Lessons From The Round Pen: Charlie Is In Fact A Horse

Charlie the Horse in a Round PenHorses Are Not People And Ignorance Is Not Bliss

I am a novice horse owner.  I love my horse dearly, but love does not mean you know what the hell you are doing.  Communicating with horses requires treating them like horses and that is usually where my ignorance takes over — not knowing about horses I default to what I do know and treat them like I would a human, or, perhaps, even a dog.  But horses are not dogs any more than they are humans.  So for this reason I always look to my trainer and other, more experienced horse owners for advice.  I believe the key to mastering anything is first admitting how little you know — or at the least, how much more there is to learn.

Charlie, my horse, is a senior citizen gelding.  He is loving, kind, and willing, but he is exceptionally clingy when I am around — a vice I am sure I have created without intending to.  He becomes anxious when I leave, especially if he is in a turnout, bathing area, or cross ties.  When people he is less attached to put him in those same places and walk away he is fine.

Charlie is a rescue and his life before we found each other was nothing short of brutal and horrific (but that is another story.)  He is terrified of crops, whips, chains, anything swinging strikes fear in his otherwise docile heart.  He came to me terrified of men and children, and once, when an experienced groom attempted to longe him he became so terrified he attacked.  So to exercise and work with Charlie, I handwalk him quite a bit and some days I can ride him for 15 minutes at the walk (due to a moderately severe heart murmur he has limitations about his activity level.)   I also play with him in a big enclosed arena.  There, we walk together halterless and do simple tricks.  He is attentive, obedient, and docile.  He heels and turns better than any dog I have ever owned, but everything we do, we do side-by-side with a lot of contact and reassurance.

As docile as he is with me, when it came time to put Charlie in a round pen for the first time I had a professional trainer work with him because I knew he would not want to move away from me.  When I work with him I do have him back up, turn, spin, come forward, and change directions, but we are always physically close.  I have never worked him or walked with him more than a couple feet from him.

The Round Pen, Round 1 Trainer:  Round 2, Charlie.

Round 1: With the trainer he did great.  So great, she let me try it the second time.

Round 2:  Me and Charlie did not do so great.

Charlie understood the trainer’s pressure and words and was fairly obedient.  He did buck and play a little, and would sometimes stop and question her with a stare but as soon as she told him what to do, he listened and did it without a fuss.  But Charlie only seemed frustrated and confused when I tried to get him to move to the rail away from me.  Oh, he would walk and trot in circles like I asked, but only a couple feet from me.  I may not know a lot about horses but I know enough to know this is dangerous and sure enough Charlie enjoyed this new game and started play bucking all around me.  I do not attribute this to a lack of communication but a lack of respect.  It suddenly became clear I did not have control — he was not doing what I was asking him to do he was trying to play with me on horse terms and that is not cool because when I said “no” he said “yes, we shall play.”

So, I left him in the round pen for a bit longer to have a roll on his own.  Then, as he always does when I leave him, he came to the rail and acted pitiful calling and pleading for me to come back and play with him.

The Lessons I Learned

The lessons to be learned here are pretty simple.  We can inadvertently teach horses all sorts of undesirable behaviors without even realizing it.  The methods I used to get him to trust me after his abusers (he was beaten, starved, and well, he went through hell) were those that came naturally to me — the same methods I would use to help a human.  And that is the key here — Charlie is not a human, he is a horse.

Having only played with Charlie “up close” he has never learned how to move away when I want him too.  He has become dependent upon me and is anxious when I break the connection for any reason.  Until the round pen he never gave me any reason to ask him to move away — he does not bite, buck, kick, or bully me.  He is a total cuddly bear and anything I ask, he does instantly.  But it is important that your horses always respect that you are the boss and in the pen Charlie clearly was deciding he wanted things on his terms.  My calm, gentle approach did get him to trust me and form a very strong bond with me, but that day in the pen taught me just maybe he thinks he is the boss and the reason he is so docile and sweet is, in his mind, I never challenged him for position and was only asking him to do things he was happy to do anyways.

I will continue to have a trainer work with him — and with me.  Sometimes it is the human that requires far more instruction than the horse.

Video – Round Pen Basics — Control

I watched a lot of videos about training in a round pen, I liked this one a lot because it explains things in plain English and in plain “horse.”