The following is a presentation of an article that first appeared on 24 January 2019. In view of the beauty of its suggestions of the dance between rider and horse in the winter months, we thought it would be worth visiting once more. Herein Samantha King writes on what it means to work with a horse in a round pen. She suggests that the ultimate goal “should be to build a relationship of trust and communication with your horse.”
We spend time feeding, brushing, leading and riding our horses, but there is also a lot of value that can be gained by working with them in a round pen or at liberty, or free work.
There are many great trainers, books, blogs and videos about how this work can be done, so we won’t be discussing this here right now. What we will be exploring is what you may gain from trying this work with your horse.
You and your horse moving together on foot and hoof and trying to get a sense of each other is a beautiful dance.
You and your horse moving together on foot and hoof and trying to get a sense of each other is a beautiful dance. Your horse will look to you perhaps at first as a threat – remember we humans are predators by nature and horses are prey animals. The prey instinct in the horse may cause a flight or fight reaction in him/her so be ready for that, but not offended by it. This is a natural response of a prey animal.
The idea of this work is to gain the trust of your horse and to deepen your relationship. The horse may move away from you at first and that is okay. Encourage them to work away, keep your safety in mind, and then relax, remove your eye contact with the horse and see what happens. If the horse turns towards you that is a great sign as they are responding to you and inquiring as to what you want from them next. If your horse continues to work away from you, then you can continue to encourage that and then try removing your eye contact again. This may need to be repeated a few times until they turn towards you.
Once you know that you have your horse’s attention move a few steps away from the horse and if they are truly engaged and trusting you they will follow. Try not to have any treats on you during this work, as this should all be relationship building based on trust rather than food.
The horse may only take a few steps towards you. They may not come right up to you the first few times you try this, so remember to be patient. Horses will also respond to how you are feeling. If, for example, you are feeling stressed, anxious, angry, nervous or frustrated the horse will be less likely to approach you. If you are feeling this way, it is a good idea to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. Reflect on what you are trying to achieve with this work. If you do not have the time or patience to do it today, take the prudent route and end the session to try it when you are in the right mind set.
When the horse does approach you and comes right up to you this is the most wonderful gesture. Make physical contact with your hands in a place that is soothing for your horse (if they are head shy for example place your hand on their shoulder, neck or chest). Eventually the goal is that you can touch their forehead and they will lower their head for this contact. This contact should be gentle and transmit a calm, safe and welcoming energy to the horse.
If this is going well you can continue to connect with your horse physically by touching them all over their body. If they move away from you, just take note of that, do not take it personally, and allow the movement away.
This groundwork is about learning about each other, building trust and developing a new level of relationship...
This is part of the dance. Neither of you should feel trapped, scared, nervous or frustrated. This groundwork is about learning about each other, building trust and developing a new level of relationship that you may not get when riding.
My daughter has a new pony for the 2019 season and she has taken to leading him around the arena before beginning her ride. This calms them both in preparation for their ride. They trust each other, toe to hoof, as they build their new partnership.
As always, please check with your coach or trainer before trying this work. Check out some videos and books on groundwork, working at liberty, round pen training and “join up” before you start so that you can learn more about the body language of the horse and humans. I also recommend “The Tao of Equus” by Linda Kohanov as one of the groundbreaking and pioneering books on equine assisted therapy and the horse-human connection.
WHO IS SAMANTHA KING?
At the height of her business, she had many horses and students competing in eventing and hunter/jumper on the schooling, Trillium and A Circuits. Aside from her own stables in Oakville and then Georgetown, Samantha has taught riding at Sunnybrook Stables (Toronto), The Riding Academy at the Horse Palace (Toronto), Southlands (in Vancouver), and Stonewood Riding Academy (Pickering). She continues to be involved with horses as the Mum of an 11-year-old rider who competes on the Trillium Circuit, judging a few schooling shows and loves to teach whenever she can!