Rethinking the Round Pen

Do you view a round pen as ideal for training? Think again!

Your techniques may need some re-tuning

Rethinking the Round Pen

by Ryan Gingerich

The round pen revolution has had a dramatic impact on the horse industry, affecting every aspect of how people start horses and retrain problem horses. Many years ago I, too, was a part of the round pen revolution. I used the same round pen techniques promoted by many of this country’s top trainers. My effectiveness with this technique was good (or so I thought at the time), and I was getting what I believed to be the correct responses from the horse. The horse would turn when I asked, stop when I cued him to stop, and I had a fair amount of control over his feet.

But What About the Horse’s Mind?

What I failed to see was the psychological damage that I was causing the horse. It is my opinion that the round pen techniques I once taught and are still taught by others today are a major contributing factor to the serious behavioral issues I deal with on a daily basis.

My training program, Connective Horsemanship, is designed to allow you to work in any type of area – you don’t have to have a round pen. Please understand I have no problem with the round pen itself. When properly designed and used, the round pen provides a safe and efficient means of working with horses. In fact, I often use the round pen to rehabilitate horses with behavioral issues. It saves me time and effort by keeping them in a more confined area. But my techniques have dramatically changed since I’ve researched how horses learn, what creates behavioral issues, and how I can develop the horse without traumatizing his mind.

I also understand that many horse owners have spent thousands of dollars on round pens, and I’m not saying to get rid of them or not to use them. I am simply saying let’s look at how we can use them more effectively with an awareness of how to maintain the horse’s psychological well-being.

Acknowledging the Horse’s Intelligence

Let’s talk about current round pen techniques and how they relate to the way horses learn. Trainers who teach that round pen techniques control the horse’s feet rationalize this theory by saying that because the horse moves his feet according to what the trainer wants, the horse is now under control.

I strongly disagree.

My question to these trainers is: If the round pen wasn’t there, would the horse still respond the same way? The answer is always ‘no.’ The physical round pen, therefore, becomes a “must” for the desired response by keeping the horse in a confined area. It then follows that the round pen gives the handler a false sense of security and success. Through negative reinforcement, horses learn that they can stop running (which is a hyper-reactive response) if they follow the handler’s movements. Worse yet, I’ve seen trainers exhaust the horse in a round pen until the horse, dripping with sweat with sides heaving, literally succumbs from exhaustion.

I want you to look at this from a behavioral point of view. Since every action that is repeated is learned, what are we teaching the horse?

If the horse spends five minutes running away from us, and five seconds responding to us, which of these activities has the horse practiced more? Right – to run away! Current round pen techniques teach the horse to associate the human with the flight response. Flight is the horse’s first choice for escaping potential or real danger. The flight response is the horse’s basic instinctive response to danger. Is this the response we want from our horses? For him to think that we represent danger? Of course not!

The Round Pen as a Source of Behavioral Issues

I have received e-mails from over a 1,000 horse owners, since my TV show, ‘The Behaviorist,’ aired on RFD-TV January 1st 2008. These people are all asking me to help with their behaviorally-challenged horses. Almost without fail, these horses have been exposed to many of the round pen techniques we’ve discussed here.

So what does that tell us?

We must rethink how we use the round pen!

How Horses Learn

Taking it a step at a time, let’s first look at how horses learn. That’s fairly simple; they learn through negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcements are not bad reinforcements – they are actually just the subtraction of pressure.

When we use pressure to train a horse, the horse learns to get relief from pressure by giving a correct response. This simple relief-from-pressure response begins the development of a cue-based language with the horse. Cues are the language that bridge the gap between human and horse languages. Horses learn by being “told” (the cue) to perform a certain task over and over.

Horses also learn through the flight response; this is simply the mechanism they use to survive in a world of predators and other natural threats. In simple terms, they run away when confused or threatened.

So what’s the basic nature of the horse? This animal’s basic nature is to be vigilant (since it’s a prey animal), but relaxed when not threatened or confused.

Now that we’ve defined in simple terms how horses learn, the flight response and the basic nature of the horse, let’s go to the round pen.

Creating a Common Language

In the round pen we’ll begin the process of teaching our horses a language they can understand and correctly respond to, while avoiding causing a fear or flight response with the techniques we use. This is really an important statement – please read this first sentence a few times! Language = correct response without fear!

I truly believe that if you will think through the process you’ve been using in the round pen, these unwanted responses can be eliminated. Not only must you eliminate the unwanted responses, you must find new techniques which teach the horse a simple, consistent language that gets the right response without creating negative behavioral patterns. In this simple, consistent language, “A is always A” and “B is always B.” I teach one cue for one response.

Remember to keep in mind it’s not five minutes of mindless running to get five seconds of response. This is the “new” round pen method of training – not the old one you’ve used in the past.

How Much Repetition is Too Much?

As you teach this new language, your horse will be conditioned to respond correctly. Repeat those correct responses in sets of five to seven – not 10, 20, 30 or even more as I’ve seen so many trainers do. In fact, what happens to the horse’s brain with all those numerous repetitions is that the brain gets “flooded” and literally shuts down any possibility of learning. That’s certainly not the outcome we’re after.

If at any time the horse gives you an incorrect response without reaching the goal of at least five correct responses, go back to zero and start again. (Take a deep breath, relax, be patient and calm – anger or trying to speed up the process will always lead to disaster.)

Horses are intelligent, but they lack the ability to reason. So simplifying the language relaxes them and they begin to learn. All of this can be taught in the round pen which can provide you with a secure and controlled work area. Make sure you monitor yourself, and don’t fall back into old bad habits. By creating this two-way language and response pattern in your horse in a positive way, you’ll avoid all those behavioral problems that can result from improper round pen training.

I hope you will take to heart and mind what I have written here and begin using your round pens for the good they can provide for you and your horse. And as always, the Connective Horsemanship program and DVDs will supply you with the answers you’re seeking to develop your skills to a higher level.

For more information on Ryan Gingerich and his training program, please visit www.connectivehorsemanship.com or simply call 800.359.4090.