Round Pens: training for good posture…or bad?
Believe me when I tell you that I love freedom as much as anyone. I love trimming away boundaries, living widely in each moment. And, yes, I love to watch a beautiful horse running free across a meadow with his legs surging and his expression content. That, to me, is a wonderful sight. On the other hand, a horse careening around a round pen with his neck twisted sideways and his body misaligned disgruntles me.
The reason it disgruntles me is that this practice forms—and strengthens—poor movement mechanics that can have pretty significant consequences. Primarily, when a horse travels around the round pen with his head turned slightly to the outside of the circle, he ends up catching his balance every stride by planting his inside foreleg harder. This tightens and strengthens his shoulder girdle on that side, embeds crookedness in addition to limited range of motion in the scapula.
When a horse has spent a fair amount of time in this incorrect balance, a few of the results can include: chronically cross-cantering, balky behavior under saddle, stiffness and lack of responsiveness to the rider’s leg cues when ridden. The problem is that the undesirably tight scapula muscles contributing to these problems have been made stronger by the round pen work.
I absolutely believe that round pen work has a valuable place in every horse’s training life. Much of the value comes from body alignment. The round pen is not a place to chase around a loose horse while ingraining poor habits. Unless you can 100-percent affirm that your horse’s ENTIRE spine (head to tail) follows the curve of the circle prescribed by your round pen, then you are far better off to have a line attached to his halter/cavesson/bridle.
Any exercise undertaken without a complete inwards arc of the horse’s spine to match his line of travel creates postural imbalances that become stronger each session. These imbalances are manmade and easily avoided.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have become besotted with liberty work, or exercising the horse without any reins, longe lines, etc. Liberty work IS a delightful concept, but it often comes with irony. The irony appears when students wish to change a particular movement pattern (i.e. fix a canter lead, solve a persistent crookedness) without realizing that their liberty work has contributed greatly to the problem they wish to resolve.
When it comes with the outcome of developing comfortable and functional posture for your horse, attaching a line is a gift we can offer him. It allows you to guide the horse to correct posture inside the round pen, enabling his inside scapula to rotate upwards and back each stride, which in turn allows his topline to lift and swing.
Sure, there are a small percentage of horses with fine training and balance that are able to work at liberty in a round pen while maintaining correct posture and bend. In these wonderful cases, there may be no need whatsoever to have the horse on a line. But let’s not be overly generous in our self-assessments. Far fewer of us are in this camp than we might wish to accept. A closer look at most round pens reveals the horse’s head turned slightly outside the circle, and to that I say put on a line. Allow your horse to experience his freedom in other ways, but not at the expense of solidifying poor balance.
Power in Interruption
In the following photo, Roxy demonstrates what I call the power of interruption. This describes the benefit of momentarily altering the horse’s movement patterns for the sake of improving them. Not unlike their human pals, horses generate movement through patterns held in the neuromuscular system. These patterns serve them well, allowing them to move and perform various tasks with utmost efficiency and limited active brain recruitment to move limbs. While indeed efficient, these patterns are not always optimal. For instance, Roxy has a pattern of trailing her hind legs out behind her when she trots rather than swinging them well forward underneath her body as I would prefer.
My task is to help Roxy create new patterns than the ones she knows as comfy and familiar. I would prefer her to adopt a pattern that involves a body posture that is more beneficial to her long-term wellness, or in other words one that sees her carrying more weight on her hind limbs and easing weight OFF her forelimbs. There are number of ways to go about this task, and one of my favorite ones is to interrupt a horse’s existing gait patterns.
As you can see from this photo, the exercise I’m using in this example is fairly simple. It is just a polygon shape formed with poles on the ground. With the horse on a longe line, the handler can move herself all around the polygon, directing the horse across, through, and over the poles in constantly changing ways. The horse never knows where it will be asked to enter/exit the shape. In this way, it delivers all the benefits of schooling over ground poles but eliminates the repetitive and predictable nature of sequential poles set up in single line.
Exercises like this that encourage the horse to adjust her balance, or change her speed and height of stride, briefly interrupts motor patterns. What immediately follows is a chance to develop new patterns. This might mean more awareness of stride trajectory, more flexion in hind limb joints, more precise foot placement. These kinds of exercises open the door to further improvement. They work because the horse is guided to alter his stride with minimal anxiety or tension, given that he is not receiving a lot of input or cues from a rider. The exercises are offering him the input in a very natural, easy way.
Admittedly, there is plenty of time during a horse’s schooling when we want our work to be predictable for him so he gains confidence and clarity in our expectations. When changing his physical body and gaits, though, it can be helpful to introduce a little well-timed interruption. The key is to use just a little (not so much to frustrate the horse), and that any chosen exercise has relevance to an existing pattern you hope to change. In other words, we’re not seeking to interrupt his patterns just for the sake of adding randomness or variety to his routines. The exercises need to support your specific goal in each session.
Value in Being Forever a Beginner
The longer I stay in this profession, the more I value experiences that facilitate what Zen teachers call Beginner’s Mind, which recently took the form of an early morning listening to Corazon chew his hay.
Becoming an expert in any field often entails specializing your knowledge and skills to the point of abstraction. You end up operating on a level that is detached from those with whom you are trying to serve and relate. Beginner’s Mind tethers you to the openness and fascination, the receptivity, of beginners in a sport.
Remaining relatable may or may not be important to every trainer. For myself, though, I have discovered that staying able to truly relate to my students is crucial for longevity in this career with horses. Without it, I run the risk of impatience, poor communication, and misguided instruction.
Having a horse of my own helps preserve a little bit of feeling like a fun-struck amateur even though I am a six-days a week professional. Finding experiences with Corazon outside my daily routines help even more. These are the vital moments where I find Beginner’s Mind. And the more years I spend with horses, the more valuable these occasions feel. They simultaneously keep my spirits fresh while mooring me to a relatable place for my students.
I took a small group of students camping with their horses this week at Waddell Beach Campground, a coastal valley filled with wildflowers and cypress trees with ocean views. We spent two days riding shaded trails beside the creek and then sitting around the campfire watching our horses doze in their corrals. We said goodnight to them under a star-filled sky aglow with the Milky Way.
One of my fondest moments, admitted with a pang of naivety, was mucking out Corazon’s pen as the sun rose. I sipped from a mug of coffee balanced on a nearby truck bumper and marveled at the pink sky. I moved slowly and mindfully, without any demands to answer, and listened to him chewing his hay. My contentment bordered on giddiness.
In other words, I felt the fascination and joy that beckons beginners to these experiences. Believe me, I have mucked a corral umpteen times before. But in this moment, at this delightful campsite, the methodical chore, and the coffee, and my sweet horse colluded to make me feel like nothing else mattered. And I let myself absorb the moment just as it was, without trying to elevate it to an abstracted fraction of my professional life.
I embraced Beginner’s Mind. Corazon swatted his tail at a fly under his belly, a hawk twirled overhead in a thermal updraft of clouds. I filled up Corazon’s water tub and fetched my grooming brushes. As I embarked on this day filled with small chores and time with my horse, none of if felt new and yet all of it felt magical.
Recalling these moments does not just mitigate the possibility of burnout after being involved with something as long as I have been with horses. It forms part of the equation for relating to and reaching my students. Without sharing relatable experiences like this, my instruction would risk hitting its mark. Instead, I remain able to discern when a student is so entranced by an experience with her horse, by the sheer enjoyment of just being with her horse, that she cannot intake the minutia of instruction I am trying to impart. Rather than feel futile, I shift my delivery to accommodate her raw bliss while hopefully still imparting the lesson I want to offer.
Numerous occasions aside from sleeping beside your horse under a starry sky could infuse a professional’s life with the lessons of Beginner’s Mind. There might be a sliver of each day, or a simple routine, that does this for any given trainer. For many of us, those moments are worth respecting and valuing whether or not they seem naïve. Or maybe, better yet, it is the sense of naivety that keeps the magic alive.
Dressage Principles that Sound Like Zen Riddles
It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. Forward does not mean faster, my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.
My Welsh pony surged ahead in a bone-rattling trot as our speed ticked up, and I gleaned from my instructor’s grimace that I was failing her proverb. As I understood it, I needed to get my pony’s hind legs moving with more activity and energy. But how was I supposed to do that without changing her speed? For as simple as it was in theory, I found out the concept of riding a horse correctly “forward” was surprisingly elusive in practice.
I’ve observed numerous dressage riders banging their legs on their horses’ sides to get the horse moving more ‘forward’ until they are charging around the arena in a state of tension or frenzy. Just as often, I see riders who are unwilling to ride this way plodding around on a horse that appears disinterested and utterly disengaged with the work he is doing. Neither scenario is ideal. Nor are they the correct interpretation of riding a horse “forward.”
What IS the correct interpretation? A Western trainer I admire named Tom Pierson defined it best, and I think he did so without even realizing he was talking about dressage. He said working with a horse is like constantly checking in with the temperature gauge on your car. When the car is running right, the needle on your gauge should be directly in the middle of the spectrum between too hot and too cold. Think of your horse’s attention and focus being this way, he explained. You do not want him so hyper alert and fired up that the needle on your gauge tips one way. Nor do you want him so tuned out and sleepy that it tips the other way. You want it in the middle. Always.
Lately, I have begun to adopt the Western terminology of “readiness” in favor of the word “forward” that we dressage riders have relied on. No matter whether I am mid-stride in an extended trot, a halt, or a canter transition my horse needs to be fully ready and responsive for the next cue I give. When he is in this state, he travels with the activity and engagement in his limbs that we pursue as evidence that he is correctly moving ‘forward.’ In other words, nobody needs to chase after me waggling a longe whip to create a desirable amount of engagement. And I do not need to keep my horse in a state of chomping edginess masquerading as liveliness and energy.
Of course, even the term “readiness” would have been murky for a 13-year-old to solve so it still might have taken me years to arrive at the understanding that good, classical dressage requires a horse to be alert but not frenzied. If I could offer one tip for how to keep your horse in a state of readiness without chasing him unnecessarily faster, it would be the following.
At various moments during your ride, no matter what you are doing (or not doing), ask yourself: does it feel like I could instantly and immediately extend my horse’s stride right now? Does it feel just as likely that I could stop him on a dime without encountering resistance? If these answers are yes, chances are good that you’ve done well keeping him in a state of readiness. If the answer if no—and be honest with yourself—it would be a good idea to prioritize spending a week or so of your training working solely on this.
Operating with the above question in mind as you ride will inform your training considerably. The next time you are riding around practicing elusive dressage ideals and you think to yourself I think this trot is pretty good…but is it good enough?, ask yourself the readiness question and you will have your answer.
Good vs. Evil: the horse’s nervous system
An ever-present challenge of training horses is that they are hard-wired to escalate tension. This has helped them survive in the wild. Studies of the amygdala area of their brain show that when a horse is in a state of mental tension, even a small external stimulus causes the anxiety to quickly ratchet up. The horse is then trapped in flight mode. Unfortunately, we load them with stimulus whenever we interact with them, especially when we are trying to attain specific results.
Obviously a horse in a hyper-toned state of mind cannot be expected to use his body in ways requiring precise motor control. Or perhaps I should say that we cannot successfully ask him to do this when his brain and body are operating from signals to be tense. We cannot fine tune recruitment of muscles that are primed for flight. It does not matter how skilled a rider or trainer might be; a horse will never make good gains until he is under the influence of a calmer nervous system. How, then, do we go about our training in a way that diffuses, rather than builds, tension?
Our task is to untether the horse from his sympathetic nervous system (the flight/fight center) and recruit his parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ command center). Studies of the equine brain show that the activity in the amygdala, the anxiety and flight center, can in fact be re-programmed significantly. This happens through hands-on touch and bodywork followed by the correct physical exercises.
This equation rewires a horse’s operating system in a way that enables them to learn and adopt new behaviors and movement patterns. Over time, this rewiring becomes a permanent state of being. Without this approach, we trainers are generally just loading tension on top of already existing mental or physical tension, alienating the horse from his ‘rest and digest’ mode of operation, which is the only environment where positive change happens.
Every single cue we give our horses, every interaction and request, can send them more firmly under the influence of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Being a trainer that can help access the parasympathetic nervous system means acquiring a whole new set of skills than the ones most of us were originally taught. Some days it feels like a slower path forward, but if we wish to see permanent changes, it is the only path forward. Otherwise, we try and try to change habits without getting very far because we fail to address the underlying control center for these habits. In reality the seemingly slower path is actually the faster path forward.
When a horse is not able to change in ways that we might wish—the ways that will benefit him—we need to stop and ask what about his living conditions or training might we shift in order to not continue adding fuel to the fire of his sympathetic nervous system? Is there discomfort we can alleviate? Are his schedules consistent and predictable? Is his training making measurable contributions to utilizing his parasympathetic nervous system? This sort of inquiry led me to write my latest book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, and continues to challenge me to become a more helpful trainer. During my upcoming clinics, I’ll be asking students to join me in this inquiry. Meantime, what thoughts do you have to share on this?