By Steve Bauhr
I’m sure it’s been around longer, but the first time I saw a round pen being used was while watching John Lyons in the 80’s. He was doing some cool things back then that are still being done now, yet little credit goes his way.
Just about every place I work now has a round pen set up. There are still a few English hold outs in favor of 20ft lunge lines, but for the most part, the value of a round pen has affected the whole horse community. For as many round pens as I see, I must see at least that many ways in which they are used.
For some folks, it’s simply used to chase a horse around until they look rideable, with no care as to what’s actually happening. For others, it’s a place where their OCD tendencies can drive horses right out of their minds. For some it’s all about “Join Up,” and having a horse follow them around. For another person, it’s about the liberty work, and developing some great freestyle demonstrations.
The physics, I guess, is there’s no end once a horse starts to travel. The circumference causes a continuum, which can be helpful to both the horse and to us. Rather than go into all sorts of techniques to get horses to make inside turns or stop in certain spots, I’m going to touch more on the timing behind the round pens use.
For myself, I repeat, for myself, I like to let a horse go wild once we start, if they need to. It can be a chance for a horse to run around, yell out at friends, and just stretch their legs, especially if they’d been penned up all day. That being said, in the midst of all the craziness, I’m watching every lap, noticing what’s happening.
Where does the horse come off the rail? Where does the horse slow down or speed up? Is there a place where the horse cuts across, not using the whole corral to travel? Even though the horse may be just running wild, they are telling us all sorts of things.
The opposite of this would be to bring a horse in on line, then lunge them in a very controlled manor, and before the horse is free to go, they must face the handler and not run off. Then try to control every stride, from a controlled walk on the rail, to a trot and maybe, maybe into a lope, but very controlled. Oh yeah- stay on the rail! The handler, by their need to control every move the horse makes, missed everything the corral could have told them about their horse. They missed all the opportunities to work on their timing.
Let’s look at my plan again. The horse is turned loose and let run wild. I’m making a mental note of every lap, every turn, everything that effects the horse’s movement. A big part of horsemanship is to Observe, Remember, and Compare. Once the horse has noticed I’m in the corral, I’ll start to direct some of the action. If a horse slows at a certain spot, I’ll encourage a panel or two ahead of that spot on the next lap- being ahead of the action rather than behind it or late. If the horse cuts across at a certain spot, I’ll again encourage movement ahead of that spot next time around; this will help to stay on the rail.
The point I’m trying to make in this short article is that the round pen has no start or end, so there’s no reason to be rushing or to be late. The round corral can help us to be right on timing, which is key when working with horses that have issues.
I’ll close with this: Years ago I was having trouble with a horse that had a bolting issue. It was bad; several trainers had given up on this horse and had gotten hurt. I took on the project because I had just started riding horses for the public, and quite frankly needed the work. It wasn’t long before the horse started bolting, and I realized I was way over my head and had little to offer this horse.
I was given the phone number of a man who had spent years working with Tom Dorrance. I had not met him, but figured I had nothing to lose by talking with him about this horse. He asked me if I was using a round corral, I said I was. He asked me to notice when working with this horse if it had a place where it sped up with no effort. I said yes, he said, “We’ll call that summer.” He then asked if there was a place where the horse slowed way down, I said yes, he said, “We’ll call that winter, and we’ll call the spots in between spring and fall.” He then asked me if I heated my house with wood, I said yes. He asked if I got my wood cut in summer and fall, ahead of winter. I said yes, I do. He said to work with the mare in the same way.
It took a lot of thinking and some scary rides on this mare, but it finally clicked. She was used to riders who were late. Riders who had never observed what happened before what happened, and she would skin them! Once I noticed a pattern, I could stay ahead of her bolting, so much so I could ask for a canter before she could bolt off.
Now, back to the round pen; although horses certainly benefit from good round pen training, I think it may be one of the best tools we have to work on and develop ourselves, and our horsemanship.
See ya out there!
Steve Bauhr owns and operates Bauhr Ranch, a full horse training facility in Chinese Camp, California. For more info go to bauhrranch.com and Like us on Facebook too!