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.
What if my Horse Gets Anxious About Ground Poles?
Occasionally while giving clinics, I encounter a horse that becomes anxious or revved up about working over ground poles or cavalletti, which are a large part of my lessons. Often frustrated or embarrassed, the rider will ask what she can do. She understands that ground pole exercises are beneficial and yet she can’t ride the horse over poles without him getting charged up.
First of all, there is no reason to become embarrassed or frustrated. Plenty of horses find their own ‘creative’ ways of negotiating pole work, including leaping sideways, bounding spastically across the poles, or standing in place snorting at them. Sometimes this is due to stress arising from past negative or forceful experiences, but other times it can be from the horse getting evasive about the task in front of him.
Fortunately, helping an anxious horse settle to a calmer approach of ground poles is usually very doable and straightforward. And it actually involves NOT crossing poles. Instead, it can be fruitful to school the horse around, between, and through poles for a while without asking him to travel over them. Once he has relaxed in to a steady rhythm and body posture during these tasks, then he transitions seamlessly to riding across the poles.
Exercises that ask him to organize his body while bending or turning around, but not over, poles help him approach the objects as just another part of his steady work routine rather than something different, exciting, or scary. Often it takes just a day or two to accomplish this, but give yourself as much time as you need. Rushing the horse in this process generally only causes his leaping or evasion of poles to persist.
If you are at a loss for patterns that are useful in this situation, try starting with the following two exercises from my new book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.
Exercise #15, Snake Over Poles, Variation 2
Exercise #37, The Labyrinth
When you’re able to practice these two exercises without fanfare, you will be riding across cavalletti routines in no time. And then you will be reaping all the goodness they have to offer.
Winter Training in the Round Pen
Ever since first building my own round pen in the late 90’s, rough posts splintering my fingers and refusing to sink in to the rocky Vermont soil, my use of these training areas has ebbed and flowed over the years. As an equine fitness specialist, I avoid movements and exercises with a lot of repetition, which often steers me away from the circling necessitated by round pens.
There have, however, been times when I am drawn to what can be accomplished in these small training environments, like the first season I spent in California where I introduced fundamentals to young Arabians in a spacious 60-foot pen in the Sierra foothills. Or the season I spent both riding and longeing a stiff, bracey dressage Warmblood inside a round pen in the Santa Cruz mountains until his body changed enough to make our rides in the large arena more pleasant. This was followed by a few years of absence from round pens due to training some blessedly uncomplicated horses that didn’t seem to need them, and then my move to a facility that had lovely amenities like human showers and vending machines but no round pen.
Along the years, even while I do not utilize it weekly or even monthly, I have recognized that round pen schooling can be a succinct, concentrated session that serves multiple purposes. But it must be seen– and treated– as far more than just circling the horse around and around.
This winter with our relentless torrential rains here in California, I have used the round pen more than normal for schooling. Due to its slightly higher ground and sandy surface, is the only area in our muddy and flooded property that drains decently. Fortunately, I have managed some pretty productive schooling sessions in there, rubber boots and all. In fact, I think many dressage riders would be surprised how effectively they can use round pens besides just letting their horses blow off steam, which I’ll confess is a pet peeve of mine– horses coming out of a stall to run like a maniac for ten minutes, bodies twisted and tense and primed for injury.
Using your time well in such a small requires a game plan. I have included below my recipe for schooling creatively for those of you who might also find themselves in a round pen often this winter. While it is pretty simple, the general plan I follow prevents repetitive circling around in a steady gait. This is important primarily because it encourages the horse to use his body more fully rather than tightening up a single movement pattern or preferred muscle chain, not to mention the torque on lower legs that builds when a horse moves crookedly or in a dominant direction.
You can easily expand the following plan to fill a 20 to 30 minute session with your horse, which in inclement weather is probably the most realistic time span you could fulfill. Keep in mind that the purpose is not to take your horse with his cold, stiff body and work him in to a sweaty steam in as short of a time as possible. It is far more productive to to work on joint flexion and fluid circulation, recruiting muscles with positive– but not tense– tonicity, providing stimulus for digestive functioning and lymphatic fluids.
Bad Weather Round Pen Session
Before heading in to the round pen, lead your horse (briskly!) on some straight lines for 5 to 8 minutes. Use the driveway, paddock, or anywhere else you can find to make some straight energetic lines; get the horse’s limbs and back really swinging. Now head in the round pen.
1. Follow the Change of Direction rule. Aim to do no more than 3-5 laps in each direction without changing direction. To begin, start out with the horse walking on a longe line around the perimeter of the pen. Ask him to change direction every time he gets half-way around the pen. Do this for 2-3 minutes, addressing any issues that arise (i.e. lack of bending, high headedness, sluggishness, etc.).
2.) Now proceed to trot. To start, perform 3-5 laps of trot in each direction with a good steady rhythm. Now, it’s time for transitions. Practice five trot-stop-trot transitions in each direction.
3.) Now perform an energetic canter for 2 laps in each direction, followed by 3-5 trot-canter-trot transitions.
4.) Ask the horse to walk for a bit after this cantering. This is a good time to walk along with him and practice some lateral work like shoulder-in, haunches-in. And while you’re at it, do three of these repetitions: back up 8 steps, walk forward 6 steps.
Finish up with some carrot stretches, tail traction, or bodywork techniques of your choice. Well done!,congrats for making the most of bad weather and cramped schooling areas.
The Silver Lining of Rehab
As an equine fitness enthusiast, I occasionally end up helping students develop rehabilitation programs for their horses after injury or prolonged layup. This is never a bright time. Faced with wasted muscles or lower legs mottled with inflammation or hooves with sections missing, owners look at their steeds warily. How will they ever perform normally again?
While optimism can be a challenge, I take every chance I can to remind students that this phase has a silver lining. By the fact that so much confinement and downtime has robbed your horse of movement and muscular tone, you now have the chance to rebuild him from scratch. This means you can entirely erase old movement patterns or unwanted habits he had prior to the layoff.
Consider Bentley, for example. Bentley is a sweet Foxtrotter that I saw monthly for clinics over the past year. Like many horses new to dressage, he was VERY one-sided. He traveled by twisting his nose to the right and carrying his ears un-level. His bends and circles to the right were disorganized; he struggled to maintain a steady rhythm. All this asymmetry made his trot irregular and labored. Then a few months ago, he sustained an injury to his rear fetlock and spent two months on stall rest with daily hand walks.
He has now been cleared by the vets to begin short walking sessions under saddle. He is weak, unfit, and a little stir crazy. But he is also a clean slate. He has had months without accessing his habitual movement patterns, or in his case the crookedness on his right side. So, yes, it would be lovely if he were not limited to only a minimal rehab schedule right now and his rider were able to trail ride and take him to ranch riding competitions as she wants to. But on the other hand, these next few weeks are going to make Bentley a better athlete in the longer run. As he slowly rebuilds his neuromuscular system, he stands a chance to be more symmetrical than he ever has.
In his first week back under saddle, our program goes as follows. I hand walk him for 10 minutes to get joint fluids circulating and soft tissues stimulated. Then I get on and ride him in a marching walk for 20 minutes, primarily on straight lines, with 15-second bouts of trotting interspersed. Afterwards, I ice his fetlock. We do this routineroutines twice per day.
Indeed, this much walking under saddle COULD be seen as maddening in its boredom, but I’m determined for it to be as productive as possible. First off, I ask that he stretch his neck forwards and downwards so that his top and bottom muscle chains are positively tensioned. Next, I ensure that he keeps a steady rhythm and stretches STRAIGHT in to my reins– no head tilting– which means he has to engage both hind legs equally. His old crookedness habit tries to crop up occasionally but I coax him through it quickly, and since he does not have any strength behind that pattern right now, he is plenty willing to let it goo when I ask.
As Bentley slowly rebuilds over the next weeks and months, he will not just be returning to a previous level of strength. He will also be implanting new, more correct ways of using his body. Therein lies the silver lining. I implore students who find themselves in these situations to treat them as the opportunities they are. Do not just hurry to restore your horse’s performance to pre-injury status. Aim instead to use rehab to permanently fix problems that lurked before.
How did your Ride ‘Feel’?
How did your ride “feel”?
Over the past few decades in the horse world, I have watched practices become more sophisticated, and mostly these are positive advances: trainers gaining business skills, veterinary science making huge gains, our training methods evolving and expanding. But in one improvement of modern horsemanship, I miss the past. If I could un-do one small advancement of tools and resources, I might erase the invention of G.P.S. devices and gadgets.
Before G.P.S. was available on every phone and most watches, we had to guess the mileage of our conditioning rides by how they felt underneath us. Then, we verified them by the odometer in the truck. I remember experiencing the miles as we rode, knowing how to estimate based on the effort in my knees, or my horse’s energy level. I knew how long it took on average to cover four miles on trail, eight on gravel roads.
Our regular outings I knew by heart. When we added a side loop or altered our route, we guessed the length by comparing it to what we knew. Did that stretch of trotting feel like the two miles of Rainbow Ridge that started at a pond ringed by cattails and ended at the view down White Valley? Or was it more like the flat half- mile path through wildflowers in Mr. Bradshaw’s meadow?
After our rides, we cooled down the horses and gave them a scoop of grain before piling in the truck to drive our route with the odometer twirling up from zero. Since most of these outings followed the gravel back roads around our farm, we could access the majority by vehicle. Only a few sections of marshy woods did we have to leave to guesswork. I never tired of those post-ride excursions. Sitting on the bench seat of the old Dodge, often with my helmet still on, I relaxed in to this second perspective of the miles we just trotted and cantered. There was the neighbor’s barking dog that spooked my pony; there were the dwarf apple trees where I liked to pick her a treat; there was the tractor working harrows in a new cornfield. My dad drove the truck like a meditation, as if any wavering or quickness might miscalculate the measurement.
We did not particularly need to measure distances, but mostly it satisfied our curiosity. Also, when it came to our horses’ weekly training, we were devout record keepers. We logged length and intensity of every session from dressage lessons to 15-mile trail rides. Later, I could see how much this habit instilled in me a stewardship of my horse’s physical condition. Back then, it left me with an equally worthy sense. It tied me to the landscape. Our methodical drives in the truck taught me to pay attention and study the terrain. They revealed how the same section of trail, through different perspectives, unfolds uniquely. I learned to take note of landmarks, how each segment of road had distinct features.
All these years later, when we finish a ride we can look immediately at our wrists or the phone in our pocket for detailed specifications on our efforts. The feedback is not only instant but likely tons more accurate than any car odometer. To think such data would be gathered by a tiny wearable device was inconceivable in the days of my parents’ training logs. While the technology still seems futuristic to my old-fashioned sensibilities, I’m grateful for the accuracy and the other data besides mileage that gets collected: pace, elevation, heart rate stats. No matter how meditatively dad drove the truck, we never could have calibrated those.
Inarguably, my weekly training logs benefit from these advances. But I cannot help missing those old days which marked me with a spirit of observation, not to mention allowed me to savor a second indulgence of trails I just enjoyed moments earlier. I’ll admit that many times I would not mind the excuse to go right back out after a ride and re-experience the section of serenity and beauty we just traversed whether by car or bike or even another horse.
Alas, though, our modern gadgets prevent the need. Regardless, I do try to keep my spirit of observations strong. As we ride through the forests and coastal bluffs, I keep an informal tally of the miles I think we have covered, from daffodil clusters to vernal pools, from eucalyptus groves to sand dunes. It’s not that I intend to second- guess my G.P.S. data or that I hope to achieve a specific mileage. It is just that I try to stay rooted in the past by doing so. Feeling a ride this way is the surest way I know to absorb every mile fully.