(published originally in Southwest Horse Trader magazine)
Whether you are a professional trainer, a do-it-yourselfer or just a regular horse owner, the benefits of owning and using a round pen (or round corral as it is called in some parts of the country) are numerous. With no corners for horses to hold up on and present you their hind end, a horse’s focus is more naturally directed toward the center. Round pens offer a safe environment for forced exercise as well as a superb venue for initial and refresher training. They also give owners, farriers and veterinarians an excellent opportunity for studying a horse’s movement to detect lameness or injuries.
Building a round pen can be as easy, or become as difficult as you choose. Sizes vary depending on available space, available funds for materials, and intended use, but typically range from 40’ to 70’ in diameter. Any smaller, and your horse will not have enough room to move around you safely, and any larger, and your horse will find it entirely too easy to “get away” from you and you will find yourself doing a lot more moving around than you necessarily intended!
There is a simple formula for determining the number of panels – should you decide to use panels – you will need to make a certain sized round pen. Take the diameter that you want to have, for example let’s say a 50’ round pen (50’ across from one side to the other). Then multiply that number by 3.14, to obtain the circumference (total distance in linear feet around the outside of the panel). In our example, this comes out to 167 feet. Then, simply divide the circumference by the length of the panels or sections you will be using. If you will use 10’ sections, this means that you need 17 total 10’ panels, which will give you a few feet to spare (170 linear feet circumference). If you install an 8’ gate, you can drop one of the panels, giving you a total of 16 panels and 1 gate for 168 linear feet circumference, or 50’ diameter.
Using panels is certainly the easiest option, however you may use this same formula above to determine the amount of materials you would need to build a round pen of posts and fencing material. Remember to multiply the number of rails times the total circumference to determine the amount of materials you will need to complete your pen (ie for a 4 rail, 50’ diameter pen with an 8’ gate, you would need 540’ of rail material).
A round pen’s three basic components are: gate, panels/fencing, and footing.
GATES – It seems to go without saying, but it is advisable to purchase a 6’ gate or even larger for your round pen entrance, particularly if you will be bringing a saddled mount into the pen at any time. Catching a stirrup or stirrup leather against the edge of the gate as you and your horse attempt to squeeze through at the same time can result in an inadvertent trampling injury – your own! Bow gates are an excellent round pen choice as they help support the integrity of your gate (keep it from leaning outwards) with the strength of the uninterrupted circle.
PANELS/FENCING – You will see everything from budget 5-rail, 5’ tall portable panels to 9-rail, 6’ or even 7’ tall panels making up the majority of round pens in use today. In timber country, the economical choice is pine or other locally available pole-type woods, which make a durable and handsome round corral. Some horsemen advocate the use of solid-panel construction so that the horse is not distracted by any external activities; others prefer the open-rail construction so that the horse does learn to focus despite activities going on around him, as well as preferring the ability of the open pens to catch breezes (a definitely plus in hot country).
E. Landers in her book Building a Round Pen suggests an untypical yet budget-wise solution for panels/fencing of your round pen. She advises horsemen to purchase landscape timbers for posts (which should be set 2’ deep in tamped-down dirt and rock or concrete), and 4” vinyl rail with integrated metal wire as the fencing, which comes in rolls of 300-600 feet and has the benefits of withstanding a great deal of force, holding up well to the elements, and being extremely low maintenance as well. Landers recommends using 4” pressure treated posts for the gate posts, as gate posts will carry a great deal of the weight of the gate itself as well as the suspension for the entire pen.
FOOTING – drainage – The ideal location for a round pen is on a either a slightly raised area, or a slight slope, both of which will help allow thorough drainage after rainstorms. Once you have chosen your spot, rock, root, stump, weed and removal is the next step. If your land allows it, using a garden tiller will help loosen the first 4-6” of soil so that you may do a thorough job of removing these foreign objects. If you are building your round pen in a particularly rocky area however, you will most likely have to clean it off as best you can and then build up on top of it.
You may have seen people put old manure and shavings from cleaned out stalls in their round pens. This organic material will tend to hold water, can harbor bacteria and mold spores which may be harmful to your horse’s feet, and will break down rapidly. While the softness and springiness of such materials will help your horse’s hooves and legs absorb less shock, the drawbacks to this method are fairly clear. If you chose to use organic materials mixed with your sand or soil, you might consider looking into hardwood shavings. Be cautious of these however, as some come from treated wood which is a definite material to avoid, or from caustic woods which may cause skin or respiratory distress to your horse.
Sand – be particular about the type of sand you use if finances allow. The best recommendation is to use river sand which has been naturally rounded and smoothed by the action of the flowing water. Manufactured sand has sharp edges which can wear your horse’s hooves down if the horse is worked on it extensively.
With some forethought, good ground preparation, and plenty of planning, your round pen will last many years as an invaluable horse training tool.