Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Dear Julie,

I saw your DVD Round Pen Reasoning this summer. This was the first time I had seen anything on round penning, but I decided to try it out on a horse I was working on. This was a 10 year old Mustang. The background on this horse is very unclear. All I really know about him is he was adopted from the Mustang program once before he was readopted by the people I know. He was returned the first time, which indicates that he might have been neglected or abused. He is afraid to let people walk around his back end or where he can’t see them. He is afraid of everything but is comfortable with a saddle and a hackamore. I have no real experience in training any horses but I’m confident around this Mustang because he is very calm and laid back-most of the time. Soon after I started to realize he wasn’t respecting me I attempted to round pen him. When I started him in the round pen he did well for the first two times around the circle. Then he stopped running and looked at me with his ears forward. I tried to keep him going by swinging the rope at him. At this point he had decided to jump at me. I don’t believe he intended to follow through but after that I gave up in the round pen.

After that episode I kept trying to work with him and I got to know him pretty well; to the point where I know what he does when he wants to charge at me. I learned this in the paddock, where I felt more comfortable. After I would swing the rope in at his head he would run away from me then stop and allow me to walk up to him and catch him. Now that I think I have a better understanding of him I would like to get him into the round pen again. Any advice you can give me about any part of this situation would be helpful, especially if I’m making the problem worse. Thank you for your time.

Christine

Answer: Christine,

There are many issues within your email and I will do my best to address the questions as I read them. First of all, to me a horse is not broke if he is afraid of you walking around behind him. I would not pursue riding him until I could resolve these issues on the ground first. Horses have a hard time allowing someone past their shoulder—this is a matter of vulnerability and trust. He is comfortable with you in front of him because he can defend himself well from that position. To allow you into his flank and behind him takes a lot more trust on his part. Keep working with him on the ground to build that trust and he will eventually let you around his backside. I would want to make sure this horse is totally desensitized to all stimuli on his hindquarters (touch, ropes, etc.) before going further with his riding.

As you have no doubt figured out by now, Mustangs can be much more of a training challenge than a domesticated horse. BTW- it may not have been because of neglect or abuse that this horse was returned; it might also have been because the horse was too difficult to train. The instincts of Mustangs are much keener, their herd behaviors much more engrained and the trauma that they endure in the round-up can sometimes be devastating. I urge you to observe extreme caution with this horse; do not EVER consider his gestures as a bluff; always take them seriously.

Unfortunately, in your first session in the round pen, your horse challenged your authority and you backed down, so in his mind (and mine), he is dominant over you. Basically what happened is that you put him to work in the round pen to show him that you controlled his space and therefore are the dominant one. He stopped and looked at you in challenge to your control. Probably at that point, you showed some uncertainty in your body language and your horse saw that as a weakness and figured it was an opportunity to prove his point and show you that not only are you not the boss of him, but that he is in fact the boss of you. Because you backed down at that point, you proved him right.

It is not at all uncommon for a horse to charge you in the round pen and I address this in my video, Round Pen Reasoning, which also contains a lot of information on horse behavior and a step-by-step process to follow in round pen training. Not all horses will charge, but sometimes the most unlikely horse will challenge you in this way (Mustangs are more likely but any horse is capable, including the most docile). This is a VERY dangerous situation and people have been killed when charged by a horse in the round pen. There has been at least one such death this year with a Mustang in the round pen, that I personally know of, and that involved someone that was experienced with Mustangs and with round penning.

This is one reason why, as explain in the video, I will NEVER allow a horse to turn toward me in the beginning stages of round pen work. Always make him turn away from you, because on occasion, when a horse turns toward you, he will charge you. Although usually it is a bluff, it would be foolish to assume that, since your life may be on the line. When the horse charges, you must always take immediate defensive action; that is one reason why you always go into the round pen with a ‘weapon’ of some sort (a rope, stick, flag, whip). You will use your ‘weapon’ to deflect the horse’s charge by waving or striking right at his head, in order to turn him away from you. This may sound like an extreme measure, but until you have been charged by a horse in the round pen, it is hard to understand what an extremely dangerous situation this is.

Given the previous experience of this horse in the round pen, his history and given your lack of experience in training horses, I would highly recommend that you get a professional to help you work through these issues with your horse. With some training on your part and the horse’s part, and good supervision, you should be able to resolve this problem. But this is a dangerous scenario and I urge you to use caution and seek professional help.

JG

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