Why use a round pen?

Let us look at the dynamics of round pen and why it is a useful tool in helping us shape the behaviour of the horse.

The horse’s needs

We’ll start by looking first at the needs of the horse. The horse has survived as a species for 55 million years, that’s seven times longer than us. During this time it survived by living in herds and running away from predators. In the wild, and in the domesticated horse, herd dynamics control the behaviour of horses. The existence of a hierarchy within the herd is an important part of this dynamic and allows decisions to be made regarding safety, feeding and breeding.    


Horses by nature are herd animals                                                                                                                                        Horses will spar to determine status.




The hierarchy

How is status in the hierarchy decided? Horses spar with each other and herd each other into boundaries, telling each other where “not to go”. A horse, able to control another horse’s movement, will hold a higher place in the hierarchy and will earn that horses trust and respect. Horses derive security from knowing where they stand in the hierarchy. Being herded around might not be considered fun to us humans but this is the language of the horse and they do it without emotional involvement. 

Horses herd each other by moving into the flanks. 











Intent and energy

To illustrate how horses move each other, imagine you are walking up a busy high street. There are many people coming towards you, one person is directly in your path. You know instantly that this person has no intention of conceding space and if you don’t move he is going to shoulder you as he passes and pushes you out of the way.

How could you tell that this person was not going to alter his line of travel? You read his body language, his intention and his energy. Horses similarly use intention and energy to move each other and will resort to force if the hint is not taken. Not only can they read intention and energy in each other but in other species too. They are constantly testing our boundaries and trying to move us. I am sure all of us have been shouldered or stood on, this is simply  the horses way of testing OUR boundaries…are yours secure?

One important difference between us and the horse can be explained by the same street scenario. How would you feel if you were moved out of the way by this person in the street? You would most likely consider it rude, you might feel intimidated or even angry; certainly it is unlikely that you are going to thank the person for the experience. This is where horses feel differently. They don’t get emotional about “being moved”. To them it is part of a daily game called “who moves who”, a game played by horse rules that helps them know their place in the herd and that makes them feel safe. Safety is the horse’s number one priority



From front to back

Horses move each other from front to back, the mare drives her foal ahead of her, a  stallion herds the mares ahead of him. Horses don’t pull each other forward by the face. Remember this is an animal with almost 360 vision so he is able to look out for danger. As prey he is attacked and killed in the jugular or behind the poll so any interference or energy sent to the head area will cause distress.

There are always three energies working when horses move each other. Pushing energy, drawing energy and blocking energy.  Knowing how and when to use these three energies is the secret of communicating in the horse’s language. 


 Our responsibility

When removed from the herd where they feel safe, the horse will start to worry and begin to look out for himself. Much of the so called bad behaviour exhibited by horses around humans, for example, being herd bound, shying, and napping are examples of this. It is our job as handlers to provide  security.












A flight animal by nature, the horse’s first response when frightened, is to run.



The round pen












The round pen offers the handler the opportunity to influence the horse’s movement and affect his behaviour. The handler will herd the horse as if he were the horse with greater herding ability. If he does this well, the horse concedes the power to be moved and along with this comes his trust and respect for the herder, in this case the human.  When trust and respect are gained, the horse wants to be with the handler because he feels safe with him. In this situation the horse can relax and will become a  willing partner.

To be successful in the round pen the handler must mimic the way horses use intent and energy. The handler will use pushing, blocking and drawing energy to exert influence over the horse.  When this is not done correctly is can cause distress to the horse.












The session is initiated in this case  when the horse turns his back on the handler.


Too much assertion

As the master predator, it is easy for man to instil fear. The handler must be mindful to use the correct amount of “ push” as he moves the horse around the pen. This will be different for every horse.  If the push used to herd the horse is too forceful, it will engender fear.  Part of this equation involves posture, an aggressive body stance is inappropriate. The handler’s body must remain balanced over his/her centre and free.

Too little assertion

With other horses, the push needed may have to more assertive. If possible the handler should use only his intent and energy to move the horse. Practised handlers will have refined this ability over time. Just as you read the persons intention in the high street, so the horse reads the handlers intention to “take the space”. If the horse is not convinced by the handler he will not move. Learning to have believable intent is one of the skills of round penning and indeed of working horses generally.












The angle of the push

Horses read energy coming from our “core”.  Our core is our centre, the part of us around our belly button. If we aim this energy at the wrong angle and take it to the wrong area of the horse’s body we can cause confusion and even fear.  Aiming our core energy at the head of the horse will send a predatorial message causing the horse to become distressed.

The pushing energy from the handler’s core is aimed at the flanks. Here the handler is using her  energy alone to move the horse, the whip is not necessary and is held facing downwards. Note, although energetic, her stance is relaxed












Depending on how the horse is reacting the handler may change the horses direction by blocking the forward motion and drawing the horse in the new direction.













The handler may send blocking energy out in front of the horse’s line of travel, well ahead of the horses head in order to stop him.














Here the horse accepts the handlers push and shows its acceptance by dropping its neck and  head, the handler softens her body.


Reading the horse

The handler must read the horse’s body language throughout the session and alter her body language accordingly. He/she will be paying close attention to the mouth, the ears, the eyes, the tail and the “frame” (shape of the horses spine) All these give the handler vital information as to the mental and emotional state of the horse.

Emotional intent

Most importantly if the handler does not have the best interests of the horse in her/his heart at all times the horse will never trust.













The horse willingly comes to the handler when she uses drawing energy, note the bend in the handlers body. The horses head is level with his withers denoting acceptance.













The horse stands held against the outside boundary of the round pen, he is soft in his body and bent  trustingly and respectfully around the handler.