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Ask A Teamster Round Pen Training

Ask A Teamster: Round Pen Training

by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana

Hi Doc Hammill,

We bought a copy of your latest video on teaching horses to drive – and once again (we have your fundamentals 1-4) you have done a beautiful job. It has made an ENORMOUS difference in getting our horses to cooperate with us. I’m wondering if you might answer a couple of questions for me.

Sometimes it almost seems like the horses are getting bored with the repetition of some of the round pen work (i.e. following one around in the round pen). Do you try to alter the routine when this occurs – or is it important that the horse does exactly as you want regardless of what activity is occurring?

Since we are about the only one in the area with draft horses, we are concerned about the farrier that we get to trim the horses’ feet. As you have pointed out in your fundamentals videos, it is important that the farrier does not trim the back too short (and the front of the hoof too long). Since we are quite ignorant on this matter, we are wondering if you plan to do a video that might go into great length on this subject? If not, would you have any recom- mendations on books, videos, etc. that might give us a better idea of how this should be done correctly (i.e., good photos, hoof comparisons, etc.)?

Thanks so much,


Dear Susan,

Thank you for your kind words. It has always been a gift to me to be able to share my learning with good people and their horses.

Round Pen Training:

There is definitely a fine line between driving a horse away in the round pen to the point of boredom from repetition without variation, and driving them away to just the right point before asking them to stop, turn towards you and come to you, etc.. Likewise, when we ask them to follow us, stop and stay with us, or almost anything else, it can get to be too routine and not interesting enough to hold their attention. It’s our job to read the horse and make a change or variation BEFORE they lose interest.

If we all had the experience and skill of masters of the round pen like Monty Roberts, and other world class trainers, the results and successes would come as rapidly, solidly, and predictably for us as they do for them. However, we each work, practice, and learn at our own level. Fortunately, horses are basically cooperative, forgiving animals, particularly if we don’t lose our patience with them and become loud, harsh, too forceful, or hurt them.

When we ask a horse to follow us in the round pen we can help him succeed by varying things a bit – changing direction and speed frequently, stopping periodically to reward him with a rub (“a rub” or two, not 100), picking up a foot, playing with his tail/ears/mouth, etc. In other words, working at desensitizing or sensitizing him by simulating things he will experience in the future (trimming and shoeing, crupper, bridle over the ears, bit, etc.). There are endless training opportunities that we can constantly blend into all of our time with them – whether in the round pen or just doing our routine daily care and interactions with them. Be consistent in the principles with which you work with them and how you treat them, but vary what you ask of them and what you ask them to accept – and the locations in which you do so (once their progress and the time is right).

We gain control over the horse’s mind by controlling his motion/movement/feet. We also need to introduce variations into this technique to avoid lack of proper response and boredom in the horse. Try varying (controlling) the speed that you ask the horse to travel around the pen. Put extra pressure on and push him faster when his attention wanders, he shows resentful or resistant expressions, tries to make decisions on his own, etc. Look for opportunities to ease up and slow him down a bit when he gives you his undivided attention, begins to relax, and/or show signs of submission (licking and chewing, head down, smaller circles around you, etc.). But don’t wait too long at this easier pace to either ask him to stop and hook up with you if his behavior warrants it, or push him on again if his attention wanders – timing is critical. Try asking him to change directions BEFORE circling one way becomes too much of a routine. If the horse seems content to just keep going around the pen after a half dozen revolutions or so, you are probably not putting enough pressure on to get him to seek (ask for) something different that he will be more comfortable with. At some point, it may help to put pressure on by getting the horse to change directions repeatedly for a time. Just as you turn him and he thinks he can enjoy going the other way, you interfere with his expectations and turn him back, then back again, etc. This emphasizes that you are in control. Sometimes, for greater effect, I use just half the round pen for this, making him turn back repeatedly after only 1/2 a revolution. These variations in technique tend to emphasize to the horse that you can truly control his movement, speed, and direction – that you are the leader and the sooner he accepts it the sooner he can enjoy comfort with you again. However, be careful not to do intense actions like this for too long.

Sometimes a horse will repeatedly show willingness to bend its head toward you (ask), and then, when you ask/consent – she will stop, turn towards you, and maybe even come to you – but then does not accept, or follow through with, what you ask next. To me this is a sign that she is willing only up to a point, but not serious enough to accept your leadership completely. When this happens they usually respond to being pushed harder and controlled more intensely.

To quote some advice I once received from esteemed horseman and educator, Dr. Robert M. Miller, “You need to really study what Monty does. He causes flight and doesn’t let up until the colt is pleading. Then he abruptly changes his demeanor and – presto – the colt gratefully accepts his leadership. Most clinicians change their demeanor too soon. Just as soon as the colt shows any subordination. It doesn’t matter. The end result is the same. Just as good. But Monty does it in a fraction of the time because he can really understand the horse’s language.”

Horses vary individually in their willingness to accept domination (leadership) from other horses and from us. Some resist it far more than others. With this taken into account, I always feel that the response I get from a horse is directly proportionate to how well I am communicating and working with them. The better my timing, speed, direction, distance, posture, gestures, eye and body movements, etc., etc., etc.. – the better and faster they respond within the boundaries of their individual natures.

Long ago I subscribed to the common belief that it’s “important that the horse does exactly as you want regardless of what activity is occurring.” However, master horsemen throughout history have known that success comes from looking for and rewarding the small efforts the horse makes to respond and cooperate – then, gradually reinforcing and piecing them together to eventually get to the larger piece of what you want. We need to recognize and reward horses for the first, slightest sign that they are trying. Rewarding willingness to try will encourage trying again. Sometimes, I even change what I am asking from what I originally asked or hoped for, to something I notice the horse is offering, or may be more capable of accepting. Rather than push for something I might not get, I choose to accept a different but positive success.

Hoof Care:

Perhaps the greatest advancement in hoof care and soundness for horses in decades has come about relatively recently because of lifelong study, research, and development conducted by master farrier, Gene Ovnicek. Gene is now known and respected internationally for his revolutionary “Natural Balance Hoof Care (trimming and shoeing) and Equine Digital Support System.” He has a variety of excellent publications and videos which I recommend unconditionally. Using Natural Balance trimming and shoeing on our horses is the greatest single thing we can introduce for long term health and well being of their feet, and for long term soundness. If your farrier is not familiar with, trained in, and using Natural Balance trimming and shoeing on your horses, by all means get him to do so, find one who is, or learn and use it yourself. Ironically, Gene and I worked together as young, green farrier and veterinarian respectively in the Flathead Valley of Montana many, many years ago.

For more information:

Round Pen Considerations:

Just as with any other horse equipment, methods, or techniques, the round pen, and the techniques used in it, can be employed in a kind and gentle, appropriate way (without harshness, excessive force, and pain), or in an harsh, rough, inappropriate way (by today’s standards). And, of course, what constitutes harshness, excessive force, and appropriate or inappropriate methods in the mind of certain horsemen and horsewomen differs from that of others – we all have to make our personal choice on that. Both the mildest bit or the harshest bit can be kind, effective, and painless in the hands of a true and caring expert, or either can be an instrument of torture in the hands of the insensitive or unskilled – it’s the same with halters, whips, round pens, etc.

I suggest that you study and learn from as many teachers as you can – but not without running what they offer through the filter of your own consciousness and principles. Strive to eventually become as good as those who represent your ideals, and reject the ones you find unpalatable. Remember, there are many successful ways of working with horses. Select and employ the bits and pieces that work for you as you learn, practice, and progress. Be ready and willing to shed some old practices and replace them with better ones as you move up the ladder of horsemanship.

Don Hill and I have been working on our first horse gentling and round pen training videos for about two years now. Our hope is to finish filming this August (2006) and have them available in the fall. In addition, I now do gentling/round pen training workshops with mustang horses here in Montana.

Doc Hammill D.V.M.

Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series.