In the natural horsemanship training technique of round penning, popularized by Monty Roberts’ Join-Up method, a horse is put at liberty in a round yard with a trainer who moves the horse around and allows it to rest if it displays certain behaviour deemed to be submissive. The goal in round penning is for the horse to follow the trainer (Kydd et al, 2017), which is seen as evidence that the horse has trust and respect for the trainer as its leader (Fenner et al, 2019). The emphasis of round pen techniques is on the human becoming the horse’s leader.
Round pen trainers claim it is: natural because it is based on horses’ interactions with other horses; effective because the trainer mimics a dominant horse’s body language; achieves submission of the horse, along with trust and respect; and ethological (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). This article explores these claims.
Many trainers credit observing horse interactions in both free-ranging and domestic herds with the development of their round pen techniques (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). However, in a round penning session, there is a focus on agonistic (aggressive or threatening) behaviour as the trainer moves the horse, whereas studies have concluded that horses are more likely to show avoidance than aggression where given the option. There is a higher rate of agonistic interactions between domestic horses than feral herds, probably because domestic horses do not choose their own herd. Observing these encounters may have influenced this impression of equine interaction.
These trainers also say they’ve observed a fixed social order, maintained through agonistic behaviour, where an older mare leads the herd and makes the decisions (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). This is a very simplistic view of herd hierarchy, as evidenced by the multitude of studies that disagree with one another about horses’ social hierarchy (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). Some have observed a linear hierarchy, where one horse is at the top and one is at the bottom and all the others are in order in-between. Some observe a triangular hierarchy, where each horse is above and below other horses. Further, while one horse may consistently eat or drink first, any horse can initiate movement or change the activity of the herd. In bachelor bands, which are not mentioned by developers of round pen methods, there is no mare to be the leader, yet activity comparable to harem bands still takes place, along with the same avoidance of aggressive contact (Kydd et al, 2017).
In fact, affiliative (friendly) interactions are more frequently seen in horse herds than agonistic behaviour. Proximity to other horses and mutual grooming have been shown to be important in maintaining the integrity of a herd. The most common affiliative behaviour shown to horses in round pen techniques is rubbing the forehead, which is not seen in horses grooming each other, and prevents the horse from reciprocating, which could limit the relevance of the reward (Kydd et al, 2017).
Body language is said to be extremely important in round penning, because this is how horses communicate. However, Henshall et al (2012) showed by training a horse to follow a radio controlled car in a round pen that a trainer’s use of body language has less effect on the outcome of the training than claimed. Rather, negative reinforcement (removal of pressure for a desired response) is more likely to be responsible for the horse learning to follow the trainer.
The four factors of body language which are said to facilitate the horse’s response to its trainer are the use of chasing, the direction of the trainer’s gaze, the trainer’s posture, and their speed of approach.
In horse-horse interactions, chasing is rare and is short-lived. It stops once the chased horse is far enough away, rather than continuing until signs of submission (or exhaustion) are shown, as in the round pen. In a round pen, the horse cannot get farther away from the chasing, and fear responses associated with the thwarted attempt to escape could be mistaken by the trainer for disrespect and be punished (Fenner et al, 2019).
The direction of the trainer’s gaze is said to be important, but round pen trainers are not agreed on whether looking directly at the horse sends it away or draws it towards the trainer (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). In studies on the effect of gaze, looking directly at the horse or away from it made no difference in the likelihood of the horse to approach the handler. It was also found that horses could be trained to recognize the direction of a human’s gaze and respond by either approaching or leaving.
Similar results were found with posture. An upright, more aggressive posture versus a rounded, submissive posture had no effect on horses’ likelihood of approaching a handler (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014).
The only agreement, then, between ethological research and round pen training techniques is the speed of the trainer’s approach. A slow, circuitous approach to both naive and trained horses was significantly less likely to result in flight than a faster, direct approach (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014).
In the round pen, the trainer releases pressure for behaviours he thinks are ‘submissive’, such as lowering the head and licking and chewing. Therefore, it seems like round penning is based on the learning theory principle of negative reinforcement rather than on equine interaction. In negative reinforcement, pressure is removed for the desired response.
When unfamiliar horse dyads were placed in a round pen and their behaviour towards one another observed (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014), avoidance was the most common response. Licking and chewing was not observed being directed at another horse, but was only performed when facing away from the other horse. Chasing was rare, and following not observed.
Licking and chewing is commonly interpreted as either the horse being submissive or thinking about what it is learning. If this were so, we would expect to see licking and chewing displayed as a signal to other horses to avoid agonistic encounters, but this does not happen (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). An alternative explanation is that the horse is undergoing a shift from its sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic, resulting from a reduction of stress (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). This occurs, for example, when the trainer stops chasing the horse. Stress inhibits learning and reduces motivation, although studies have not yet shown what threshold of stress begins to be detrimental. It is known that some level of arousal is needed for learning to occur, so keeping stress levels to a minimum would be a good practice for maximum learning.
Many natural horsemanship trainers claim that their method is based in ethology, however not one of them mentions the work of an ethologist to support this claim (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). It seems that if a horse responds to a trainer as it would to another horse the method is labelled ethological. This means that humans must act like horses to be successful in training.
Because round pen training is often used to prepare a horse to be ridden, it is also questionable how relevant it is for the horse to learn that its trainer acts like a horse, as when the riding point is reached there is no similar horse-horse interaction, and no way the trainer can continue acting like a horse (Fowler et al, 2012).
If the goal of round penning is for the horse to recognize its trainer as the leader, a test of the efficacy of this approach would be to see if the horse displays the behaviours learned in the round pen in other contexts. Kreuger (2007) demonstrated that the behaviours generally considered to be signs of submission do not transfer from the round pen to a field. This shows it is context-specific behaviour and therefore unlikely to be due to dominance and submission and more likely to be a learned response to cues given by the trainer.
The logical conclusion of the stated outcomes of round pen training is ‘successful trainers are dominant leaders.’ This results in failures of training being seen as a lack of respect on the horse’s part, or as a result of the trainer not behaving like a leader. These thought patterns can increase risk of injury to the horse and trainer because the trainer can be tempted to chase more to achieve the desired outcomes, even though following is not correlated with the time spent chasing (Kydd et al, 2017). This way of thinking about round penning can also reduce the horse’s welfare, as a horse that is perceived as disrespectful is likely to be treated accordingly. Further, fear behaviour in the round pen, such as kicking, bucking, running, and attempting to escape can be perceived as disrespect and be punished, which only makes the horse more fearful (Fenner et al, 2019).
It seems, then, that the results gained from round penning can be attributed to the learning theory processes of habituation, and operant and classical conditioning rather than the trainer becoming a higher ranking member of the horse’s herd.
Round penning can produce training results in the horse, but it does not produce respect and trust, as claimed by natural horsemanship trainers. It also has the potential to cause harm. Horses trained in this way by amateurs are more likely to display conflict behaviours, and those trained by professionals show less ‘submissive’ behaviour (Kydd et al, 2017). This could be because professionals use less pressure to move the horse and pay more attention to the signals the horse is giving, thereby reducing the level of stress the horse experiences.
After a horse is trained using operant conditioning to accelerate and decelerate reliably, a round pen can be used safely because corrections for responses not under stimulus control can be made, thus not allowing the horse to practice flight or fear.
Round pen training is often advocated by laypeople as a fix-all for issues such as bucking, not leading, not being caught, and not standing still (Kydd et al, 2017). Some of these behaviours are linked to confusion in acceleration responses, while others are linked to deceleration, or to conflict (McLean, 2004). It is hard to see how a method that reinforces approaching a trainer should be effective in treating behaviours with such varied causes. Rather, round pen training should be viewed as a way to establish stimulus control in the horse.
When viewed this way, failures in training are due to failures in the application of learning theory, and the most successful trainers are the ones who understand how horses learn. This frees the trainer from having to act the part of a leader if that isn’t their personality, and returns the horse to its proper place, an innocent participant in the training process.
Henshall C and McGreevy P. (2014) The Role of Ethology in Round Pen Horse Training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science V. 155.
Henshall C, Padalino B, and McGreevy, P. (2012) The radio-controlled car as herd leader? A preliminary study of escape and avoidance learning in the round-pen. Proceedings of the 8th ISES conference, 92:p157
Krueger, K. (2007). Behaviour of horses in the roundpen technique. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104, 162-170.
Kydd E, Padalino B, Henshall C, McGreevy P. (2017) An analysis of equine round pen training videos posted online: Differences between amateur and professional trainers. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184851. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0184851
Fenner K, Mclean A, McGreevy P. (2019) Cutting to the chase: How round-pen, lunging and high-speed liberty work may compromise horse welfare. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 29 pp88-94. doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2018.05.003.
Fowler V, Kennedy M, Marlin D. (2012) A Comparison of the Monty Roberts technique with a Conventional UK Technique for Initial Training Riding Horses. Anthrozoös 25:3 pp 301-321.
McLean A. (2004) Behaviour problems in the domestic horse—associations with dysfunctions in negative reinforcement. University of Melbourne and the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre.