Communication in the Round Pen

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine)

Round Pen Series – #1 Communication

Wintertime is normally a time of rest and restoration for many of us. Depending on where you live, either rain, snow, or just plain cold winds and weather often have detrimental effects on our riding. This is a great time of year to consider the purchase, renovation or use of your existing round pen.

You hear a lot about the importance of having a round pen, but many folks are not sure exactly what you do with them once you get the panels or wood purchased, the area leveled out and/or sanded, and everything installed. I am sure that everyone else has seen nice round pens set up (on other people’s property of course), with weeds growing up to a few feet high inside! This series of articles will address many ways that a round pen can be useful to you and your horses.

Uses vary for round pens, or “round corrals” as they are known in our area of the country. In this series we will discuss many of the training exercises you can do to work with your horses in a round pen, including developing communication, respect and trust, hobble training, ground tying, catching issues, stretching horses, mounting/dismounting from the offside, warming up/frisky behavior/buck-outs, as well as the more traditional training colts, remedial training, and problem resolution.

Developing Communication

We believe that there are three main areas that should be considered and developed with horses: communication, respect and trust. These two-way concerns build understanding between horses and their riders. Most, if not all, “problem horses” that people bring to our clinics or in for training have a lacking in one or more of these areas. You don’t have to be experiencing a problem with your horse to benefit from better mutual communications, however. A horse that you more fully understand, and who better understands you, is a more trustworthy and enjoyable partner down the trail, or in any arena.

Human beings have a habit of wanting to be liked. We show our friendliness and harmlessness by smiling, looking at our subject square in the eye, and holding out a hand to be touched or shaken. Of course, in a prey-type creature’s language, those three actions translate to a baring of teeth, a hostile glare, and an attempt to touch or strike which is completely against a prey animal’s etiquette. Horses see us as being loud, aggressive animals with our ears pinned back and the ability to hurt them without even getting close… and they do have a point. While we cannot turn into a horse to show them that we understand their equine protocol, we can mimic their mannerisms and way of communicating to show them that we are not really so bad, after all.

For the skeptics who would ask “What’s the big deal?” and “Why should I bother with all this touchy-feely natural horsemanship stuff?”, my answer is simply that there is a big difference between PARTNERSHIP and OBEDIENCE. A partner does what you want because it is his idea too, and he understands, trusts and respects you. Obedience is just physical performance, and when the horse’s emotional state is negative (fears, anxiety, frustration develop), his mind and emotions will wander and you will be more likely to find yourself in a storm. I ride horses because I enjoy that relationship with a living, thinking creature. An appropriate quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson states that “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him.” That’s the kind of friendship I want with my horses.

How in the world does running our horses around in circles in a round pen help train him? What is the point? Is it exercise, to burn off his excess energy, to teach him obedience, or what? Simply, this is our method of establishing communication. We let him move, which helps him to feel safe, and we try out a few “words” until we figure out a common language between us. The round pen in this format is all about communication.

Groundwork, especially in the round pen, helps us establish the communication skills and rules for the interaction before you try to get on their back (out of their direct view). This is why a lot of people find Pat Parelli’s “Seven Games” so effective – they are learning two-way communication with their horses on the ground. Horses are emotional creatures and have simple emotions: fear, anger, frustration, jealousy, excitement, happiness, curiosity, calmness. They are also extremely sensitive to our emotions and intentions. They are looking for a comfortable emotional place – where they can feel happy, curious and calm. So our goal when we’re working with our horse is to create a positive emotional environment for him. We have to “feel for” his emotional and mental state, not just his physical response, to understand where he his coming from.

One thing that I think a lot of people have a challenge realizing is that they are communicating physically whether or not they intend to. They do not realize how their expressions, body language and posture, and focus is coming across to others. Did you ever notice when someone close to you has a lot on their mind, their focus is on a problem or something at work, or they are frustrated about something – they can come across to you as not listening, being cold, angry, even angry at you – when the truth is that they are just focused on something other than Right Here, Right Now… and it shows. Their jaws and shoulders might be stiff, they move with jerkier movements, and there is a brusqueness about their manner that is not normally there. Well this is especially true with how horses perceive us. These prey animals have existed since Creation by being very attuned to their environment, particularly to the predator-type animals who inhabit it!

Horses do not understand humans being angry or frustrated about the traffic or their job or their cellphone bill. eave the problems in the truck, and be with your horse in the MOMENT. Really focus your mind and attention on NOW.

So how do horses communicate with each other? We need to use these words that they understand, because they are incapable by nature and design to understand things from our point of view. To communicate with one another, horses use:
• Eye contact & expression
• Ear position
• Body position/angles
• Teeth bared or covered
• Nostrils open or pinned
• Squeals, neighs, nickers, whickers, whuffs, sighs
• Grooming one another
• Biting
• Striking with forelegs or kicking with back feet
• Rubbing against another horse

We cannot give a 5 year old human child a book and expect him to read it immediately. First we have to teach the child the alphabet, then the concept of words, then sentence structure, paragraphs, punctuation, etc. The words “see dog run” might be slow and boring for an adult, but those written words are an amazing way to open the world for a child. It is the same with your horse – he has a whole new world to understand when he begins working with a human. Horses process differently than humans, they have a different perspective. Keep this in mind!

Two-way communication is the key – By developing a balance in your communication, not all one-sided “I SAID DO THIS” and not listening for his response, just his obedience, but actually listening for what he might be trying to tell you too, you are developing the mental and emotional balance that will help improve your physical balance later, in the saddle. You are developing a team.

There are a few things to keep in mind when we’re with our horse:
1 – Mental – keep your focus. Keep your attention on your horse. Keep your mind on what you want to achieve with him. Keep thinking about his point of view, and setting him up so that he can understand your point of view. Don’t think about yourself, what you look like to other people out there, or what you want to eat for supper. Focus strictly on your horse.

2 – Physical – Stay rhythmic and quiet in your actions. Let your horse relax around you no matter what you are doing. You certainly don’t need to be slow and silent around your horse, you can move quickly and efficiently, but make sure that your horse perceives your lack of intent to hurt or punish him if he doesn’t understand something. Funny as it sounds, humming or singing helps horses relax, as well as the musician! And don’t look the horse directly in the eye unless you’re trying to get his attention and respect, never for just normal working around him.

3 – Emotional – keep your emotions positive, because your horse will feel the storm inside you and react accordingly. There is nothing wrong with emotions but there is a time and a place to allow them to affect your behavior; don’t make it his problem too. If you are too angry, upset or distracted to focus on your horse, leave him alone until a more appropriate time. You can do more damage, or undo more training with one inappropriate day’s work with your horse than you would believe – just like in any relationship!

4 – Remember – This is not a set of procedures to follow like a manual – step one check, step two check, step three check, end product = Ideal Horse. It is not mechanical and is not a process. This is a relationship that you are building day in and day out, moment by moment, with your horse. Your horse, especially if he is reacting from a negative emotional state (fearful, worried, frustrated, etc) needs to be moved into a more positive emotional state. He needs to be brought along with you just as slowly as he needs so that he continues to feel good about your training – happy, curious, calm, safe.

A quick word about halters, when following the exercises. The broad web nylon halters are less desirable than the “cowboy tied” halters. The tied halters have the benefit of very rapid communication, in that any tug on them is quickly felt and as quickly released. The cords are much thinner than the typically one inch wide flat nylon halters, which helps that response time. The knots are designed to lie against the sensitive nerve areas on a horse’s face, so that the gentlest tap on the halter, or the feel of the lead rope floating, is noticeable to the horse. Like spurs, bits and riding crops, horsemanship aids can cause a horse discomfort or even pain if improperly applied… they can also help us to quickly and softly express our request to the horse without having to haul, thump or yank to get his attention.

Following are three exercises that will help improve your communication skills with your horse.

EXERCISE #1: Helping Him Relax
Goal – to let our horse know that he can safely relax in our presence.
• Stand with a lead rope over your arm or a handler holding your horse.
• Begin to groom your horse. Search out his favorite scratch spots.
• Breathe deeply and quietly.
• Keep your eye pressure down – don’t look him dead square in the eye. Eye contact works with people and dogs, it does NOT work with horses. It is an indication of hostility.
• Keep your movements relaxed and rhythmical. Think about the swishing of a horse’s tail when they’re standing out under a tree, lazing in the shade.
• Drop your shoulders, ease your posture. Show your horse with your body language and breathing that you are relaxed.
• Look for your horse to lower his head, to breathe deeply and sigh, to lick and/or chew, to blink. A relaxed, cocked back leg is another good sign.
• If he can’t relax around you when you are indicating friendliness (grooming is a sign of friendship between horses), you shouldn’t progress any further until you resolve the situation!

EXERCISE #2: Softening the Request
Goal – to communicate our requests with lighter and lighter pressure, until we are working together smoothly and lightly with less stress on both sides.
• Start by moving his front left hoof, release the request the instant he responds and begins to shift his weight off that foot.
• Use the following request sequence: Look at the hoof/focus on it/concentrate on it/move toward it/point with your finger tips toward it/touch it/lightly poke it/firmer poke until he responds by moving the foot even slightly.
• Reward him by stepping back, sighing, completely releasing the “pressure” you were using against him. Some horses like having their shoulder pat or scratched lightly. Give him at least ten or fifteen seconds of “release” before you ask again.
• Then start again. He should begin responding more quickly to lighter and lighter cues.
• Move to the front right hoof and try again.
• This is NOT a shoving match! Pulse & release pressure, not steady.

EXERCISE #3: Physical Communication
Goal – to improve our communication process by UNDERSTANDING his physical status; and to improve our own body control so that we are better able to communicate with him.
• Ride on a lead line, with a handler, with the rider’s eyes closed.
• Riders may hold the saddle horn if they would like, although it will prove more helpful if they can release it and place both hands on their thighs.
• Riders should tell their handlers when their horse sighs, the direction they are moving, and their perception of what their horse is feeling (calm, curious, excited, nervous, etc).
• Riders should count out the tempo of the walk – 1,2,3,4 as the horse steps.
• Handler should lead horse in a series of circles and figure 8’s, around obstacles, etc.

Remember that you are the one on two legs, and you are the one who should take responsibility for the team… his emotions as well as your own! Do not blame your horse if things do not go the way you wanted them to, just find a way to fix it. Understand his motivation, and put yourself in his shoes. Be willing to accept little steps, and build from them. And always keep in mind that horsemanship is about balance, not dictatorship.


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