Recently I saw a FB post where someone asked how important it is for the horse to “join up.” The responses were all over the place. Many people think of join up as a technique that involves pushing the horse in circles in the roundpen then offering them the opportunity to stop and turn in, if they do then they have “joined up,” and if they don’t then they are made to keep running. Clearly this isn’t giving the horse much choice but is another form of training using dominance over the horse rather than giving them an equal voice. For others, joining up means that the horse chooses to be with you when given the opportunity to leave, that they will follow you when invited and stop with you when you stop. The latter version depends on connection and relationship, the foundation of a mutually beneficial partnership.
The roundpen has gotten a questionable reputation for its use as a tool of force and dominance, yet I feel that the roundpen is a valuable tool that can lead to the more preferable version of joining up. The roundpen creates a space with boundaries to provide an area to develop connection and relationship with the horse while still giving them the option of moving away. In the roundpen we can approach the horse while asking permission, noticing their response and honoring their opinion. If they move away we don’t have to trek across a field to ask again, we can repeat the process until the horse feels safe enough to allow us into their space. On the other hand, if the horse does not respect our personal boundaries we can move them away and the boundary of the fence ensures that they won’t get too far. We can get back to what we were doing and work on developing an ideal relationship that includes respect for boundaries.
In the roundpen we can groom, massage, and release tension in the horse without using a halter and lead rope. The horse is able to tell us what feels good and reminds us to go lighter and softer when we hit upon a sensitive area. If our touch is too much the horse is allowed to move away, keeping their flight response intact so that they are less likely to respond with a fight (kicking out or biting). This simple activity can help the horse release tension through movement and become more relaxed. Restraining a horse and preventing this release can cause the tension to build leading to explosive behavior or internalized stress. Massage and bodywork are wonderful ways to help the horse feel better physically, release endorphins and other “feel good” hormones, and relax into a safe space, all of which strengthen connection and increase the tendency of the horse to “join up.”
The roundpen is also a great place to develop rhythmic movement and to begin to shape the horse’s speed and direction. I practice an exercise I call “the Wheel,” which is basically lunging but with a few important details. In this version the person focuses on maintaining their position between the horse and the center of the circle, guiding the horse with the wand by moving them forward or away, focusing on creating a smooth and rhythmic circle. It is helpful to mark the center of the circle, the “hub” of the wheel. While it sounds fairly simple, staying between the hub and the horse and being a “spoke” on the wheel is harder than it sounds! The challenge here is placed on the human, not the horse, to maintain position and respond to changes in tempo or position. The more refined our shaping becomes the less we have to do and the rhythmic movement encourages relaxation and connection. The wheel is not running the horse around the roundpen but rather an exercise in mindfulness, responsiveness, and developing effective communication with the horse.
In my experience working with the horse off the halter and lead rope has tremendous benefit for mind and body and is essential to developing a relationship of true partnership and the roundpen offers an ideal space to begin this process. If you would like to learn more about working with your horse in the roundpen or ways to help your horse become more relaxed and connected on the ground or in the saddle, contact me today to book a session at LaBelle Equestrian, 2445 Centenary Church Road, Mt. Ulla NC.