Round Pen Rationale

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It’s a simple concept, really; hook some panels together in a circle and “Voila”! Round pen.

Well-known trainers such as John Lyons and Monty Roberts use them, and now for many other trainers—whether English or Western—the round pen has become a valuable weapon in the training arsenal.

The small, portable, circular arena is gaining popularity because, like many things that appear very basic on the surface, there’s more to round-pen reasoning than first meets the eye. The round pen meets that necessary 21st-century requirement: it’s one great multitasker.

A Meeting Place

“The biggest advantage of round pens is that they provide a non-threatening area,” says Dwayne Job, owner of System Fencing, Stalls and Equipment in Rockwood, Canada. “The non-resistance trainers have made them very popular and folks who attend their clinics think, ‘I’ve got to get one, too.’ The pens are great because horses don’t get trapped in the corners and can race around in circles until they calm down. Now, many trainers think they simply can’t work properly until they have a round pen.”

Job also likes the mobility factor: During the winter, just transport the pen inside.

Famous “Join-Up” trainer Monty Roberts of Solvang, California, is a big name who has helped increase round-pen sales.

Sure, you can work in a rectangle, says Roberts, but “It’s very inconvenient for the horse to have corners to run into. It stops the energy flow.”

One solution: With a square pen, place panels across each corner at a 45-degree angle, and you’ve created an octagon with eight sides instead of four. And it’s fine to use the round pen for long-lining, which keeps the horse bilaterally symmetrical.

Before You Buy…

John Lyons of Parachute, Colorado, estimates that he’s worked some 4,000 horses in the round pen, and after some hard lessons learned about safety and construction, he now markets his own. He’s spent a lot of quality time analyzing round pens and has written some round-pen purchasing tips that make good sense for any would-be buyer, whether they choose his or another brand.

Open pipe panels are preferable, says Lyons and many other trainers, versus solid-walled ones. Horses may try to climb out of a solid pen, kick through or slide a foot under. The “claustrophobia factor” is also worth considering. Plus, solid walls tend to remove the horse from distractions, the kind that realistically will occur when the walls aren’t there. Finally, solid walls are heavier and more challenging for the owner to move.

Lyons suggests that buyers first consider materials, and try and find the most rust-proof materials available—most commonly painted steel, galvanized pipe, or in his case, aluminized steel. Be aware, he advises, that the first two types are heavy, a consideration if you’ll be moving your pen.

Height is also an issue—if the pen isn’t tall enough, a horse can try and jump over it. Six feet is recommended by most professionals. Consider the height of the bottom rail, also, as it needs to be far enough off the ground so that if the horse is running at a slant on the circle, his feet can’t get trapped under that rail.

Other details: don’t ignore pipe width; two inches may be the optimum diameter. Panels can range from 8 to 12 feet in length; vertical center supports need to be visibly stronger than the horizontal bars. And, be sure to evaluate welds.

Lyons likes the 60-foot-diameter round pen, but other trainers opt for 50 feet. All say that horses can travel on the wrong lead in a pen that’s too wide. Conversely, a too-small pen can create tension in the horse because he feels trapped. Most experts agree that the 50- to 60-foot size allows a horse to develop optimum bend, good collection and balance.

Square corners on the panels are a must, since rounded shapes can form a “V” that might catch a horse’s foot in the wedge. Lyons’ corners are welded for extra strength. All rails need to be far enough apart, suggests Lyons, so a horse can put his head through and not get it, or a foot, stuck.

What’s the most popular mechanism to hold rails together? Many trainers prefer a drop-pin system, which is quicker than clamped panels. This can be an issue if a horse gets stuck and quick disassembly is required. Lyons also puts a kicker leg—a U-shaped foot at the end of each panel—designed to keep panels from sinking in the mud. Then, consider the gate, its strength and portability; ideally, you’ll want to be able to position it anywhere in the circle, easily and quickly.

Now that you’ve got the basics, you’re ready to shop. Expect to pay in the range of $1,000 to $2,000 for your versatile small arena. In addition to Lyons, check out some manufacturers and distributors listed in the box. An Internet search will give you even more choices and locally, your farm supply store will likely have a good selection.

Pens Prove Versatility

In his latest book, “From My Hands to Yours,” Roberts espouses using the round pen without longeing.

“In the round pen, you’re executing the same maneuver (as longeing) without tugging on top of the horse’s head or nose. When you do that [longeing], the horse will travel with its head to the outside of the circle in an attempt to balance up, and that throws the spine in the wrong arc. He grows up with bones and ligaments that are not symmetrical.”

Roberts likes the round pen for its free exercise capabilities: “The horse is immensely better off. There tends to be far less cross-cantering.”

At Doe Valley Ranch in Guffey, Colorado, co-owner Anne Cole raises Connemara ponies; she’s also a Level III Centered riding instructor. When a foal is approximately six months old, into the pen it goes with the dam to prep the youngster for weaning day when it will spend time alone in the same location.

“It’s really based on John Lyons’ work,” explains Cole. “I get the horses to move away from me, to run one direction, then the other.” The first time she halters a foal, it’s done in the round pen. “I teach them to lead, to back up and more in there. It’s an easy space to deal with.”

She also likes that it teaches horses to bend, because…it’s round. “I use it more than I use other areas for longeing. And, for beginning riders who are worried about a horse taking off, it gives them a wonderful feeling of security, even if the horse doesn’t need it.”

Cole leveled her round pen area with a tractor and brought in sand for footing. Of course, it does require periodic leveling of the track. Some facility owners simply use a rake.

Joan Ramey of Ramey Stables in Rockport, Indiana, won’t teach beginners outside of the round pen. She starts her insecure beginning riders in Western saddles, then graduates them to English.

“They all have longe-line lessons in the round pen; the first lessons are always there,” reports Ramey. “I don’t believe you can start a riding program like mine until you have a round pen: I didn’t have an arena when I started my barn, but I got a round pen.”

She utilizes ash from a local power plant as her footing of choice: “It’s like sand, but it really compacts well,” Ramey says.

At the Wil Howe Ranch in Richland, Oregon, self-described “cowboy, horseman and philosopher” Howe appreciates that round-pen panels “give some,” and aren’t permanently secured in the ground, helpful when a horse runs into them. “Also, most states won’t tax your corral as a property improvement, because it’s portable,” he says. Howe, too, markets his own round pens.

If you’ve been considering making this relatively small investment, perhaps now is the time. Undoubtedly you, too, will discover a multitude of applications that will contribute in many positive ways to the management and success of your facility’s operation. Like your facility-managing counterparts, you may soon covet the round-pen as your one “must-have” amenity.