Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Timing or "Round Pen 101"

1. Everything happens for a reason.
2. Moderation in all things...including moderation.
3. If it's not fun anymore you should stop doing it.

Those three phrases have become my mantras for various situations in life. I use them to remind myself to accept things as they are, to be careful and yet live a little, and to really asses my goals and make sure I'm doing what genuinely makes me happy. Lately in my equine journey they have all three of these phrases have come to the surface. A few posts ago I mentioned my tour of "What to do With a Western Pleasure Reject". Sunday was our third stop on that tour: Round Pen Communication.

Now, I must first say that I get a sour taste in my mouth when I say "Natural Horsemanship." I DO STRONGLY believe that there is no ONE RIGHT WAY to do anything, be it horse training, washing windows, or skinning a cat. I am a strong believer in the liberal arts education. To me, in the equine world this translates to exactly what I've been doing as of late, and one of the biggest reasons I was excited about this barn we're boarding at. Where else do you get to do on-site trail riding, obstacle training, dressage, and equine behavior training?!?! That being said, I've never really put too much stock in the roundpen freaks like the Parellis. I think that world is highly glamorized and dramatized and aimed at the female baby-boomers who always wanted to play cowboys as kids and think they're living out their mustang fantasy because (though their horse isn't rideable yet) the horse sniffed me! He loves me! We've bonded! Whatever. Maybe because I'm not in that demographic their snake oil hasn't worked on me. And come on, anybody who says "The reason you do not see our people wearing helmets is because we try to teach people that rather than be brave because they are wearing a a helmet to protect them, they would be better off not riding until their horse is behaving safely." should be slapped. It's true that unsafe horses shouldn't be ridden and that a helmet will not save you from every injury, but at which Parelli level do you learn to defy gravity? Accidents happen and any horse professional should encourage novices to wear helmets. Sorry, done with the rant. Moving on.

So needless to say I wasn't exactly jumping up and down when my BO's suggestion was "Maybe you should try some roundpen work" to help solve Junior's pushy behavior. BUT after this weekend that is exactly what I'm going to do. He's a smart horse and a very active minded creature and our first little session into it was very interesting and successful. I am now looking at roundpen work as similar to what I've noticed happening in showmanship practice. It's all about body language and establishing yourself as Alpha and honoring the horses's willingness to cooperate. Just like how showmanship has greatly improved his mouthiness and attentiveness, round pen work will improve that attentiveness and it should be another step to increasing our bond.

I spent a lot of time talking to Clinician Dawn Hurlburt of Equuspeak.com about Juniors issues. She specializes in the behavior of therapy horses. She listened very carefully and after working with him in the pen reinforced my assumption that it's mostly a bad habit of being able to bully people during unsupervised grooming and tacking. (He has never been allowed to bully under saddle, as either me, Max's Girls, or KAT was supervising the riding.) He uses that situation to try to get out of work and possibly because he might be anticipating the uncomfortable Newbie riders. Dawn assessed (though she is not a vet) by observing him for a few hours that he is highly unlikely to be experiencing ulcers. I told her how I dealt with the kick on Thursday and how I deal with him when he's super bad on the cross ties and she said I was doing the right thing. She confirmed my belief that whenever a horse does something that could endanger the handler (biting or kicking) the horse must be punished in the same way that another horse would react. Though people get bent out of shape about striking horses, when it's done fairly and at the right moment and intensity it is within their realm of understanding. Horses don't understand time outs.

So what about timing? Could round pen work have helped us earlier in our relationship? I don't know, but NOW is when it has entered our life. When I think back, it took at least 6 months for him to even notice my presence. It was a long time before he seemed to look to me for any sort of guidance or support. He "liked" me, but he wasn't seeing me as Alpha. We're still not there yet, but I feel a huge improvement in that department has occurred in the few months since our move. The trails and his uneasiness but willingness, the crazy obstacles and his generally blind faith in my guidance, and the whole experience of the Cowboy Challenge (totally new place, no lunging, wacky obstacles he'd never seen, tying to the trailer for hours, etc.) have been tests of our bond and status. Now that I see how far we've come I am hopeful and excited to see how far we can get.

I remember a long long time ago when I was showing Banee in a trail class at a 4-H horse show. Trail was different back then. There were usually only a few areas of poles, not the crazy grids they use now. One of the obstacles was a line of three barrels. The task was to walk past the barrels and then back a serpentine between the barrels and all the way back to the start. Dear old Banee wasn't the calmest horse and though she'd zoom back and do an "L" between poles, backing around something she was used to doing a turn n' burn around was not in her radar. My teen self was angry that such a ridiculous task was required. The judge explained to us all that the task was about having a horse that would place each foot at the discretion of the rider. I though she was nuts. But now I understand. And now I'm ready for that kind of refinement. It seems a lot less about drilling maneuvers as it is about creating a horse that listens and obeys each little cue. A horse that's highly attentive and willing to do what you ask. I think Junior is the kind of horse who will be awesome at this. I'm excited to see what we can do together.

And what of the other two mantras? Well, I'm hoping that trying lots of "disciplines" and methods will make us more well rounded without getting too bogged down into ONE WAY of doing something. We'll find things in all the experiences that work for us. And if something isn't fun anymore (like western pleasure) we'll move onto something else. :)

The video below is Dawn's first moments in the pen with Junior. What she says at the end is "I got forward movement" because the first exercise is getting the horse to move forward and then you reward by releasing the pressure. Ideally the horse stops and waits for the next set of instructions. I don't know anything more than the little things we did but I know there's a ton more to it. At the end, Dawn paid me a compliment and said that I had a natural body language and talent for the work. I don't really believe her, but I was certainly flattered. She complimented Junior right away. I couldn't help but glow. :)


  1. I'd encourage you to take a look at Chris Irwin's videos on round penning on State Line tack. He really shows the holes in some of the other techniques out there and explains it in a way that I found very effective.

    I used to be a big believer in round penning, now I see a need to use it like any other tool. It's a hoe, not a rake. It solves some issues, not every issue.

    But you still have to know how to use it right. And even though I had it working in some situations, I found I had to learn a good bit. Anyway, his is the best technique I've found online.

    And it's free!

    Here's a link

  2. Breathe, Thanks! I just watched the first video. FINALLY somebody confirms my belief that people try to train horses like dogs. I look forward to watching the rest. I'm also going to try to get a hold of the Parelli DVD's that the University has. I still think there's something to learn there, but in moderation and with skepticism.

    Thanks for the link!

  3. I'm a Roundpen Freak.

    I feel it's an essential part of the training process. Also check out Marv Walker's website, and send him an email request for his "Bonder" techniques. Good info.

    Poorelli - eh. There are many others that get the same message across with less "savvy" methods of in-your-face marketing.

  4. I'm so with you on all of this! I grew up riding hunters and equitation, and while I knew a good bit about that from the saddle, that was about all I knew.

    I have some friends who are major Parellites, and they shared some of the basic techniques with me. While I'm not head over heels with Parelli like many people are, it was a huge benefit when I got a horse who I basically had to train from scratch (which I had never done). And I discovered that the fundamentals of the ground work that a lot of these natural horsemanship guys teach are the same as the basic good, classical horsemanship skills I already knew. Just different skills and a clear framework for understanding and implementing them.

    I spend most of my time in the saddle these days, but any time we are struggling with a training issue or behavioral issue, we work on it from the ground first.

    And Amen to the helmet rant.

  5. I find that it isnt necessarily the "round penning" that helps issues, but more just the ground work. I believe that most everything that needs tweaking under saddle can be helped on the ground. Whether that means I will need a longing to get through to the horse, or just making sure I cna control each part of the body through subtle cues from my body.

    I agree, however, that round penning can help build a stronger relationship (as can any type of ground work), but loose penning is a good test to your horse's true thoughts. A horse without any restraint is going to show you how well trained he really is, should I rephrase that to how cued in he is? I agree with your thoughts on not drilling an excersise, so I dont want to use the word "trained". But loose penning will show you how in tune your horse is to you.

    Sorry this post is all over the place it feels, but I would encourage you to look into other means as well besides just the "penning". But it sounds like you already are :)

  6. Yikes, someone says that about wearing helmets? That's insane! Wearing a helmet certainly doesn't make a person feel brave (at least I hope it doesn't!). Six years ago I was cantering my 18 year old and he slipped and fell. You don't have to have an un safe horse to have a bad spill, anyone that has horse experience should know this.
    The round pen has been used long before the natural horsemanship buzz word began, so I wouldn't worry about the stigma if you use one:)

  7. I love round pens... I haven't been lucky enough to have one at my boarding barns, but I would use the heck out of one if I had it.

    I think it is a great tool simply because you and your horse are in close proximity to each other and it is easy to communicate things with them on the ground.

    I think it will really help with your relationship with Junior.