Many horse trainers, particularly those who employ natural horsemanship, advocate round pen training as a panacea for a variety of undesirable equine behaviors ranging from bucking to refusing to be caught. However, not all round pen training styles are alike. While some seasoned trainers practice very effective round pen techniques, round pen training in the hands of some amateurs might do more harm for a horse than good.

In an effort to understand best practice in round pen training, Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVSc (Animal Welfare), Cert CABC, animal behavior and welfare science professor at the University of Sydney, recently led a team that investigated round pen training techniques and outcomes among both professional and amateur horse trainers. He presented what they learned at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science Conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The researchers first reviewed 300 YouTube videos of round pen training and noted that most sessions can be split into bouts with two basic phases: chasing and flight, and chasing offset and flight offset. They then selected videos of 24 amateurs and 21 professionals for inclusion in the study based on video quality, training at liberty in a round pen, and performing more than one bout. Horses could not be saddle or attached to a longe line.

“We looked at horses’ responses (e.g., so-called submissive behavior) to chasing and non-chasing and what trainers did during chasing and non-chasing,” such as verbal cues and arm movements, said McGreevy. “We also recorded the number and duration of each chasing and non-chasing phase and the duration of the round pen training session as a whole.”

The results showed that:

  • When compared with amateurs, professionals showed fewer arm movements per bout;
  • Professionals spent more time looking at their horses during gait transitions than amateurs did;
  • Horses handled by professionals showed fewer conflict behaviors (such as kicking, biting, stomping, head-tossing, defecating, bucking, and trying to escape), particularly at the canter and gallop, than horses handled by amateurs; and
  • Horses handled by professionals also exhibited fewer so-called submissive behaviors (such as head-lowering, licking, and chewing) than those handled by amateurs.

“In essence, these data show that conflict behaviors are more likely in horses showing so-called submission,” McGreevy explained. “One possible explanation is that horses exhibiting conflict behaviors were being chased persistently.”

He said this emphasizes the importance of using subtle cues and having very precise timing when practicing negative reinforcement techniques in round pen training. In other words, as soon as the horse correctly reacts to the trainer’s pressure, he or she should stop applying it. The study showed that professionals are generally more skilled at this, carefully observing the horse and chasing less than amateurs, he added.

“To safeguard horse welfare, chasing must be minimized and triggered with subtle cues,” McGreevy said, adding that this aligns with the best practice of leading round pen practitioners.