Round Pen Training: Has it Ruined More Horses Than It Has Helped?
by Pat Parelli on Dec 06, 2023
By Pat Parelli
By now, you've probably heard of round pen training. Today, I want to share why I believe that round pen training has ruined more horses than it's helped. First, there's nothing wrong with playing with your horse in a round pen, but we have to learn to play with our horse's instincts or nature. So, as we realize that horses are born skeptics, cowards, claustrophobic, and panicholics by nature in various degrees, we also have to recognize that they are a precocial species, which means they are full faculty learners at birth. The first thing they learn is how to synchronize mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually with their mother. This is what playing with a horse in the round pen is all about.
I want you to think about long-body logic. Horses have long bodies, and humans have tall bodies. If you have a 50-foot round corral, multiply it by Pi (3.14), so you've got a little more than 150 feet of fence line. Think of this as your long body. A horse can go ten laps, about 1500 feet, yet he's no farther away from you than when he started. Often, people, whether in a round pen or on a lunge line, just chase the horse until he gets tired. This might help the first time or two, and get him a little bit tired, so you've got a chance. But after ten more sessions, he will get stronger and fitter. Pretty soon, what used to take 15 minutes is going to take 30, and then you and two gorillas can't tire him out in an hour. So, we have to be careful that we're not doing this in a predatory way. Think about the round pen and infinity working in your favor. I like to think of a round pen as a classroom, a little place to practice partnership behavior.
When I first learned how to play with horses in a round pen, it was to get in there and get the horse to go around. I had learned how important it was for horses to maintain gait, maintain direction, and look where they're going. But I didn't realize that they would just take off and run around as soon as I got in the round pen. Then I'd step in front of them and turn them and cause them to get connected eventually, but I didn't realize the importance of the connection.
What's important is that when you take off the halter, you realize there's only one thing left: the truth. The easiest way to find out if you're not doing natural round pen training is if your horse starts moving instead of connecting with you as soon as the halter comes off.
So one of the most important things is that the horse is willing to connect with us and follow us around the pen. I call it the Stick-To-Me Game. Remember, humans have tall bodies, but all we have to do is lengthen our body with a carrot stick and a savvy string, and all of a sudden, we've got about a 12 foot arm extension. We just need to learn how to use it in a fast, firm, fair, and friendly way.
Synchronization and connection are the keys. So, instead of just thinking about going around, let's first think about yielding the hindquarters and forehand, having the horse follow us, and then changing eyes. If we start with this, lots of good partnership behavior will happen, both on your part and theirs.
It’s important that we can send the horse in a circle and that they maintain gait and direction and look where they're going, but the connection is the most important part. I like to call it the Boomerang Game. When I send them out, I want them to stay there until I ask them to disengage the hindquarters, turn, face me, and come in. This behavior is the next thing to check to see if you're doing it naturally. If your horse will go away from you, stay out on the circle, but at the same time, come eagerly running back and sticks with you, you’ve got connection. Playing all Seven Games with a horse in a round pen is just the beginning. So I'm here to help you have a better horse life by keeping it natural and using horse psychology, and one of the ways we do this is by building partnership with our horses at liberty in a round corral.