Round Pen Theories

By Jody and Susan Cunningham, copyright 2008

Learn more about Jody and Susan Cunningham's horsemanship at

Establishing a relationship with your horse in the round-pen is the foundation upon which his training will be built. Most of our focus is placed on performance. To me the most important factor (relationship) is all too often forgotten.

First, I would like to take a good look at the natural horse-human relationship. It is a fact of nature that horses are prey type animals and humans are predators. This will never change. Most of the time it is our predatory tendencies that get in our way when trying to communicate with our horse. The mistake is forcing our point of view on the lesser creatures of the planet. The only thing you need to do right now to become a better horse person is to change your perspective, from that of a predator to that of a prey type animal. Allow yourself to see the world through your horses’ eyes and a whole new world will open up to you.

Horses live in a dominance-based society. If you do not believe that please take the time to observe a herd of horses and you will see that there is always a definite pecking order. If there are two or twenty, each individual knows their place in that order. Horses communicate in body language. When you stop and think about it this is the universal form of communication on earth. Every animal speaks it fluently but us. We insist on vocal communication, which is complicated at best, and confusing at worst. To me that is the biggest flaw of humans, the ability or even the need to complicate a perfectly simple undertaking. Dominance occurs naturally when one single animal succeeds in controlling the motion of its peers. When a horse yields its personal space to another then that horse becomes subordinate. It is all about who owns the real estate.

When working a horse in the round-pen in public, I will often ask this question. How many horses do I have here? It is obvious that there is only one horse in the pen. Unless the crowd is really horsey, most of them look at me as if I were a nut. That is when I confirm their suspicion by claiming to have two horses, right horse and left horse. Horses have monocular vision. In other words, they see out of one eye at a time. Being prey animals, horses see much better to the sides and behind them than they do in front. Horses also lack the ability to focus on an object close to them. They have very poor depth perception. A puddle that is only 4 inches deep might be 40 feet deep as far as he knows. The 16-inch step off the trailer might as well be 16 feet. This is all about perception. Humans have binocular vision and it is obvious to us how deep the puddle is or how high the step. My point is that it does not matter how we feel about it, the only point of view that really matters is the horse's. Right eye, right side. Left eye, left side. There are no wires connecting the two sides. Right horse does not even know that left horse exists.

In order to achieve balance in your horse we need to work both sides equally. The majority of people in the world are right handed, another one of those facts of nature. Consequently, we are most comfortable on the left side of the horse. Every piece of tack we purchase is made for a right-handed person to put on from the left side of their horse. About eight out of ten horses I encounter are really one-sided. This is a result of being handled from the left nearly all of their life. When we are on the left side, our smart hand is near the horse, we are comfortable there. When we are on the right side, our dumb left hand is near the horse and we feel clumsy. That is when we move back to the left side, the spot we are more comfortable. Unless you happen to be left handed, in which case you will be more comfortable on the right side of your horse. No matter whether you are left or right handed, force yourself out of your comfort zone and concentrate on the weak spots. The truly broke horse handles equally as well from both sides.

Which side of the horse's brain he is thinking with seems to be a matter of some controversy. I am not sure that anyone could prove to me exactly which side the horse is thinking with, in any given situation. I do believe this, there are really only two things that can happen. One, the horse Reacts by instinct, the need to survive kicks in and he seeks to defend himself. Two is Thoughtful Response, when he allows you to control his speed and direction and he begins to yield to pressure. In short, the horse is doing his best to get along, not get away. Is he Reacting or is he Responding? Once you know the difference, it becomes easy to focus on the thoughtful Response and avoid the instinctive Reaction.

There are three points I want clearly understood during my first encounter with any horse in the round-pen - Dominance, Respect and Trust. Mental dominance occurs when I can control the horse’s speed and direction before I have ever touched him, using only body language. Respect, in horse, means quite simply respect for the dominant animal's personal space. Trust is earned once dominance and respect have been established. Do not confuse trust with tolerance. Just because you have been feeding your horse carrots or treats please do not assume that he trusts you. Trust can only be achieved through respect and mental dominance. These three things cannot be separated. They are interconnected. You cannot have one without the other.

All prey type animals naturally resist pressure. If this were not the case, they would easily be caught and eaten. Walk up to most any horse and push on his hip, and he will probably push back or at least brace against you. Horses learn on the release of pressure, not when you apply it. There are also two different kinds of pressure, implied and physical. Implied pressure is the act of pursuing your horse. Physical pressure is touching your horse with a rope, rein, hand, leg, etc. It seems to me that horsemanship is teaching the horse to yield to pressure whenever, wherever and however you apply it to his body. This is 180 degrees opposite of what is natural.

Request, Response, Release is the method I find most effective when teaching my horse to yield to pressure. Timing is the key. Learn to release the pressure at the exact instant your horse has tried to respond to your request. Remember that you are looking for even the smallest change or try. The release of pressure either real or implied is the only reward any horse ever needs, not a positive food reward. Release the pressure, rest him, and rub him. Horses being prey type animals want only a safe comfortable place to be. Make that place you. Positive food rewards work well on predators. Husbands, bears, and dogs respond well to this method, but not horses. Please do not confuse a perfectly simple situation by insisting on trying to communicate in a language that horses do not understand.

The major goals to be focused on during my early round-pen sessions with any horse are to be able to cause movement in his feet, create forward motion, cause him to yield his head to me and move his hip away. When I have him turning and facing me, it will not be long until he is "hooked on". This is when the horse finally accepts the handler as the dominant member of this herd of two. The by-products of achieving these goals are dominance, respect and trust.

Horses have no concept of right or wrong, as we know it. This must be explained to them by making the things we want them to do comfortable and what we do not want them to do uncomfortable. I am sure you have heard; make the right things easy and the wrong things hard. As predators, we tend to focus on punishment instead of reward. Work hard to make the right things easy. When you see him try just a little bit, release the pressure, rest him and rub him. Comfortable is standing still near me. Uncomfortable is being pursued around the pen. It is very simple, stopping and standing still are a privilege.

The horse's main form of defense is to flee; when denied that, he will fight. When you deprive him of his ability to flee by snubbing, hobbling, cross-tying, twitching, etc., you will only succeed in forcing him to defend himself. Pawing, biting, kicking and bucking are what happens when a horse cannot flee. I want my horse to know that his ability or even his right to defend himself will never be taken away from him. He will be allowed freedom of movement. When the life bubbles up in a horse’s feet and he feels the need to go somewhere you cannot smother it or contain it, you must redirect it. If he feels that he needs to leave, that’s ok, in fact I will help him. It will not be long before he figures out that fleeing is a lot of work and that standing still close to me is a lot easier. Once I have a horse "hooked on" and he knows that the safest place in the round-pen is close to me, then it is time to start introducing him to all of our tools (ropes, flags, tarps, blankets, etc.). This will begin at liberty and he will have a choice to either accept the new things that I am showing him or flee. If he is "hooked on", he has already made his choice. Tying the horse up and introducing these objects is not an option. If he cannot flee, he is going to fight. Imagine me tying you in a chair so you cannot move your hands or feet. Now your worst fear, say a snake, is thrown in your lap! Some people I know would die of fright, right in the chair. Your horse feels the same way about many things. Do not make a tense situation worse by denying him the ability to flee.

What I have just given you is a short summary of my approach to horsemanship. I will be the first to admit that I ride much better than I write. This article would not have been possible without my wife Susan’s help and we both sincerely hope that what we have said makes sense to you. In the articles to come we will put my theories to practical application and show you how to build a solid foundation in your horse that will prepare him for almost any discipline.

Stay A’ Horseback

Jody and Susan