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The History of Round Pens
Moving forward or going in circles

The history of round-penning in the United States is significant in that it reflects the history of the immigrants, human and equine, who came here to start a new life. Round corrals were probably used by pre-historic hunters in Europe to capture animals for consumption. These corrals (curros) are still used today to capture wild horses on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, and Andorra). During the annual Rapa des Bestes in Galicia (northwest Spain) feral horses are trapped in stone-sided curros and wrestled to the ground for branding and to trim their manes and tails. Spanish ranchers brought round pen techniques to the New World to capture the herds of mustangs (mesteño). The mustangs were descended from, and many still carry the blood lines of, the Spanish conquistadors’ mounts that had migrated north from Mexico through Texas, Florida and California.

The theory behind round-penning is that horses are such social animals that they want nothing more than to relax together, and their greatest fear is to be separated from their families.

One did not find round pens on the Eastern seaboard where wealthy land-owners carefully bred and bet on new kinds of horses including the powerful Morgan and the sprinting Quarter-horse. They discussed the finer points of dressage at the dinner table and argued over the equine artistry of de la Guérinière or the Duke of Newcastle and the sensational performances of the up-start Baucher.

In that part of the country, traditionally trained dressage horses were developed then, as they are now, using methods to encourage them to be relaxed at all times. High-level dressage movements such as the piaffe and the passage can only be performed well if the horse is calm and tension free. Therefore, from birth, these horses are trained very slowly to preserve their enthusiastic energy while increasing their strength and stamina. Many dressage horses do not have the musculature to perform the higher level dressage movements until they are 12-years old and older.

Life was very different in the Wild West. Horses were not a luxury, they were a necessity and farmers and ranchers could not get them fast enough. In the mid-1800s, on the Great Plains, mustangers, or mestaneros, made their living by selling horses they had “trained” overnight. They drove herds of several hundred mustangs into round corrals. Good-looking young horses were singled out, driven into smaller pens, and kept running in circles until, exhausted, starved, and dehydrated, they were weak enough to be broken and sold. Many thousands of horses were killed in the process.

The theory behind round-penning is that horses are such social animals that they want nothing more than to relax together, and their greatest fear is to be separated from their families. In natural settings, mares will send naughty youngsters outside the family group until they are ready to change their behavior and apologize. Recalcitrant colts express regret by approaching their mothers with lowered heads and snapping teeth. Understanding this behavior allows horses to be captured, tamed and trained quickly. A panicky horse who is forced to dash around the pen’s curved walls wants to be with the person who is standing, at rest, in the center of the circle.

Round pens became essential pieces of equipment on ranches throughout the West where they needed to break young wild horses quickly and put them to work driving cattle to railroad stock-yards hundreds of miles away. Each cowboy had several horses at his disposal so he could exchange them throughout the day as they tired. The band of spare horses (remuda) were herded separately from the cattle and kept at night in a portable round-pen made of wooden stakes and rope.

Round pens remain commonplace in Western riding disciplines. Western horses often enter competition at two-years old and may reach the height of their career when they are five. Training methods that produce finished horses in a short amount of time are still necessary. Western riders and trainers will sometimes drive their horses in round pens to warm them up and take the “edge” off them before mounting. Others drive their horses in round pens to develop their endurance and strength.

Some Western horsemen use round-penning to teach their horses respect and obedience. At first, most horses are afraid of being driven in the round pen, but, in the hands of skilled trainers, in spite of their anxiety, they can learn the trainers’ signals and maintain or change gaits and directions on command. However, top-level professional Western trainers are cautious about over-doing round penning of young horses because it can cause shin splints, large bumps on the inside of the cannon bone.

In the last twenty years, there has been a world-wide resurgence of interest in the Wild West, Texas, and all things “cowboy.” Mustang adoptions, bronc riding and horse-training speed competitions have gained popularity. Western horse trainers have used television to gain international fame. It is no wonder that round pens are being erected by horse-enthusiast of every discipline in the most unlikely corners of the world.

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