Friday, December 7, 2012

When Roundpenning Fails

I had a bad idea that this might happen. I didn't want to say it out loud  just in case anyone thought I was crazy.... and I was hoping that I was just creating scenarios in my head about things that could potentially go wrong. Unfortunately, I should have just voiced my gut feelings on the matter, and stopped the process before it began. Roundpenning is going to completely 100% fry this mare's brain, and I am not going to do it anymore.

My first instinct for roundpenning Imogen in particular was that it was a terrible idea. This mare is not only the bottom of the totem pole and therefore completely willing to submit to people, but has also been horribly abused by them, and is convinced that they are all out to hurt her. The basic idea behind roundpenning is this: I am your safety zone, and when you are with me, life is good. If you do something disrespectful, or something you are not supposed to, I send you back out to work. Eventually, you seek me out as your relief, and want to come to me and stay with me. What does this do wonders for? Lazy, bold, stubborn, confident animals who don't respect you. What does this NOT work on? Low totem pole horses like Imogen who are so desperate to do the right thing, and so confused and terrified when you make any sort of aggressive moves at them at all. Somehow, distressed as I was with about her behavior yesterday, I convinced myself it was going to help.

My fear was this: Imogen is frightened by people or horses that make bold, assertive moves in her direction. She is MORE than willing to move her feet to get away out of your space - she falls all over herself to make sure she doesn't do anything to anger the powers-that-be around her. I personally reward EVERY little tiny try that she gives me, just because she lacks the confidence to really believe that she could ever do something that makes someone else happy. However, with roundpenning, if they come into your space and do something the roundpenner doesn't like - like move away in fear or jerk their heads because they are frightened of being touched - they get chased away aggressively, back out on the rail to work. This completely backfires on horses with this personality - they learn VERY quickly that you are an incredibly scary monster in the middle, and every time they come to you, you make rapid movements and scare them. It isn't long before they want absolutely NOTHING to do with you - far from establishing trust, you have completely destroyed it.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened tonight. Imogen tried a few times to turn to S and make a connection, but whenever S would rub her ears and she would lift her head and back up in fear, she'd get aggressively chased off. Pretty soon, even when she would lick her lips (which I don't take as a sign of relaxation, just a sign of massive stress - other studies have shown that licking the lips is a reponse to a release of adrenaline as well) and S would turn away to release the pressure, Immy would just keep trotting around at high speed, avoiding turning in to her at all costs. This must have gone on for an hour. She was lathered, trembling, and completely terrorized by the end of it all. They never joined up, and they never really connected. In fact, whenever S would walk away, all Immy did was stand there and snort, watching her leave with relief. It was bad... all around bad.

JenJ reassured me after the whole mess that her old horse Cash is the same way that Immy is - and she would NEVER roundpen him because it would completely fry his brain. Even back in the barn, she wouldn't let me touch her ears or head, and jumped every time I touched her or raised my arms. She was ready to bolt at any second, clearly traumatized. I can't do that to her... we're done with this nonsense. There is no reason to chase an already fearful horse... all she is going to do is associate humans with fear even more than she already does. No more majik hoodoo for me... I am going back to the basics - the ones which actually work. Sorry roundpenning, you are just NOT for this animal.


  1. As best as I can tell, there are two types of round-penning - the natural horsemanship join-up stuff, and treating the round pen exactly like lunging without a line.

    I was taught the latter. The horse is there to work - to change direction when I say change direction, to go the speed I ask, and to stop and **stand**, not come into the middle. I go in the round pen to work out kinks in communication and to make sure the horse is paying attention to ME, and occasionally to work off a little spare energy.

    I am just not a big fan of "joining up" - I tend to think of it as the Western version of Parelli. It can be totally harmless, or it can completely ruin a horse for working on a lunge line. Personally, I don't want to teach my horse that when they've been disobedient, they should run away - and when they've been good, they get to come into my space! (Little bit of a pet peeve there...)

    Watching the video on your previous post, I also think S was roundpenning her with WAY too much energy. Some horses need a cluck and the slightest movement of the rope to go; some horses need the rope thrown at their stupid butts until they realize you're serious. I was taught to do it with a coiled rope, and there were horses that you just gently tapped the rope on your leg and they'd hear the cue; S seems to be using either an uncoiled rope or a whip (hard to tell in the video), which is WAY more intimidating... (Just as an example, I went looking for a video of the style I'm more used to, and it looks like I learned from the John Lyons school. Check this out, compared to what S did. Much more low-key.)

  2. :\ Oh man I am sorry! Sending you and Immy good thoughts and hopefully tomorrow is a new day and you are able to regain all the progress that you were making and she will remember that you love her and will protect her!

  3. I agree with Sarah entirely. I was taught that a round pen was basically another piece of lunging equipment, not a torture chamber. Body language and energy can be very powerful, and just like all power it can be abused and do more harm than good. I believe that a round pen is simply a ring where you can lunge without using a line, and gentle pressure should be applied (just as you would when your horse is on the line) until the horse is listening and attentive, not terrified and begging to be allowed back into the herd. The benefit of the pen is that it's a larger circle, so there is less pressure on the horses's joints (a plus for all horses in my opinion) as well as eliminating the danger of the line (another plus... I've heard one too many horror stories about lunge lines and babies for my liking). My personal opinion, from what I've been taught and personal experience watching and using different techniques.

    All in all, I think you know your horse Andrea, and you know what's best for her better than anyone. You know your stuff lady, don't let someone else make you doubt yourself. Trust your gut, and keep loving that pony. She'll come around. Time, love, a lot of hard work, and an ocean of patience solve every problem.

  4. Hi, I have been following your blog with Immy. My mare Pixie Dust has the exact same personality. I too tried round penning in the beginning because it was suggested. It ended just like your experience. I do believe the round pen is a great training tool, just not for every horse. My suggestion go back to what your gut tells you. I used a ton of positive reward training to gain trust. Cookies paired with pressure and release type training. Good luck and I can't wait to see how she turns out.

  5. Don't beat yourself up too much about this experience. You've tried it, you know it's not for Immy, so go back to what works. You've got another tool in your training toolkit, and you now know what sort of horses to use it on. My obnoxious Lippy mare would do ANYTHING not to have to work, so the slightest hint that I was going to take her and make her go round in circles till she listened to me was enough to make her toe the line. But as I told you last night, I'd never do it to Cash, because it would melt his brain and ruin all the trust we've built over the years. Sure, I longe him, but that's to let him find his own balance and relax, with minimal pressure from me. I've also used entirely positive reinforcement with him, because he'll happily work himself into a frenzy if he thinks for an instant that he might be doing something wrong. You have to be oh-so-careful when applying pressure to the sensitive ones, and back off in an instant if things start to go south.

    You know your horse best and what will and will not work for her - follow your VERY GOOD instincts and you'll find out what's right for her.

  6. Well, bummer! i'm sorry that didn't go as planned :( Definitely sounds like S wasn't in tune to what Immy was telling her. I bet round penning *would* work for Immy, but with you doing it, and using the right cues. Like another gal commented, round penning is just lunging without a lunge line, you use your body language to tell a horse when to go forward, and when to stop, and when they can come to you. It's about the horse listening to you and being in tune to your body language so that you don't need a line OR a whip. I can totally lunge my horse without a whip because I can use my body alone to send him forward. All "join up" is is you working with your horse and having them listen to you and be willing to come to you totally relaxed, listening to your every gesture and cue. IMO when done correctly it's a beautiful thing no matter the horse or their personality. Some horses may take a half hour to listen, some may take only a few minutes. I bet Immy would totally fall into the latter when working with someone who understands her and can read her (like you!).

    That said, Andrea, definitely do what is best for you and Immy and what you feel gets the best result. But, please don't put a negative label on all things round pen, sounds like you just had a bad experience, and I'm so sorry to hear that :(

    You know your horse the best and I'm positive you'll do the right thing by her :) I'm positive you'll get past this little speed bump!

  7. As Jen, I've also found positive reinforcement the way to go with horses who have had BAD experiences of NH techniques and are just thoroughly horrified by them.

    I like clicker training as one way of changing the dynamic but I know some people don't get on with it. There are other ways to use +ve in that case :-)

  8. I have never had a horse like yours. I have one that could possibly turn out that way, but isn't. She can't be forced to do anything, it has to be made into an option.
    My personal opinion is that roundpenning does help. But chasing a horse away just because they are afraid of something is not how to do it. That will only inforce that their fears were correctly made.
    When my horses are afraid of something I find a starting point. So, Imogene doesn't like having her ears touched. So I might start desensitizing the air space around her ears or gradually work up to it by starting on her neck or her forehead. But once I find a place that she doesn't like I keep my hand there and go with her. I try to be as non agressive as possible and never hang on. So if I am rubbing a horse's ear and she pulls away I'll try to keep my hand on her ear, but I won't hang onto her ear. Once she realizes that I am not causing pain she will stop.
    As far as the round penning goes as someone previously said less pressure is desirable. You must find out how much pressure Imogene needs in order for her to do what you want.
    And it is possible that there are some horses that roundpenning will not work with. And I will be the first to say that I am ignorant on how a horse like Imogene acts.
    But if she is afraid of people I might try working on that fear. Desensitize to my rope and whip. They shouldn't be afraid of my whip. it's a training tool not for punishment. And there are situations where a horse acts agressively and you need the whip to teach them to not act agressively towards you, but you always go back and make sure that they know that it is not a tool of punishment.
    And how does desensitizing relate to overcomeing fear of people? Well, it's kinda like because you are doing it to them they come to realize that you do not intentionally hurt them.
    If that makes any sense...
    And if you have problems with my opinion I would love to hear them. It's always good to here another's opinion.

    But, if you absolutley hate the idea of roundpenning even after you have looked into it, find another way. There is not one way to train a horse.
    You have come far with Imogene and if I ever work with a horse like her I will be able to use your experiences to help me out.

  9. I had some fun going through the join up process with Don, who was spooky and sensitive, but didn't have a round pen, so that was a fun challenge. Eventually he would actually go around me in circles without heading towards the gate or putting his head in a corner ever, and always came up to me when I let him and followed me around like he was supposed to. That was when they first gave him to me though, once we had a really cemented relationship I gave up the voodoo and focused on really training - but we had a fantastic relationship, he would do anything for me. He was never pushy, he was always sort of politely in your space though - wanted head scratches, loved to put his head on my shoulder, but if I told him no, that was OK with him too.

    I can't ever remember being THAT aggressive swinging the rope or "chasing" him ever. Or him running hard ever, mostly we worked at the trot or a relaxed canter. If I had aggressively chased him out of my space, a sensitive horse like that, probably would have never come near me again.

    Fun as it was, I haven't utilized it on any of the other horses I've worked with or started, because it really doesn't make that big a difference... And there was no way I was going to go chasing the 18hh abused percheron gelding I started with a rope of any sort. The other, non abused, pushy mare I work on a lunge line because there were times I had to get MORE aggressive with her than my version of joining up ever was. She was a total witch to teach to lunge because some idiot had taught her way wrong and she had it firmly in her brain that she was going to go left, then right, then stop, and she was going to do those things when she felt like it.

    I know so many people who are so convinced round pens are essential to starting horses under saddle, but I am not one of them... They are a handy tool to have but they are not the be all end all that natural horsemanshippers claim they are.

    1. I totally agree. Round pens are not needed to train a horse. My sister and I are training four quarter horse fillies and we've never had the use of a round pen. They've been basically trained in a pasture. The first time we got on them was in a pasture.
      AnEnglishRider how did your horse learn to go in circles around you? I have always used a rope.

  10. I've known horses who do not do the join up thing. Ones that you need to gain their trust in a different way. Some horses will go 'til they drop rather than give in, and I'm not talking about fresh mustangs.

    A friend watching a clinton anderson clinic said the mare he was roundpenning jumped out over the 6 foot panels.

    "Sometimes, they do that"

  11. Agree with what Jenj gave it a shot - it's not giving you the results you want. Onto another method that is better suited for her and you both together.

  12. I'd always been about lunging too. I didn't learn about natural horsemanship until I was working at a horse rental facility 8 years ago. As rental horses, when they were bad on the trail they got put back in their stalls-it was a very dangerous training experience. The barn owner only wanted natural horsemanship used to train the horses. They had a round pen; no arena. And this is where I learned that not every horse can be roundpenned in the same way-I would think this is common sense-, & not all horses do well in it. I had to do all of my enclosed training in the roundpen. The more sensitive/fearful horses got lunged in it, with me being as quiet as possible in the center-no abrupt movements, and certainly no whip whatsoever!If they needed any kind of encouragement to move forward, a tiny flick of the end of the lunge line was enough. Eventually we would get to the point where we were lunging ropeless. I would then add the join-up request-only when I allowed it-, etc. It didn't always work. I've used square paddocks, with corners, better-the roundpen is a warped interpretation of the original square picadero used for classical dressage training. The horse would work in a circle in the picadero, so someone cut out the corners to make it round. There are books written on this, & why the roundpen, because of its roundness, is NOT an ideal training tool, in fact sometimes CONTRIBUTING to the fear in the insecure/submissive horse because he cannot get away from this person in the center PRECISELY due to the fact that there are no corners. A dominant/lazy horse will fair better in the round pen because there are no corners for him to "escape" into. For a submissive horse, this can quickly turn into a living nightmare, especially in a small roundpen like S's. My mare, Lily, was abused. She was whipped so bad that the first time I ever lunged her (I didn't know the details of her history at the time), she would not stop galloping. Because I had a whip in my hand. At a clinic later, the trainer insisted I ride with a whip and Lily almost took down the trainer trying to run away from the whip in my hand. We did a LOT of desensitizing after that. Nowadays, I lunge with a dressage whip in my hand. The lunge whip is too much for this mare, and it was with her that I discovered how successful a square pen can be-she did fantastic in it, but only after a year of work on the lunge. She will now ask for permission to come by looking directly at me with pricked ears while trotting around, but if I point my finger out, she knows she is to continue working. If I hold still, arms & whip down, she knows she has permission to stop and come. The result of this? When she is fearful, she finds comfort in being close to me. At a respectful distance, but she settles down when she is near me (she is very good about not invading personal space). She was not like this before. I have never chased her away, never waved a whip nor rope at her-it's not necessary because she is so sensitive she can read small body cues. The roundpen can be a very valuable tool, but it must be tweaked to the individual horse. My one problem with all of these natural horsemanship methods is they have these standardized techniques that claim to work on every horse. They don't-not every horse is the same. Some of these techniques are great, but they are just more tools in the toolbox. I am mad for you because S should have known better-you can't be that aggressive with a horse like Imogen. She both successfully set her back in her training, & turned you off of a particular training system for good. I do agree with you: not every horse needs to be roundpenned. Not every horse will do well with it. Many horses never get roundpenned in their lives, & they are wonderful horses. And there are also ways to roundpen to avoid traumatizing the horse. I think you know Imogen better than anybody, & you have done a fantastic job bringing her along with what you know-you are a skilled horsewoman. This setback sucks.:(

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  14. Saiph I love your outlook on roundpenning. I have never heard about the corners and circle thing. And I will definetly have to remember that.
    I also liked that you put that horses react differnetly to pressure. Some react strongly to pressure others are pretty much dead to it. It's all about finding out how little pressure you have to use.

  15. I don't know if you've read his work already, but Klaus Hempfling and his book "Dancing with Horses" was a HUGE turning point for me and my mare. VERY different from all of the natural horsemanship stuff out there, working exclusively with body language. It is great for super sensitive & submissive horses!

  16. Don't beat yourself up. It's easy to let your mind and desires override gut feelings. If she can learn to load after the longe breaking like 5 times, she will catch on quick that you are her safe mare.

  17. :( Faran is the exact same way. They tried round penning him and now he's terrified of them.

    I was also going to suggest clicker training. It is absolutely AMAZING for gaining confidence, even if the only thing you ever use is target. :)