What If You Don’t Have A Round Pen?

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Here’s another old article that was written by my husband that I thought might be interesting to the readers of BooneyLiving.com. It gives some helpful tips on how you can work with your horse, mule, or donkey even if you don’t have a round pen.

I received an interesting email from a friend today who recently purchased a horse from me. I live in the mountains and I’m lucky enough to have access to thousands of acres to ride my horses and mules on. They are accustomed to the typical sounds, sights, and smells that a horse might encounter in the forest. Things like coyotes howling at the moon, owls hooting, wind blowing through the trees, wild horses calling to them from the tree line, birds chirping, deer jumping out of the bushes, and a number of other “nature” sounds, sights, and smells are all quite normal to them.

I like to think that I do a pretty good job of teaching horses to be pleasant trail and mountain horses. Having said that, my horses don’t have to walk past cement trucks, honking horns, sirens, speeding cars and other scary things. For my needs, my environment is perfect but what happens when someone buys a horse and takes it to a new world with completely different sounds and stimuli? Chances are, the horse will act completely different than he did here for a while. Desensitization through habituation should eventually cure that problem to some degree. That simply means that horses will eventually get use to the stimuli in the environment in which they spend most of their time.

This is exactly the situation my friend found herself in and she didn’t want to wait until the horse had slowly become accustomed to the sounds, smells, and sights in his new stomping grounds. She contacted me on several occasions for some ideas that might help. Of course I had a canned answer that all of us have heard time and time again. I told her, “Before you do anything else, I suggest that you do a bunch of ground work with him to establish that you are the herd leader so that he will find a sense of confidence and safety when he is with you.” How many times have we all heard that?

Through several emails and conversations, she mentioned that she just doesn’t have the room for a round pen. She doesn’t even have room to lunge him on a lead line. My answer was to find a place to do the ground work, even if she had to travel a ways to do it. She just needed to get it done. Ground work, when done properly, is a great way to help a horse gain confidence and learn manners. Today when I received another email in which she expressed her frustration about her lack of space to do ground work, it suddenly dawned on me. I don’t know why it didn’t sink in before now. A lot of people REALLY don’t have access to a round pen or even room to lunge a horse properly.

Looking back, I remembered that I have found myself in this predicament many times myself. I was somewhat embarrassed when I realized that I was giving her a canned answer that just didn’t work for her. I wasn’t really listening or really understanding that her problem was real and that if she was going to move forward with this horse, she desperately needed advice that she could apply given the space restraints that she was faced with.

So what is the solution to this problem? What if you don’t have a thousand acre ranch with all the luxuries that you see the TV rock star horse trainers use? How does the average horse owner who keeps one or two horses in the back yard develop a relationship of trust and leadership with their horse? After thinking about it this morning, the answer came to me as if someone had dropped a brick on my head!

Ground work isn’t just about lunging a horse until their hooves sweat. The real reason that we do ground work is to establish that we are the herd leader and that if the horse follows our lead, we will act as a good herd leader would and protect our horse from any harm that might come to him.

Horses need to feel safe and comfortable. They feel safe and comfortable when they feel like they are being watched out for my their herd leader. Horses desperately NEED a herd leader! They don’t just want one. They truly NEED one! So, since we know this to be true, how do we become the herd leader when we don’t have the typical tools that people use to accomplish this? The most common tools being a round pen and a lunge line. The answer is really quite simple.

If you have ever observed several horses in a small corral, there is always a herd leader. They don’t have the room to run the other horses around a 40 acre pasture but they still manage to establish that they are the leader. They might, pin their ears at another horse to move him away from the water trough. They might lower their head and swing it towards the other horse to move him away. They might bite at the air to move the other horse away. They might, turn their hind end towards the other horse and threaten to kick to move it way. Do you see the pattern here? When a horse finds himself in the same situation that my friend found herself in, they establish that they are the leader by using subtle methods that cause the other horses to move their feet. The real lesson here is that the horse who consistently causes the other horse to move his feet becomes the leader. The horses who move away when the leader encourages them to become lower ranking “followers” in the herd. This doesn’t mean that the leader uses excessive force either. Most of the time, no physical force is used at all.

Knowing this, we can employ all kinds of tactics to become our horse’s herd leader. Below is a list of simple ground work exercises that we can do to “move our horses feet” to help establish ourselves as herd leaders.

  • We can back them with a halter and lead rope.
  • We can lead them in circles, in figure eights, and in straight lines.
  • We can lead them over and around obstacles.
  • We can pivot them on their front end or on their hind end.
  • We can bend their necks laterally from side to side.
  • We can practice loading them in a horse trailer.
  • We can move them sideways.
  • We can move their front end, then their hind end, then their front end over and over again.
  • We can spend time desensitizing them to objects that scare them.

Do you get the picture here? We just have to be creative and find ways to cause a horse to move his feet when we ask him too. This is just a short list of ideas. Be creative and come up with your own ways to ask for the horse to move his feet as subtly as you can. If you do this, and the horse consistently moves his feet when you ask him to, you should slowly become his herd leader. And since you are the leader, the horse will begin to find comfort and safety when he is with you. Consequently, when you take a horse away from his buddies or into a new environment with new sounds, smells, and sights, your horse will be more likely to feel that he is safe. The result will be that he will hopefully be better able to cope with the things he encounters and be a more enjoyable horse for you to be around.

Having said this, horses and mules will always need some time to become accustomed to a new environment. Doing ground work for 30 minutes in a new area that is scaring them isn’t an instant “cure all” but putting a horse through a series of ground maneuvers that he already knows can help him relax and that may help him become more calm and confident in the new area.

I like to think of it like this. Ground work when performed by a confident and skilled handler can be like therapy for a horse. They may start out upset and scared but by the time you’re done, they are often much calmer and relaxed.

Warning: Training large animals such as horses, mules, and donkeys can be inherently dangerous. Even skilled trainers can be injured while working with large equines. If you choose to spend any time utilizing any of the tips shared in this article, you are doing so at your own risk. If you don’t feel like you have the necessary experience or skills to train your own equine safely, you should always hire a professional. The basic disclaimer here is that the tips provided in this article are provided with the intention of helping you develop a better relationship with your equine but if you get hurt while following any of these tips, you and you alone take full responsibility. Remember, training equines requires a lot of experience and skill. This article only briefly touches on one particular technique that might be helpful and is intended for people who already know how to properly and safely do groundwork with their horse, mule, or donkey.

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