Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Problem with Round Penning

In the above video, researchers worked with the pony Myff to join up with the radio-controlled car by using rewarding her for not running away from the car.

Experiment 1:
In a repeat of the experiment with Blessi, he at first stared
at the car .  Due to  experimenter error, I had not tested
the car on the tarp and it simply spun in place.
Round penning is a method used by many natural horsemanship trainers in which a horse is driven forward around a round pen at multiple gaits.  Monty Roberts is world renowned for his Join-Up® technique.  Based on years of observation of horse behavior, Roberts works with a horse in the round pen and uses his body language to drive the horse away, just like a dominant horse.  When the horse exhibits signs that he is willing to cooperate, Roberts adapts his body position to encourage the horse to approach him and create a human-horse bond.  Some recent research has called into question the dynamics of this process.

Experiment 1:
This did turn out to be a good lesson on tarp
desensitization as the win and Blessi moved
the tarp around.
Researchers at the University of Sydney developed an experiment in which a remote controlled toy car was used in place of a trainer in a round pen.  When the horse stopped moving away from the toy car, it was rewarded by having the toy car stop following it.  By using the remote-controlled toy car to apply or take away pressure, the researchers were able to train the horse to approach the car—hence “mimicking” the human bonding process of Join-Up®.  Since no human-horse bond was possible, the experiment demonstrates that the horse responds due to operant conditioning and not from the creation of a human bond through the use of equine body language. 

Experiment 2:
I put the radio-controlled car on a rug with some
traction.  Blessi quckly was very interested
in how the car moved.
As Cath Henshall (University of Sydney) states, "Put simply, pressure-release works because the horse finds the pressure applied unpleasant and therefore the removal of the pressure rewarding… Although neither Monty Roberts' method nor ours uses pressure applied directly to the horse's body, both apply a form of emotional pressure by scaring and then chasing the horse.  Our results indicate that because these methods rely on fear and safety, the horse is forced to choose between being repeatedly frightened or remaining with the trainer. We question whether it is humane to rely on fear and its termination to train horses."  

Experiment 2:
Blessi thought the car was great fun and even
pushed it with his nose when it stopped moving.
In a discussion about round penning and the Icelandic horse on the International Icelandic Horse Yahoo Group (IIHYG), list posters gave examples of some of the draw backs of using escalating pressure in a round pen with Iceland horses.  Many of them, myself included, have had problems round penning Icelandic horses using too much pressure.  Another set of researchers, Koster D, Wegert AC, et al. (2009), also looked at round penning to see how much horses exhibit chase-and-bond behavior among themselves  They put mares and their offspring into a round pen to see how often the mare "round penned" her offspring.  Very little of such behavior was observed.  From the center of the round pen, mares chased offspring for about .27 % of the test period, which works out to 3.9 minutes in a 24-hour period.   Mares tended to pursue colts more than fillies.  : "The results of this and other studies have shown that the responses elicited from human-horse interactions in round-yards are not reflected in horse-horse interactions."  

The round pen is just a tool and not all trainers use the round pen in the same way.  As the Natural Horsemanship trainer John Lyons (2006) states, “Training in a round pen means different things to different people, and there are plenty of misconceptions about it.  The reality is that there’s no mystical connection with a horse in the round pen.  A round pen is simply a corral without corners.” Lyons recommends uses the round pen to teach the horse specific cues such as go to the left or go to the right —not for running the horse around until it is tired. 
Experiment 2:
I put a carrot on top of the car.  Blessi "bonded"
with the car and started following it
around as it moved.

As Josh Nichol elucidates, “...the first thing folks should work on in the round pen is understanding their horse's thoughts. Unfortunately, a great many people have been taught that the first thing you do in the round pen is ‘show the horse who's boss’ by forcing the horse's body to do various movements. This completely ignores the brain of the horse, shuts him out of any conversation, and often leads to a frightening and exhausting experience for him. …All of this is exactly the opposite of what I want to be in my horse's mind. I want my horse to know that he has the freedom to try to find the right answer when I ask a question, and that even if he doesn't get it right immediately, that's truly okay. I want him to know that if I use any pressure, it is only to help guide him towards the right answer - something horses really do understand.”

The International Icelandic Horse Yahoo Group (IIHYG) posters went on to discuss other methods that work well with Icelandics such as clicker training and using a round pen as a guide to shape horse movement both inside and outside the pen.  As this discussion demonstrates, it important for the owners of the Icelandic horse, or any horse for that manner, to understand how round penning is being used as a tool and why a horse is responding—is it due to positive reinforcement, release from pressure, or avoidance of fear.  As Koster D, Wegert AC, et al. (2009) summarize their research on round penning, “The welfare of horses being subjected to round-yard training methods may often be jeopardized by trainers having unrealistic expectations based on incorrect assumptions that the behavior exhibited mimics that of the horse-horse interactions in more natural environments.” 

You can join the International Icelandic Horse Yahoo Group at:

Koster D, Wegert AC, et al. (2009).  Training horses in round-yards 2.  Proceedings of the Fifth International Equitation Science Symposium, Sydney

Lyons, J., & Gallatin, M.  (2006)  Connecting in the Round Pen, Perfect Horse, Volume 11, No. 7.

Nichols, J. (n.d.) The Round Pen: It's The Thought that Counts” available at:
University of Sydney. (July 13, 2012).  Researchers urge rethink of 'Monty Roberts' horse training method, Found at

University of Sydney. (July 13, 2012).  Researchers urge rethink of 'Monty Roberts' horse training method, Found at

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