2. Send away: The handler must be able to step ahead of the driveline and apply pressure and send the horse towards the fence, and the other direction, on the rail.
  3. Stop: The handler must be able to be even with the driveline and release enough pressure to stop the horse square on the fence.
  4. Draw: The handler must be able to release pressure in such a way that the horse will turn and face the handler. This is the same concept that allows for “join up,” or for the horse to follow the handler at liberty.

Ground driving is another way I utilize the round pen. It is a great way to work on skills the horse needs both prior to riding, and in conjunction with a riding program. All the gaits and transitions, steering, collection, stopping, backing and general acceptance of confinement/sacking out can be safely worked on from the ground. In the round pen this is accomplished easiest because the handler is able to stand and drive the horse from the center of the round pen with minimal movement.

I generally don’t start to ground drive until the horse has accepted the saddle and bridle and use approximately 30 ft long driving reins that are run through the stirrup and then up to the bit on each side of the horse. When working in the round pen the off side rein will run behind the horses hindquarters creating a V with the handler in the center of the pen. The hind rein allows you to encourage the horse forward and to change directions into the fence. I have found over the years that this is a valuable step in the training process that is easy on the horse and greatly reduces risk to the rider. I often use it to go back and work on foundation issues with horses that come to training and are missing formative steps.

I encourage people to always remember that there is a purpose for every step of the process and it is important to clearly know that purpose to better lead the horse. If a rider has taken seriously the opportunities for growth and connection that groundwork offers the likelihood of success in the saddle is high.


Originally Published November 2014 Issue

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