The round pen for me is where the world slows down. It is my meditation. The art of conversing with the horse on their terms, there are no directions, no script, just following body language, learning how to listen, to figure out what that horse is FEELING. They don’t string together thoughts, they can’t overthink it, just feel it. I can’t remember any rational thought I’ve ever had in a round pen because, for a moment, I stop overthinking, I stop evaluating everything, and go off the feeling. My students will often watch and I will have to explain how I did something different for one horse, but the truth is sometimes I won’t have an exact explanation, it isn’t a command, it isn’t a learned behavior, it is what I felt in the moment. Maybe I felt that they felt trapped a bit in their shoulder so I will step towards or away to help or to create room. That feeling is what I want my students to feel, not think, just feel.
Horses help us not by bringing our awareness out of ourselves but instead dig a bit deeper, past the anxiety, past the overthinking, and becoming more aware of the way our bodies are communicating, the energy that is coming off of us. They can’t read our thoughts, but they sure can read our energy. The movement of a shoulder, the intention of moving towards or away, the breath, where our energy is directed. They understand the intention.
Once horses feel heard, they will extend the same grace to us. When I was just starting to “train” horses I was asked to work with a thoroughbred who was spicy and had been sitting for a while. With her owner, she would hop up with her front legs, not fully rear but threatening to. Her rider was by no means fearful, but even pushing her through it constantly she would not stop.
When she came to me she did the same thing. I took her in the round pen before I truly appreciated its worth and let her run. It was like she got to say everything she'd been wanting to say, and have a moment to “let it out” the same way we do when we go to therapy. A good therapist isn’t scared of our anger they tell us to get it out. She was running a bit mad, a bit intimidating to watch.
This mare had a lot of pent up anger to get out, instead of shying away from it I waited patiently, some innate feeling told me she needed this. Finally, she lowered her head, slowed down, and stopped while my back was to her. She came into the middle and rested her head with my back. I wish I had pictures of this moment because it was one of the most impactful moments of my life. I had learned about joining up in the past, and knew the overall “technique” but this time it wasn’t off of technique it was off of feeling.
I didn’t look at it as a “submission” but instead as a thank you. Have you ever been with someone who just let you cry? They didn’t shy away from it, but invited it, encouraged it? That is the feeling I like to think she felt.
From that day forward, she stopped all of the behavior she had prior, she stopped being barn sour, walked into the ring with ease, and she took care of me from that day forward. I was most certainly not the most elegant rider at the time, she was the first really powerful horse I had worked with, so I know my technique was far from flawless, but she picked up what I didn’t know. She took care of me because I listened to her. That feeling is something I can’t describe, but that is why I created “Zen in the Round Pen” a program for people, riders, and non-riders alike to feel. Great for the horses but even more powerful for the humans.