If you are in the market for a round pen, look at a variety of round pens at different barns. Talking with trainers will help you discover what they like and don’t like about their round pens and how they use them. In this article we do just that: We talk with professionals in the horse industry to find out what makes a round pen useful. Should you buy or build one? What size and construction material are most important? What footing is best, and how should it be maintained?
Matt Livengood, of Nampa, Idaho, is a ranch riding and ranch trail instructor specializing in basic horsemanship skills who works with riders at a variety of ages and levels. He’s also a multi-carded judge with National Reining Horse Association, National Reined Cow Horse Association, and American Quarter Horse Association specialties. Matt has competed in several mustang challenge events, which involve starting a wild horse and getting him ready for competition under saddle in 100 days. Further, Livengood is a show steward, a show manager, andworks part-time at a regional feed store selling livestock products. Full disclosure here: This credentialed guy is also my husband. (I talked to two “Matts” for this piece, so I’ll refer to both by their last names to avoid confusion).
“I use a round pen for establishing a relationship, understanding body language, and to facilitate groundwork and respect with the horse,” explained Livengood. The smaller confines of a round pen and lack of corners make it a safe space for longing, liberty work, establishing trust, and desensitizing to new and scary objects.
“At the feed store where I work, many people ask what size round pen they should they get,” he said. “My answer is it depends on what you plan to use it for.” A standard round pen is usually around 50 to 60 feet in diameter ( “If it’s riding you want it for, you will need it to be at least 50 feet, but 60 or 65 feet is better, as that creates less bend and therefore less torque on the horse’s inside joints.”
As far as material choices, round pens can have either wood or metal panels. “A wood round pen is permanent,” said Livengood. “Once you put it in, it’s as big as it’s going to be, and it’s where it’s going to be.” Metal panels give you flexibility, and you can add or take away panels to make your pen bigger or smaller. “And you can shift the location—or even take it with you if you someday move to a new location,” as evidenced by the fact that we moved from western Washington to southwestern Idaho with our cherished round pen in tow.
Metal panels come in 10-, 12-, and 16-foot lengths. “Twelve-foot is the most common, as it is more manageable,” said Livengood. “Ten-foot is just too small and requires more panels to make your pen.”
Matt Zimmerman, of Caldwell, Idaho, is a colt starter, horse trainer, and nationally recognized mustang trainer. Zimmerman has competed in 20 Extreme Mustang Makeovers and has won or been in the top 10 every time. In 2019 he was the poster child for the Bureau of Land Management’s Extreme Mustang Makeover season, featured on the year’s calendar of Extreme Mustang Makeover events. Zimmerman’s well-organized facility contains indoor and outdoor arenas, roping pens, a unique assortment of challenging trail obstacles, and a collection of round pens.
“I use round pens to do a lot of the foundation groundwork with horses,” said Zimmerman. “Through round pen work I can get control of their feet and then their mind—and can keep things safe that way. The percentage of successes in establishing a solid foundation is very high with this approach.”
Zimmerman said he finds varying round pen sizes useful. “A 40-foot round pen is ideal for horses that are lazy or for where you are doing a lot of footwork,” he said. “Usually we start our horses in a round pen of this size. Too big of a pen and you are (expending energy and) just not going to see results. The larger sized round pens, 50, 60, or 70 feet, are generally used when riding. They give you more room, and it’s not too tight of a bend so that a horse can actually canter or lope.”
Zimmerman’s preferred style of riding round pen is one that protects the rider’s legs. “When I was a kid, we had a square pen built with railroad ties. When I was starting young horses, they often ran my knees into the railroad ties. With that in mind, for riding I prefer wood round pens with sides that tip out,” he said, adding that he builds this type of wooden pen with a slight angle to the sides. “Young horses tend to hug the fence, and when the wall tips out like this it will save the rider’s leg, making everything safer.”
To build in this type of slope, Zimmerman uses a level on every post, putting the bubble on the outside of one line.
Another option is a round pen with some type of solid wall. “Some metal panel pens have solid metal sheeting at the bottom of the panel,” he said. “This keeps dirt in the pen, and it protects the horse’s feet and legs from accidentally getting caught in the bottom part of the fence, which can be especially important when working with completely wild mustangs. You can even create this yourself with used conveyor belting and self-tapping screws.”
A solid or nearly solid fence also helps discourages horses from jumping out; the thought is if they cannot see what is on the other side, then they are less likely to try jumping. A disadvantage to solid-wall round pens is that in colder climates, “the south facing section of a solid wall round pen will stay frozen in the winter. And north facing sections can be slick,” Zimmerman said. Either of these points could render a round pen unusable in winter.
“Keep in mind, if you have a solid wall round pen and you think the horse is going to come at you, you need to have a way out of there,” Zimmerman cautioned. Mustangs tend to be more fear-based (than domestics), and some, in an attempt to defend themselves, can be aggressive. “You don’t want to have something that you can’t climb up quickly if you will be working with mustangs.”
A 6-foot-high (another requirement if you are considering adopting a mustang from a BLM facility), five-rail design discourages horses from jumping out, and most adult horse can’t reach their head through it.
Equally important is the construction of the panels and how they are assembled. Tops of the panels should meet squarely (instead of being curved) so a rambunctious youngster can’t rear up and get a foot stuck between the panels—with disastrous consequences. “Anytime you can think of a place where a horse can get hurt, it’s likely to happen at some point,” said Zimmerman. “You just want to eliminate any opportunity for injury to the horse—or rider.”
Erin Jorgensen, of Kent, Washington, has been a dressage instructor and trainer for 20 years. She is also a USDF “L” judge graduate with distinction and a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist, along with having an master’s degree psychology and being a certified health and life coach for people.
Jorgensen uses a round pen in four ways. First, “longing a horse in a round pen allows the horse to have an even circle so they are not drifting in or out,” she explained. Jorgensen often uses trot poles here and keeps horses on a longe line “so the horse doesn’t lean on the longe line,” she explained. “In winter, horses might need a riderless warm-up. Some of my upper-level horses can be very volatile in the wintertime.”
In these cases, Jorgensen often uses different types of surcingles to help horses round properly while working the edge off them. “Longing is always a training opportunity; it should not be a free-for-all, because that is how they get hurt.”
Her second reason for using a round pen is to start young horses. “It is a smaller space that they are already familiar with from earlier training,” she said. “Horses feel safe in there, and then they can learn to open the gate and eventually we get to the big arena that way.”
Jorgensen also uses the round pen “for timid riders. If the big 70-by-200-foot arena is intimidating, they are often more comfortable in the smaller space of a round pen.”
Her fourth use of round pens is for longe line lessons. “When someone wants to work on their position and seat, we go in the round pen because there the rider doesn’t have reins and usually I keep the horse on a longe line,” she said.
Jorgensen’s wood post-and-rail round pen is 60 feet in diameter and 5 feet tall, with two wood rails. It has an asphalt base made from compacted asphalt grindings. “Over the top of that I put ‘dirty sand’ (sand with fines or smaller particles mixed in) because it will knit together better and seal the base,” she said. “On top of that is pulverized rubber, tires ground to the size of very fine sand.” The whole base is graded and sloped slightly for drainage.
Jorgensen prefers the slight slop versus crowning, which pushes water to the rail.
She chose a 60-foot diameter because “it fits Warmbloods nicely and it’s also what fit into the space I had available. Plus, I didn’t have to take out a tree to accommodate it.”
Jorgensen drags the pen to maintain at least 2 inches of loose sand with an ATV that fits through the 12-foot gate. She hand-rakes the sand from the sides, and in the summer she waters it with a sprinkler.
Livengood agrees that when it comes to round pen placement, you “want it convenient.” Our big 65-foot round pen is between the main barn and the boarders’ barn. We also have a 45-foot round pen inside our indoor arena, placed so riders can work around it. Like any other structure on your property, you want your round pen on high, level ground. “Otherwise it may become unusable in a rain or snow event,” said Livengood.
“If you are choosing metal panels, choose a brand that’s easy to set up and manage,” Livengood suggested. “Butterfly clamps or pins are likely to be the strongest. Make sure you have gates large enough to drive equipment in so you can maintain footing. With a panel round pen you can always pull a panel open to drive equipment through.”
Zimmerman agrees that good footing is key. “I like to have a sand base,” he said. “If you have clay base and it rains, it can get slick. Going into the pen I try to have an 8-foot gate so it’s accessible by all our equipment—tractor, arena groomer, or drag.”
For convenience, Zimmerman has located his round pens adjacent to where the mustangs are stalled or penned.
A good round pen can be expensive, but it also can be an excellent investment with many uses, from starting and working green horses to free-longing and exercising broke horses and even for limited turnout or pony rides with nonhorsey friends. As Zimmerman said, “When you buy quality, the value doesn’t depreciate. And it provides a great first impression.”