A Round Pen Lesson

One of the ways Reno and I spend time is through ‘round pen’ activities – although we rarely use a round pen.  We might use a paddock or even our indoor arena. Many of you know who Reno is, but what you don’t know about Reno is that out of the hundreds of horses I’ve worked with, our bond is the closest I’ve experienced with any horse in my 65 years. Round pen work helps us develop that bond.

I use more round pen training in my daily work with horses than I was aware of. Recently we had a horse who did not trust any of us to catch her from the paddock.  She didn’t usually gallop away, instead she’d walk off as soon as you got within five feet of her shoulder.


It would have been easy to force catch her by chasing her into a corner – but that would have only cemented her distrust of us. Thankfully my inner round pen/horse whisperer kicked in and I began to use pressure and release.

One thing to remember about this kind of work is that you can not set a time limit.  You must work with the horse for as long as it takes to produce the result you both need.  If you don’t, and you give up, use force or hurry, you’ll take many steps backwards in the progress of the relationship between you and your horse.

The sun went down and it got cold, but we kept working with each other. We were in a paddock that is about 100 by 150 feet and has a gully running through it, in the dark with no lights. I knew there was a chance I might be out there for some time.

After awhile I noticed that Grace was not darting from one corner of the field to the other any longer. Instead she was circling around me, making a 60-70 foot circle. This was the first indication that she was considering that it might be ok to be ‘with’ me.

When I first went out to catch Grace one of our working students asked if he could watch, which was fine with me as long as he stayed out of the paddock. The sun had started to set when I glanced toward the gate where Jeremy was quietly watching.  As it got darker, I could no longer see Jeremy but I knew he was still there.

When Grace began to show signs that she would trust me, I walked over to her; we visited awhile and she quietly allowed me  to slip her halter on her head. Grace was cool, I was chilly and Jeremy was cold to the bones- you know – the kind of cold that just won’t allow you to warm up. Anyone who would stand still, chilled, in the dark as long as Jeremy did, just to watch me catch a horse, would probably benefit from learning a few basic round pen principles.


Over the next few days I heard comments from other people… “I’d like to learn what you do with Reno” – “I’d like to watch when you work with Grace.” This prompted me to  compile an outline for the most basic ‘horse whisperer’ lessons. I tested the first lesson on Alisha, who is always a great proving ground for me.  I demonstrated with our 17.1 hand Percheron, Cappy, who’d never done anything like this before, and then Alisha gave it a go with Bow. Alisha and Bow were successful together and I was ready to try the lesson with Jeremy at his next lesson.

This might all sound very easy, outlining the ideas and then teaching them, but there is so much to understand about this kind of horsemanship (called natural horsemanship by some folk) that sifting it down to a few starter thoughts was tough.  I settled with helping Jeremy learn to observe and interpret what he saw in the horse and then teaching him to direct the horse’s direction, while using a few “horse whisperer isms”.


Alisha demonstrated with Bow, who promptly became a galloping, gate bound, 17 hand Thoroughbred whose mind was anywhere but in our 60 by 175 foot indoor arena. He wanted his buddies, his dinner, anything but time with Alisha. In a few minutes Bow was a soft, laid back fellow, who was watching Alisha and making about a 55 foot circle around her. She was rewarded when Bow repeatedly stopped at her invitation and advanced toward her. Join Up.

Jeremy was next with Rob, an Arabian who’d round penned about 10 years ago. I figured Jeremy had his work cut out for him, because it had been a long time since Rob had done this, but I also knew that eventually, if Jeremy did things correctly, Rob would respond. Rob fooled me, which was a reminder that you always have to remain flexible with a horse.


Jeremy used the flag to move Rob around a few times and instead of running to the other end of the arena, Rob said, “Yes! I know this!” and went right to work for Jeremy. He worked with Rob’s direction and experimented with the flag. Soon Rob was following Jeremy’s flag where ever he put it.  He was leading Rob with his nose touching the flag!

It was rewarding to see everyone; Alisha and Bow, Jeremy and Rob, have success and begin to form bonds. The horses enjoyed their lessons, did not get heated up ( a benefit at 6:30 on a dark December night), they showed interest and became relaxed. It was a good start.  Well done everyone. It looks like we’ll have another go at it this evening.

BTW- setting the direction? It’s a beginning step for controlling the horse’s feet – and in ‘horse whisperer speak’- if you control the feet, you control the horse.