The concepts that are used in the round pen were originally developed by observing herd dynamics. The forerunners of natural horsemanship watched how horses interacted with one another and tried to emulate the leader in the herd. They saw that the horse in charge stays in charge by moving the feet of her fellow herd mates.
While mimicking this behavior can be effective, us humans have gone off the rails to some extent. We will never have the true grace, power, and wisdom of horse because we have different gifts to share with the world in our human form. Without that horse essence, we have unfortunately turned a beautiful dance into a control and domination paradigm.
Below I am going to share with you a short clip of herd dynamics. This is an interaction that I was present for, so let me give you a little background and information about what was happening just before the clip. This is a group of horse who are not normally turned out together. The only two who live together regularly are the bay mare and the black gelding. The grey gelding is newest member of the property. This is a herd who is used for equine facilitated coaching and learning.
Just before the clip was taken, the black gelding tried to push the grey gelding away from the bay mare. This resulted in a very rapid response from the grey with double barrel kicks almost in the black horse’s face. This is what happened next.
I just love this clip. It is like round penning 101. This is what it looks like to be a leader. There are a few things about this video that I think are so cool to observe.
- The grey horse has such presence and clear communication. He made a strong correction (which you didn’t see) and then he claimed his space. He did not try to steal the mare or chase the horses away – he simply set a boundary. He is not punishing anyone nor is he on an ego trip about it. Boundary set. Period.
- The grey horse demonstrates how subtle you can be to move your horse away from you. He elicits movement without aggression. Furthermore, he does not dictate the speed direction or expression of the other horses. When the two dark horses try to approach before he is ready, he moves them out again, to which they he gets a head shake and some attitude – there is no punishment or hurt feelings about this.
- The two dark horses are free to leave, but clearly want to be in close. Every horse is wired for connection. Their choice is to come back to the grey horse repeatedly. They do not flee yet they have the choice. There are no round pen panels preventing them from disconnecting – it is a 3-acre field. Yet they don’t. At one point, the two dark horses move farther away and then they loop right back to the other horses.
- As the two dark horses return, you see that they suddenly change the arch of their movement. It looks like the enter an invisible round pen and start tracking around the outside. It is a beautiful representation of an energy bubble around the grey horse. They are welcome to come in, but not to crowd his space. The grey horse is inspiring movement through his presence and energy.
- The chestnut mare is totally unaffected by any of this commotion. She is a submissive horse who hasn’t crossed any boundaries so the grey horse hasn’t asked her to do anything. She also doesn’t react to the communication that he has with the other two, knowing it isn’t intended for her.
What happens within minutes after this clip is that all four horses end up grazing peacefully together with only tiny corrections from the grey to own his space. Once all members of the herd are calm and respectful, the size of his energy bubble shrinks to a fraction of the size that it was in the video. All herd members are welcome to share space peacefully.
This is what our relationships can look like with our horses.
When you work on true relationship and connection, you do not need a round pen to keep your horse from leaving – he will choose to be with you.
You do not need a whip or rope to claim your space – your energy and intention is enough to set clear boundaries.
You do not have to run your horse endlessly in circles demanding that he submit – as soon as his behavior is respectful and safe, you can invite him into your inner circle and spend time with him.
We get so hung up on driving our horses round and round looking for them to lower their head, to lick and chew, and to submit. None of those things happened in this interaction. Not a single lick and chew. Just clear boundaries and a desire to be together. If you want connection with your horse, stop pushing him away.
These horses had “joined up” within 2 minutes. Our horses are not wired to exert so much effort and energy. In the round pen, we aren’t giving them any choice – a choice to leave, a choice to do something different, or a choice to connect even if they want to.
We have rigged a way that we can chase them ad nauseam. No matter how fast they run, they create no distance between themselves and the threat (the human with the twirling rope that smacks them when they stop). Meanwhile, all we have to do is stand there and expend no real energy ourselves. This is an imbalanced system that leads to high stress levels for the horse and defeats the whole point – which is to build a relationship.
While the idea behind round penning techniques was legitimately based on horse behavior, we have mangled the process and intention. Take a tip from the grey horse and explore a the true meaning of moving a horses feet in a circle around you.