Horse Psychology 101 I  Just Spend Time I Pressure & Release/ Approach & Retreat  I  Connecting / "Round Pen" work   I   Bamboo Pole   I   Rope, Flag Work & Desensitizing   I   Positive Reinforcement: Operant Conditioning & Clicker Training   I   Get Professional Help   I   Case Studies   I   Video Diary of One Horse's Journey  I Orphans


 The first time I saw Jerry Tindell work with a troubled (domestic) horse at liberty in the round pen - and saw the improvement that followed immediately afterward - I knew that something profound had happened. But I didn't know what it was.
It was like "psychotherapy for horses." With Jerry's expert guidance, the horse seemed to use the Round Pen Session to work through all his past traumas and "knots." When the horse came through it, he was soft and willing, relaxed and affectionate, whereas when he went into it, he was defensive, skittish and unsafe.

I also learned that this type of work isn't just for disturbed horses - it's for any horse. It's also useful in working with wild horses. I signed up for a clinic to learn how to do it myself, to learn more about it.


Using the horse's natural hard-wiring to follow the animal who can effectively direct his movements, the horse "hooks on" to you and becomes willing to follow you.

Here, Lesley Neuman is gentling Ruby at the Vallejo Fairgrounds in October 2000.



In nature, horses have a leader. That leader directs the rest of the herd, by telling them where to go, at what pace, and when. Through working with a horse in the round pen, we learn to assume that leadership, to which a horse is "hard-wired" to respond naturally.

The type of training that I am calling "Round Pen Work" - for lack of a better term (although it really has nothing to do with the type of pen used) works in 3 important phases:

  1. Movement

  2. Direction

  3. Connection


We can reach the horse's mind through movement. First, we get the horse moving, by pressuring it from a safe distance. Start by simply visualizing what you want. Then ask the horse to move by creating pressure. A really good horseman can sometimes elicit this with barely perceptible outward movements - the horse simply picks up on his or her energy and intent. Lacking this level of mastery, we usually use arm movements, or we use a rope or lunge whip as extensions of our own hands, to elicit movement. As our skills improve, we can scale our request down to where it is barely perceptible to a human onlooker.

Some horses will be resistant to moving at first. Others will take off in an explosion of frantic, hoof pounding energy. How much pressure we use needs to be modulated to fit the individual horse. Always use the lightest pressure possible that will still get the desired result.

Some horses will move rapidly, frantically, at first. Others will be balky and "shut down." Either way, we want to continue with this exercise until the horse moves softly, calmly and easily, with the same relaxed and flowing gait the horse would use to play in the sunshine on a spring day.

Newbie Note: Ropes and Whips: Stop thinking of whips as whips (tools for punishment) Think of them as simply a safe extension of your own hand and arm, as a means for giving a signal that the horse can understand. Horse do not know that this extension is called a "whip" so as long as you don't use it as a punishment tool, the horse will accept it simply as part of you.

PRESSURE: Many newcomers to horses have some trouble understanding the concept of Pressure. Keep in mind that "pressure" is just that - not punishment, not venting. Remember how the lead mare moves her herd! Sometimes just a look in another's direction will accomplish her goal; other times she may become temporarily quite direct and seemingly harsh - then back to being friends! She just does what needs to be done, then moves on. No Hard Feelings!

When the horse begins to move softly, we'll notice a light cadence to the feet, and we'll see the first signs of connection: an ear cupped toward us, the head dropping to a more relaxed carriage, and we should see the horse occasionally licking and chewing. Licking and chewing is an outward sign that the horse is thinking about it, "digesting" the experience.

2. DIRECTION: Next, we direct that movement - fast and slow, walk, trot, lope, reversing direction, turning in and out.   It is important to eventually get both an inside and an outside turn, although you may only get one or the other at first.

The inside turn allows the horse to focus both eyes on you.

The outside turn makes the horse "change eyes."

Remember, the horse has two sides to its brain, and you have to train both sides.

The ability to change eyes - that is, to be watching you with the eye on one side and then to turn and switch to the other, is very important in horse training.


When the horse realizes that it is you directing its movements, not just its own idea, it is ready to accept leadership from you. It is "connecting" or "hooking on." Monty Roberts calls it "Joining Up." Once it has accepted your leadership, the horse's mind can connect deeply with you. This connection is the basis for all future training.

Ask the horse to turn in toward you (the "PRESSURE"). Step back as a reward (The "RELEASE OF PRESSURE"). When the horse has connected with you, he will take a few steps toward you and allow you to reach out to touch him. When you walk away, he will follow. It seems like magic, but it's within anyone's ability to learn!

Eventually, with practice, the horse should be able to turn and walk all the way in toward you, and stand quietly next to you. This won't happen the first time you try it, but it's something to work toward. Without connection, you are simply either dominating the animal into "submission", or conditioning the animal's autonomic nervous system to respond to a given stimulus. While there is nothing wrong with the latter, and if we are to be absolutely honest, our relationship with our horse DOES have aspects of dominance and submission (horses are hard-wired this way - look at their herd pecking order), we may want more than this. Connection allows trust, safety, and willing partnership to develop between horse and human.  

WHAT IF YOU DON'T HAVE A ROUND PEN? No problem. Use the same concepts of Movement and Direction to build Connection, regardless of pen shape.


The round pen is nice because the horse's movement is unrestricted. But a highly reactive horse can just keep running, without ever paying any attention to you, which is a complete waste of time. In the square or odd shaped pen the horse will hang up in the corners at first. But the horse will have to start paying attention to where his/her feet are, as well as to your direction, your "pressure." Pretty soon s/he will be paying attention to you, and starting to connect with you.  Teaching the horse not to hang up in the corners turns out to be a very valuable lesson that will pay big dividends later on.

Horse Psychology 101
Pressure and Release

Just Spend Time
Bamboo Pole Method of Gentling
Desensitizing, Rope and Flag Work
Clicker Training & Related Operant Conditioning
       and Positive Reinforcement Training
Get Professional Help
Case Sudies
Video Examples
Adventures of a Volunteer Halter Trainer
Raising Orphan Foals
Basic Ground Work:
Leading and Standing Still
Respecting Your Space
Backing up
Forward Movement
Shoulder & Hindquarter Control
Trailer Loading
Working With Feet