Imagine a white room with nothing in it, no magazines or cell phones for distraction, in fact not even a chair. The door is closed, locked from the outside. The room is small. Oh and you are in there with another person with whom you have some issues that you have been avoiding discussing. Now's your chance to clear the air. Be bold, reach out with the first words and begin a conversation that can clear the air and put your relationship with that person on a better trajectory, a trajectory that will allow you to build a solid relationship based on a good understanding of the other's ground.
This is the kind of opportunity that I have recently discovered a round pen provides you to have with an equine partner. A round pen, for those who don't know, is a round pen fully enclosed which allows you to work a horse at liberty. Ours is 60 foot in diameter and the fencing is 5 feet tall.
Looking back on the other side of this experience, which we have now done with three of our equines, I am ashamed to admit that I am way late to the game. WHERE HAVE I BEEN? The round pen is an incredible tool! I shall never go back to the days I didn't use one when first beginning work with an equine be it a seven year old Haflinger, a young and testing molly mule or an old and some what indifferent john mule who's already been around the block many times.
It doesn't matter who that equine partner is. With each individual a relationship between you and they needs to be established. The round pen prevents this relationship from becoming artificial and dictated by you through the use of restraints. The round pen provides the equine the choice of his responses between fight, flight or accept and join up with you. The pen merely keeps the challenge in a contained space.
As you drive and retreat the horse/mule is given his choices of response. This becomes a dance between you and he. The dance is a language. You must pay full attention to his response and he to yours to come to an understanding. You'd like to explain to him that you want to come out the leader. That you'd like him to follow you willingly. But you have to prove to him that this will be a good outcome for him. He shall perhaps test you to make sure.
In most cases if you can prove to him that you are capable he will be happy to have you lead and he to follow. This makes all tasks that come after in his training a lot easier because you have truly gained his respect and will to work with you.
Below are some notes I jotted down in my journal after working with Dusty in the round pen for the first time. Dusty is the mule I am about to spend the next 6 weeks with as we ride out the gate on September 1st on Bernie's and my mule ramble. I thought it best to start with the air cleared between Dusty and me, so into the round pen we went.
From my journal.
I face an old and indifferent mule. So many people have handled him during his life. They have made him work hard. Some have probably not been gentle, others have probably been fair to him. I can see that he likes his own kind better and would rather not hang out with me.
I will step in to this pen with a history too. For one, I'd rather be working, looking at and riding Pickle.* But that is not going to happen on this trip so I better get over it and start to focus on Dusty with a kind and grateful attitude. After all he and Ronald are the ones doing ME the favor.*
I can see by Dusty's cocked in ear that he's still at least a little interested, still tuning in to my movements in the pen. His interest is only really piqued though by my demanding him, with the wave of my flag, to move his feet.* If I stop waving the flag I know he will stop and hang his head out over the gate where the other two mules are watching him and grazing. Right now he'd be glad to show me his ass end and focus on getting back out to his companions.
I've got to be aggressive enough with my flag waving to make him move, keep him moving around the pen at my command. But not so aggressive that he won't trust me and want to come in and join up with me. When I see his ear flip in I offer to negotiate by stopping my waving and stepping back to give him space to turn and come into me if he wants to.
I watch for signs that he is interested in making a deal. The deal I want, is the one where we have decided that I will lead and he shall follow me. When he turns to face me and puts his hind all the way away from me, I understand that he's ready for me to approach him.
I go up to him, keeping him held by my eyes. I reach out slowly and pat him on the head, a slow slid of the hand down the broad part of his forehead. He relaxes his ears are up and he's looking right at me. He's now focused on me. I turn my back to him, soften my shoulders and invite him to follow me. I can see he's beginning to think about it but he's not quite convinced yet. I invite him several times more. But no, not yet, so I wave my flag and drive him back out to the rail. I ask him to step along with a bit more energy.
I step back and invite him in again. When he turns to me this time, he's ready and begins to follow me tentatively. It's good enough for a start. We are on our way to an understanding. This Dusty Julia dance will get smoothed out over the next several weeks. I can already see Dusty and I waltzing down the back roads of Western North Carolina together. Oh, what dance partners we shall become, Ginger and Fred of the Brushy Mountains.
Asking an equine to join up is a dance made up of what you do and what the equine does as a response. Every movement is an ask or a response. You must be very tuned in to what they are doing and what you are doing. Timing is everything. It takes a real attentive focus to not miss what his body language is revealing.
Before you enter the pen it's best to understand where things stand between you and your mule/horse. It's a good time to be perfectly honest with yourself and know if your tendencies lean towards the wimp who does not have the horse's/mule's respect, or the bully who is too quick and impatient to give his mount a fare chance to understand things and respond to them.
Most of us don't enter this pen perfectly balanced between these two extremes. We are slid just a little closer to one than the other. It's cool to try to find that perfect balance; go into the round pen knowing which end you are a little too close to and start to adjust your own scale to just right. The horse/mule's responses help you to set the calibration. The moment the horse/mule starts to follow you, you are on your way with that horse/mule to a good working relationship.
* Pickle is my golden palomino Haflinger.
*Ronald Hudson graciously lent Dusty to me for this trip.
* My flag is simply a stick with an old shopping bag attached to the end which rustles when I shake it which gets Dusty moving.