Trail Savvy: No Round Pen? No Problem!

Find Horse Training Success in Less-than-ideal Situations

A round pen is one of those items that has been on my wish list for a while. Everywhere you look, it seems that a round pen is a “must-have” piece of equipment if you’re going to be serious about your horsemanship; I think panel manufacturers may have had a hand in that bit of marketing. For me, a round pen is on the wish list somewhere near a fancy coffee maker. Nice to have but, indeed, not necessary to get the job done.

In a perfect world, we’d all have ideal facilities where we could work with our horses (and mules) year-round, regardless of the weather. However, the last time I checked, the reality was generally far from perfect. When you find yourself in less-than-ideal conditions, whether at your place or a trailhead far from home, you can train your horse without a round pen and still do an excellent job. 

The best horsemen don’t necessarily have the best facilities; they learn how to make the best of any situation. Doctor Terry Orlick, the author of Zone of Excellence, has this quote that I try to keep in mind when I’m longing for that fancy coffee maker or a round pen: “Stay focused on your own goals and make the best of the situation.”

The state-of-the-art training facility at the TrailMeister ranch is a wide spot in front of the barn and my imagination. Imagination is our greatest asset as horse folk. When it comes to exercises that mimic a round pen, I imagine what I want to accomplish, and generally, it isn’t what people typically think of when using a round pen. 

Standing in the center of a steel enclosure and driving my mules in endless circles has never seemed like a good idea, despite what a large portion of the equine world would want to believe. I’ve never quite understood the value of running a horse to tire him out and then have him turn to face me. Pushing a horse or mule around may bring compliance but certainly won’t create the connection I want with my animals. Before I ask anyone to trot or canter, my goal is to develop a relationship of leadership and bonding. 

During expo season, I attend as many clinics by other clinicians as possible. I see the same thing repeatedly during most of them, and I’m cringing inside. Push the horse, make the horse face you, then teach the horse a series of tricks. It’s a speed-based approach that, while showy, offers no time for any real connection. I’ve asked many of these trainers what they would do with their own animals, and the answers are remarkably consistent. Given the opportunity, they would take their time. 

I see no value in speed training and even less in fifty-minute performances designed to make the average person think they can “train” a horse in a few minutes with a patented gadget or videos. Yes, I get a bit salty about things like this. Without a round pen, I don’t have the option to try to lunge a horse mindlessly, and I think that’s a very good thing. Instead, in my groundwork exercises, I try to build as much rapport as possible by asking for discrete actions such as moving a hip, turning, backing, or taking a single step with as little input as possible. These maneuvers don’t require a round pen or large area of any type. They do require time and patience.

Our animals deserve our time and patience, and once we progress beyond the constraints of a round pen, we can fully utilize our surroundings. Not only is this approach better for our critters, but it’s also a lot of fun. Try backing your horse through a cluster of trees or send him across ditches and over logs. Try asking your horse to take a single step. Just. A. Single. Step. You can get creative without a round pen and have a lot of fun.

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See this article in the March 2024 online edition of the NW Horse Source.

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