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Round Pen:  The Great Equalizer

By Jeffrey Rolo

Although many horsemen and trainers extol the virtues of the round pen, many horse owners still overlook just how powerful such a pen can be in developing or maintaining a relationship with a horse. This is a shame because it is truly what I call the Great Equalizer in a horse-human relationship. Perhaps that bears some clarification…

I've found many horse owners to be concerned about their physical strength as opposed to that of their horse. They fear they simply cannot firmly establish themselves as the alpha, or leader, of the relationship because the horse is so much stronger. Thus when their horse displays poor ground manners or commits an inappropriate action they are more prone to ignore it and hope it doesn't develop into worse behaviors. After all, what choice do they have? The horse is just too strong.

The reality is that, except for the youngest of foals, a horse will always possess more raw strength than a human. Any attempts to overpower a horse with sheer strength are doomed to fail. Techniques such as raising your voice towards or slapping a misbehaving horse do not rely on strength – they are psychological. The horse does not want the conflict to escalate as it is uncertain exactly what your capabilities are, therefore it submits.

Of course there are exceptions, and truth be told such techniques are best used on already-trained horses or in situations where you cannot properly establish your authority due to lack of time or proper surroundings. The best way to instill respect and discipline into a naughty horse is by incorporating the Great Equalizer: the round pen.

Whereas many people view a round pen as a means for exercise (and it is true that it's a great exercise tool), the true power behind the round pen is its ability to establish dominance in a completely non-forceful method. In the round pen, physical strength means very little. It is a quick and easy (as opposed to other methods) technique to make your alpha status known.

Allow me to share an example that will better illustrate why a round pen will serve you better than strength.

I once owned a willful young colt raised by a first-time mother, so unfortunately the mare wasn't all that familiar with the need to discipline her colt. In fact although the colt was really quite a nice horse, he was unruly and tended to do whatever he wanted from day one. An experienced mare would not have permitted such antics, and had she "laid down the law" better from the first day the colt would likely have been a little less rambunctious.

Soon it came time to provide halter and lead training to this young upstart, and true to his form he made sure the task was trying. Although more than willing to walk with you, he felt there was little need to do so in an orderly fashion. If he "accidentally" bumped into you, or strayed so far from your side that you had to cling to the lead line with an iron grip, so be it. Snapping or jerking the lead line didn't impress him much.

Even worse, as a colt develops into a mature stallion they often can become very "nippy." This one was no different at first. Just as he did with his mother, he would sneak tiny bites and nips when you weren't watching, and although there wasn't mean intent behind them let's face it – they hurt!

Anytime a horse strikes at you (and a nip should be considered a strike) it's important that you retaliate with conviction so they think twice about doing so again. But when I would give this colt a fairly light slap he would almost smirk to himself and try to nip me again! Was he being mean-spirited? No! This colt grew up with no significant discipline from his mother and no fear of humans – we imprinted him from birth and thus he trusted us. Since he did not fear me, he thought I was engaging in some horseplay as any other colt would do.

A slap, as harsh as it sounds to us, is not always about force. It generally does not cause a horse much pain, but rather it is intended as a shock technique for a horse that already recognizes you as an alpha. Since this colt saw me as a playmate and equal, he possessed no fear of my slaps – my choice was to either escalate the physical force (which is generally not my first choice) or establish my dominance in a gentle way via the round pen.

Once I established that slaps or verbal growls would not have any effect on this colt, anytime he would nip at me or try my patience with his rebellious ways we would march straight to the round pen or enclosed paddock. While this colt found the notion amusing for the first five minutes or so, eventually the round pen will drain the "oats" from nearly any horse and he was no different.

With consistent round pen work, this colt soon learned that I wasn't a simple playmate – I was his leader. Although we could still enjoy each other's company, it had to be on terms that were agreeable to the both of us (no more black and blues!). Due to consistent round pen work, the leading, nipping and general disrespect issues became a thing of the past.

I hope my example of this young colt showed the folly of depending upon physical force to achieve your goals – "outgunning" a horse is not easy, practical or desirable. Never accept poor behavior and do not feel your authority is measured solely by your raw strength; both are mistakes that are all too commonly committed by horse owners. Instead consider the use of a round pen (or in a pinch you can use a longe line) and find out how easy training and discipline can be when using the Great Equalizer.



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