The round pen can be a very useful tool if used correctly. Other tools like whips, spurs, and bits are all other examples. Like these other tools, the round pen can be used poorly to chase horses around, but in the right hands it can become a place of learning and trust between horse and rider.
A 50 foot round pen usually works best because it is big enough for the horse to perform all three gaits at a comfortable distance away from you. With a smaller horse ( 15 hands and under) any pen bigger than fifty feet will make you work harder to move the horse around. Unless, you have a horse that is 16 hands or taller, than you may want a 60 foot round pen so that the horse has an easier time finding balance at the canter.
Turn your horse loose once you get in the round pen. I like to take the halter completely off because horses do act differently when they are loose v.s. when they have a halter on. Also, I don’t want to risk the horse getting the halter caught on the round pen or on a hind leg. Send him off in the direction you want by using the same cues you did while lunging. To ask him to go to the left, I say “walk”, pause a moment, then I cluck once, and support my voice cues with the whip in my right hand, lifting it up and parallel to the horse’s body. If the horse doesn’t move off, I then tap the horse on the top of the hindquarters with the whip (you may also have to take a few steps forward to reach the horse). Tap lightly for three seconds before tapping slightly harder again for three seconds, continue doing this until the horse moves forward. As soon as the horse moves forward click (using your mouth which I prefer, or you can use a hand held clicker). At the same time, stop tapping and allow him to move. Don’t worry if the horse stops right away after you click. He will remember what it is he was doing when you clicked. Let the horse come up to you but don’t let him push into your personal space, he needs to stay at least and arm’s length away. If he doesn’t come up to you that is ok too. Just go up to him and feed him. Reverse cues for traveling to the right.
At first, reward the horse for taking one step forward on the circle by clicking and feeding. Build on that one step to four or five steps, to a quarter circle, half circle, whole circle. Once the horse is circling to the left, start walking toward the middle of the horse. Watch where you are pointing your body. Many people walk toward the horse’s head instead of his rib cage, and this can cause the horse to slow down or change directions. Walk a small circle in the center of the round pen. If he tries to change direction without you telling him, cut him off by walking about ten feet in front of him toward his head. Lift your whip up in your outside hand (furtherest hand away from the horse, if the horse turns and goes right use your right hand to block and redirect him with the whip). If he tries to run past you let him but smack him on the top of his hindquarters as he goes by (lightly to make him uncomfortable, don’t attack him with it). Allow him to go around the pen. Once he is in the same spot where he changed directions on his own, ask him to change back to the direction that you asked ( in this example to the left). Once he is going in the direction you want, now cue him to go at the speed you want. I would start by teaching the horse to change directions at the walk so that both you and the horse understand how to change directions correctly before adding speed.
Now that the horse is circling, it’s time to control his speed as well. Transition him into a trot by saying “trot”, then pausing for a moment, clucking twice, then lift your whip pause, then start stepping toward the hindquarters, smacking the ground with the whip twice, getting progressively closer to the horse until on the third count you tap him on the top of the hindquarters. If the horse still doesn’t transition into a trot tap three times, getting stronger with your tapping after every count of three. When he transitions into a trot release all pressure and at the same time click to reward him for moving forward. Reward him with his treat then send him back out onto the circle and ask him to speed up again. (To ask the horse to canter my cues are: say “canter”, kiss, lift the whip, smack the ground twice walking forward toward the horse, getting closer each time until on the third time you tap him on the top of the hindquarters. Keep tapping until the horse until the horse canters. When he canters release your cues, and click at the same time. Feed a treat to reward him for cantering. Use the same techniques described below while working the horse at a canter as well.)
Once the horse trots on your cue, reward him after three steps, then a quarter of the circle, half a circle, whole circle, until he will trot as long as you would like. While he is trotting continue walking a small circle in the center of the pen. As you walk, your toes should point towards the horse’s flank or rib cage, driving him forward. If he wants to slow down allow the horse to break down to a walk before correcting him and putting him back into a trot. Most horses will want to stop or slow down near the gate or other horses. If he does this start smacking the ground with your whip, getting closer until he moves away from that spot. Eventually the horse won’t stop at his magnets because there is more pressure there then at any other place in the pen. Have him trot for about 2-3 laps before asking him to change directions.
Ask for a change of direction to the inside by walking backward until the horse turns and faces you. If he stops parallel to you instead of facing you send him forward and start again. He is not allowed to stop without you telling him. For example, if the horse is traveling to the right, step straight back away from the horse. You may have to back up a couple of steps or you may have to back up all the way to the fence if he horse doesn’t want to draw into you.
Once he is facing you, start walking toward his neck on the opposite side you want him to go to, so the right side of the horse’s neck to then send him to the left. Walk toward his neck on his right side, change the stick to your right hand, lift your whip up and hold it parallel to the horse’s body. Say “walk” and walk toward the horse’s shoulder. Cluck to the horse, then use your whip to tap the horse’s shoulder until he moves off to the left. Once he has taken a step to the left, click and feed him for doing what you wanted. Once the horse has done 3-5 correct inside turns with you rewarding each one, you can then stop clicking at each inside turn. If he ignores your cues and instead runs past you, smack him on the hind end with your stick as he goes by. Show him that running past you was not the correct answer. Then ask him to change directions again. Only ask the horse for inside turns. Outside turns encourage the horse to turn away from you instead of looking at you and giving you his attention. After he is changing directions well at a walk a few times let the horse trot and eventually canter.
Watch the horse’s body language closely. Some horses will lean their shoulder towards you and try to come away from the fence and into your space. Smack the ground with the whip toward the horse’s shoulder to get him to move away. The horse may also push his hip toward you. When a horse does this he is thinking about kicking out. When you notice he has his hip toward you add pressure with the whip toward his hip until he straightens his body. If the horse does kick out smack him on the hindquarters with your stick or whip. Many people think that the horse is just playing, but he should never kick out at you without being reprimanded. When you first start working in the round pen the horse will probably be distracted with his head looking out over the fence. Make a change of direction to the inside every time his attention is on something other than you. The horse is paying attention when he has one ear on you, the inside ear, and the other will be moving, taking in his surroundings. The horse’s head will also be facing straight ahead or bent to the inside.
Change directions about 10 to 15 times working at a canter and trot until the horse is listening to you. Be sure that the horse is thinking and not just rushing through his turns. If he is rushing, slow down your cues until he slows down a bit then end on a good note. You can also start being specific with the behavior you reward the horse for. So, if the horse is rushing you can click him when he slows down so that he will want to repeat that behavior again. Start stepping back the same as you did when asking him to change directions, but instead of walking back in toward the horse keep backing up until he faces you then stop moving. The horse should turn and face you. He may even walk toward you; if he doesn’t that’s ok. Walk straight up to him if the horse is looking away. When he looks at you stop. Repeat until you can get all the way up to him. If he does look at you the entire time walk up to him at a normal pace. Not as aggressively as you would if he wasn’t paying attention. You can also click to him when he is standing still and facing you if he hasn’t been want to draw into you very much.
At the end of the lesson, let the horse stand by you in the center of the round pen and give him a rub and let him catch his breathe. Doing this has the horse associate you with comfort. If the horse is nervous and keeps moving away each time you walk up to him, arc around him instead of walking straight up. When you are close enough to reach him, rub his forehand a little then walk away and repeat until he stands when you approach him. If the horse starts to leave, put pressure on him with your stick then ask him to turn and face you again; only letting him rest near you. Again click and reward him when he is still.