A round pen is an enclosure for horses that can be quite useful. It’s usually about 50 feet in diameter, big enough that the horse can move, but small enough that they can’t get too far away from you. It’s a safe place to start a youngster or do trick training. I use it when I want to check on how Tonka is moving – I can watch him as he goes freely around the pen to see if he’s sore or lame.
But round pens are also used for something called joining-up. This is a term coined by some in the natural horsemanship world that we’re told “talks to the horse in language it understands” and “moves their feet, like they do to each other.” It’s done by sending the horse around the ring until he stops and turns into the trainer, lowers his head and makes chewing motions. This behavior, we’re told, is an indication that the horse accepts the trainer as his leader. Join-up can be an impressive show. You see the wild-eyed untamed animal stop his frantic galloping and accept handling. You see the horse ignore the scary objects shaken at her. That end result is what you want, right? Maybe not. It all sounds good until you peel back the layers and uncover that what’s happening is something else entirely.
The round pen is the opposite of a natural environment for a horse who is a creature of wide open spaces, where the herd can put distance between itself and anything worrisome. In the round pen there is no escape. This method of training advises the handler to “act like a predator” to make the horse flee. The trainer pushes the horse on, usually with a whip, or a flicked rope, or a bag at the end of a stick. Horses react to this in a number of ways. They might run until exhausted, or try to aggressively fight back with rears and kicks, But none of these strategies work and the pressure from the trainer continues.
The trainer stops using the whip when he sees the horse moving the way that he wants. This is classic pressure and release. I use a similar technique when riding: I press my leg, the horse goes forward, I stop pressing which rewards the horse. I also use treats, praise and petting to reward the forward movement. Soon the light squeeze of my leg becomes associated with good things; it’s not pressure to avoid, but a cue to respond to.
But the round pen technique of join-up takes this well past simple pressure and release. It starts from a place of fear, and then the trainer, rather than easing up as soon as there’s a response, continues to egg the horse on. This unrelenting chasing causes what behavioral scientists term flooding. Flooding is when an animal is exposed to a stress that it can’t avoid and concludes that all action is futile. It’s been widely studied in many species, and in all of them it starts with punishment and it ends with the animal shutting down. This induced passivity is labeled learned helplessness. Rats, confined in a space that shocks their feet will give up, so that even when an escape door opens, they don’t leave. (More about this research here.) Psychologists link learned helplessness to depression.
A horse that stands immobile, oblivious to her surroundings, has likely been flooded. I want my horse to be a thinking partner, alert to his surroundings, able to assess dangers and make sensible decisions about how to react. On the trail, I want a horse that lets me know if the footing is worrisome, or if he sees deer in the woods. In the ring, I want an engaged learner. I’ve seen horses so shut down that the rider has to use increasingly harsh techniques, including the heavy use of whips and spurs, for the horse to respond.
But what about that join-up, when the horse stops his frantic circling and goes towards the trainer with a lowered head? A Natural Horsemanship proponent would say that this is a sign of connection between the horse and trainer and that the horse is accepting him as the leader. He might also point to the horse’s licking and chewing as signs that the horse is thinking and accepting. Neither of these things are true.
Horses in a free-roaming herd live in is a cooperative society. It is not dominance based! Interactions that you see in stabled horses that look like “alpha” posturing are not about leadership, but about resource guarding, something that wild horses don’t have to do because there are no resources (such as food or shelter) to guard. Yes, horses in the wild have friends and foals, and will tell other horses to move out of their personal space, but there’s no hierarchy.
Researchers tested the idea that this round pen work results in a horse accepting the trainer as the leader. Instead of a human, they used a remote control car. Using pressure and release (the car stopped when the horses moved in the desired direction) they taught horses to stop, turn, face, and approach the car. Obviously, the horse is not accepting the car as the alpha, or looking towards it with warm feelings of trust. The horses in this study simply had been taught that to alleviate the pressure of being chased that all they had to do was to stop circling and go up to that machine. Actually, in this case, the car (and the humans using the remote) were rather good trainers. The horses figured out how to control the outcome and to make that annoying car stop. It never got to the point of flooding. Here is a video of a pony engaged in this training.
What about that licking and chewing, said to be a sign of deference to the trainer? It’s not. This mouthing motion in seen in many species and is a physical reaction to the cessation of a highly stressful event. When you see such mouthing then you know that your horse has just had a very bad time.
(At this point in reading this article there are people who do round pen work who are probably yelling at the computer. What I’ve cited here are extremes in training. There are good trainers who teach their horses to circle around them, using minimal threat and pressure. There are very good trainers who use this technique to teach the horse that turning into the handler and being near their person is a rewarding place. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that training be misinterpreted and it quickly becomes flooding. It’s a fine line that too many people cross.)
So, if you want to be a “leader,” scaring your horse until he gives up is not a way to do it. Developing trust and establishing safe behaviors through gentle training, is.
Well put together explanation Terry, something I have been discussing recently too.
Thank you, Gill! It was a challenge to write. Please share, and keep doing what you’re doing. I’d like to see our point of view up there in the Google search engine, to counter the NH view.
A well written article on a challenging topic. Well done Terry!
Yes!!! I love this blog entry! I totally agree and have seen these “techniques” used so poorly so many times. It does not result in a happy or behaved horse at all. Thank you for writing this one!
Thanks! Please share. It’s so important to have this perspective out there.
I have a (very fearful of people) pony who was round penned for hours(! By a person with the best intentions) to try to get her to ‘join up’. She was probably so mentally checked out she would have run to death- early on after I got her I looked at her too hard and she went into a dead eyed trot. It was creepy. And so sad.
We’re making slow progress and there have been setbacks, but having her be happy and less scared is so rewarding!
Lucky pony to have finally ended up with you. Tonka never went through what horse did, but When I got him, he ignored everyone. He was sweet to me, but not attached. We spent a lot of time simply being together. Since his paddocks were dirt, I’d take him out and hand-graze. He learned that being with me was good and not stressful. I also gave him small behaviors that he could easily do, that I’d reward heavily for. All the best to you and your pony!
Uh, no. Horses in free-roaming herds have a dominant mare and a dominant stallion. The mare decides when the family group moves and where. The stallion trails along behind to keep the group in view, ready to defend them from predators and challengers. In both cases one can see the hoofprints and scars on the older stallions marking the fights they’ve been in. Sons and daughters are expelled from the group once they reach a certain age, particularly the former. I’ve watched this for over ten years with both domestic horses and takhi/Przewalski’s horses in Mongolia. Sorry, but it’s about who is dominant and therefore leads. A round pen tells you nothing but how horses behave in a….round pen.
Susan, I would love to see your research. Were you in Mongolia with a research team? Please send me links. Each herd/type of horse has its own culture and I’d be interested to read what you’ve seen. As far as stallions go – breeding rights are different than dominance. Expelling members from the group is not about “leadership” either. I’ve seen studies that document that the group moves according to the needs of individuals, which changes over the course of the day. For example, a lactating mare will get others to join her for a drink so that she doesn’t have to go alone. But that’s not to say that you didn’t observe a different situation in Mongolia.
Thank you! That was so helpful!
Glad it helped!
I don’t think I want to dominate my horses, I would much rather have a friendship with them. I have a very silly Thoroughbred a Shire and a Shetland and have a lovely relationship with them, as they do with each other. Though there is one boss in my small herd and that’s the Thoroughbred.
Someone had previously tried to round pen my Shetland and I was told he was the only one that had never joined up with him 🙂
I learned to ride on a Shetland Pony named Stewart Little. I took weekly lessons. Every week he dumped me in the manure pile. I probably deserved it! Your pony probably wished there was a manure pile in that round pen.
As always very informative. Reminds of people thinking when their dog is licking them it is because they love them but often it is sign your dog is not well, scared or many other things in their life.
One thing I have learned from your posts is that horses are extremely complicated animals. Tonka is so happy and it warms my heart that he has such a caring Mom.
Yes, we often read into our animal’s behavior what we’d like to believe, not what is really happening.
Dont agree with the dog thing. My dogs lavish licks when they’re happy and playful. Somtimes they’ll grab a lick of my hand as they walk past. Theyre happy guys… Pure and simple. I dont have research papers sorry, just many dogs over many of years
You’re right. Dogs do lick when happy and playful, and like your dogs, some do it to show connection. They also lick when stressed. I knew a dog that was a compulsive licker.
I have found that, in the round pen, my horses are not trying to use the whole pen to get away from me–they will actually stay closer to me than the outer edge, and to me, this is just fine. When I first started learning about groundwork, some of the natural horsemanship stuff seems very comfortably black & white, but I’ve been able to study with people who have a bit more finesse, and I think it’s good to question the NH methods.
It’s good to question all techniques 🙂
Horses quickly learn where it is comfortable to be in the round pen (and anywhere else for that matter.) Since you’re fine with your horse being close to you, that’s where he’ll be. Horses can communicate with each other with the flick of an ear, so they certainly can read a human’s body language. Sometimes I think they know more about our intent than we do!
I have to admit, I did see a round pen join-up worth copying at my horse rescue’s Expo. The demonstrator stood quietly, slightly turned away from the horse while he came up and sniffed her. After he touched her with his nose she stroked his neck and then they went for a walk around the pen. And when something caught his attention and he went to look, she went with him, then they went back to moving quietly and calmly around. No driving away and no fragile ego needing the horse to pay attention to me! at all times.
Interesting article, thank you for sharing it. The biggest thing I’ve learned from my horses is its very often, not about what you do…it’s how you do it … and more often than not, learning when not to do anything at all … wisdom over knowledge! We work at liberty in the field or arena, with plenty of room for the horse to go away and stay away if he wants to …. often I’ll sit in there and just do nothing … it’s wonderful and such a privilege … humans often don’t ‘get’ the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ .. but my horse does .. ! 🙂
I love being in the barn at night when all is quiet except for the horses eating their hay. I’ll sit on the floor of the stall, simply being companionable with Tonka.