Around, and round, and round the round pen – most of us have been inside of one at one point or another. When my family moved to our first acreage, I actually thought the pristine white fencing in a perfect diameter in the middle of the yard was quite the status symbol! A 50’ circle, rope halter and lunging stick have become the quintessential accessories that have defined natural horsemanship over the last 20 years.
Marketed as tools to help a horse “join up” – when I was first getting into horses it made sense. But when I came across an article a few years back that said round pens used to be square – I scratched my head. When you look back before the wild west was won or even over to the classical riding schools of Europe, there was no such a thing as a round pen.
So where did they come from and why?
Round pens really came into existence in the US when the BLM mustangs began to be rounded up and the wild beasts needed to be tamed. Horses in round pens used to be “run down” and a round enclosure prevented the animal from evading the pressure to go forward (always the safest move with a horse) and keep moving, thereby also keeping the handler sent to tame these beasts safer. So don’t get me wrong – round pens have had their place. A wild panicky horse in a round enclosure is absolutely a safer option than a pen with corners. But fast forward 30 years and many of us average horse owners aren’t working with wild mustangs!
As mentioned, the theory behind the need for the circle, is that a horse cannot hide or stop in the corners. The flip side of the intention is that we’ve forcibly removed the opportunity for the horse, a flight animal, to have or show us their opinion. In this day and age, that alone questions its effectiveness or need of use.
So then why square? Square training pens (also called picaderos) are essentially just small arenas, usually the same size as a round pen – 50 to 60 feet across each way. Built with high sturdy fencing, safe footing, and 4 corners. A picadero allows a horse to be a horse – including evading pressure that they are feeling is too intense – giving the handler valuable feedback into our methods with each animal. But aside from that, working a horse in a square pen actually has far more physical benefits to the horse’s development than round!
Benefits of being square:
- We all know that circles are hard on horses. They weren’t designed to ride circles (let alone be rode at all), and the result of continuous circles in a round pen create the environment where the horse repeatedly pivots around his inside front leg and shoulder. This is not a desired movement in any discipline and can contribute to compensation, counter arching and crookedness… aka: future lameness.
- Whereas working a horse in a square pen enforces them to travel straight, then bend, straighten out, then bend, repeat. This is a much more natural (and required) technique to compliment many of our equine disciplines. Plus through each of these motions, the horse must lift their shoulders in the corner! An incredible solution to the dreaded “dropped shoulder” in many speed sports nowadays.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up my riding coach was forever putting pylons in the arena corners and making the class ride around them – or try. When I rode western dressage – “use your corners” was also always a common feedback thread on my scores.
I always thought it was my fault I couldn’t get them in there… but it's entirely possible they never developed the strength to stand up through them!
- Square pens allow your horse to have and express their opinion. If they are not a wild mustang, you have some experience and they came with some training – if they are continually escaping into the corners to “evade” you – why? We owe it to them to ask ourselves.
Now I’m definitely not anti-round pen and think they can be used correctly – but most likely in the capable hands of a very experienced trainer. I personally feel that a square pen with a more novice owner may give more insight into the horse-human partnership and could even prevent a false sense of security between the pair. At the very minimum, I love learning more about the horse as well as tackling controversial subjects!
If you don’t have a small square pen but want to try working this way – you can start by learning how to work your horse in-hand with a cavesson. My favorite video series for this is by Manolo Mendez (Check it out HERE). In this manner, you can work your horse in a regular arena, or in the round pen - in a cavesson, incorporating straight lines, correct bend and achieve true strength through balance.