Square Peg, Round Hole


I am a big fan of thinking for one’s self; there is a ton of one-sided misinformation out there pertaining to horsemanship, all dressed up asthe answer and readily available for our consumption. But don’t just take somebody’s word for it, think it all the way through, imagine as many possible outcomes as you can and compare it to what your own experiences have already taught you. Maybe there is some good in there but perhaps some pitfalls too.

                             …SOMETIMES MEANS ASKING YOUR HORSE.

Normally I refrain from commenting on other horsemanship theories unless they seem cruel or abusive but recently something came across my Facebook news feed that I thought was a bit misleading. After seeing the comments that followed I decided I should at least put out the other side as food for thought.

  It concerns round pens vs square pens, or picaderos. Personally, I use them both. Both are great tools. So is an axe. You can split a winter’s worth of firewood with an axe or break down the door of a burning building and rescue a child. Or you can accidentally chop off your toes. The axe is neutral; the wielder is not. The same can be said of pens used to work horses at liberty.

The linked article contained all the valid points for using the pic correctly; essentially the slow, conditioned balancing or rebalancing of the horse (and I would add one other—I sometimes use a square pen on an older horse that has never been touched. It gives him a place to look away and rest mentally when I am first trying to connect with him). The article also pointed to a lot of valid criticisms of the round pen and lead rope when used incorrectly; essentially that horses chased around with lead ropes and in round pens develop fear, an inward leaning brace and pain. It also contained nonsense; horses never circle out in the natural world?! Come on, anyone who is observant and who has raised horses out in wide open spaces can tell you that one of the earliest ventures toward his independence is when a colt goes out from his dam and runs in a circle around her, usually stopping, pivoting and going the opposite direction before he’s done. The distance from mom often grows as the colt does. Those circles are mighty round too.

My point is this; the shape of the pen is only relevant to its intended use. The rest of it is up to you, the wielder. If the way you are using your round pen causes your horse to feel chased he can certainly develop a brace. If you use it too long and too fast, it can cause pain. It should be all about offering a horse an opportunity to slow down and find softness—to make that inner connection with you. It is the same with your lead rope. 

If your intent is pure and the circumstances are right, a round pen is a valuable tool. It allows your horse to choose to connect with you at a distance from which he feels safe to do so. You can start to build a bridge. Picaderos allow you to refine that connection and polish it. But I would add this; if you are the sort who chases your horse in a round pen (and without pure intent you can “chase” a horse at any gait, even a walk), you will probably chase him in the square pen too. Changing pen shapes won’t do you much good. You’ll slam him into corners and maybe put a lean in the other way. You may even get a hind foot that reaches out instead of under. So ask your horse what works for him. He may say square or round or have a different answer altogether. Using a different tool incorrectly won’t necessarily fix anything. It isn’t about the tool, it’s about the wielder.