MULE CROSSING: The Round Pen

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By Meredith Hodges

The round pen originated as a useful training aid for Western trainers who were trying to “break” the wild mustangs that were brought in off the range. There has been spirited debate between English and Western trainers as to the real value of the round pen as a training aid, since it can produce undue stress on the fragile joints of the equine-in-training. Do not begin training your equine in the round pen, because an unbalanced and inexperienced equine in uncontrolled flight can easily injure himself. Specific types of leading exercises must be used to teach him to be in good equine posture and balance on straight lines and gradual arcs before your equine is introduced to the round pen and asked to balance at all three gaits on a circle. When your equine is properly prepared beforehand, the round pen can then become a viable and important training tool.

When choosing the site for your round pen, pick a spot that is surrounded by activity and even near the road, so it can serve a dual purpose. Not only will you begin to build your equine’s muscle during training sessions—you will get his attention under a variety of distractions. When he is exposed to noise and activity in the round pen at this early stage, it is less likely to bother him later under saddle or in harness.

Try to pick a site that is flat and not rocky. Ideally, it should have a solid base of hard-packed adobe soil. If your ground is not flat, you will need to grade a flat spot and then bring in fill-dirt, shoot it with a transit to make sure it is truly flat, and then make sure it is tamped and hardened before the three-inch depth of sand is added. The diameter of the round pen should be approximately 45 feet, so you can easily reach your equine on the rail with your lunge whip when you stand in the center.

Uneven terrain can cause uneven balance, rhythm and cadence to his gait and will cause irregularity in the footfall pattern, which can result in uneven development of your equine’s muscular-skeletal system. A smooth, hard under-surface below the sand gives your equine a smooth surface on which to place his feet without fear of injury to the sensitive parts of his hooves from rocks or other debris. Even and level ground will assure his regularity of gait and sustained balance on the circle that will build muscle symmetrically as he circles, maintaining his erect posture and bending through his rib cage with energy coming from the hindquarters. Making sure the circle is actually round will help him learn to bend his body properly through the rib cage while he is traveling on the circle.

Once the site is prepped, dig post holes at eight-foot centers on the circle and twenty-three feet from the center of the round pen to give you the 45 foot diameter. Next, pour concrete in the bottoms of the holes and measure the depth of the posts so when the posts are placed in the holes, they will all be at the same height. (There should be three feet of post in the hole and five feet above ground.) Use eight-foot posts, and when using wooden posts, try to use redwood. All types of wood are toxic to equines to some degree, but treated woods can contain arsenic and should be avoided. The best posts to use are made from steel—they will last much longer than wood. Also, steel posts can be welded with “winged plates” so the boards can be easily bolted to the posts.

Use two-by-twelve-inch wooden boards for the walls, and a smaller two-by-six-inch board around the bottom to keep the sand inside. Stack four two-inch by twelve-inch boards around on top, with three-inch spaces between the boards and a three-inch top of the post showing.

The spaces between the wider boards will allow you to get a toe into the fence so you can easily climb in and out of the round pen, and it gives you a place to tie an animal at any post. Unlike a round pen made of corral panels, the twelve-inch boards keep your toes from getting caught and twisted when riding close to the rail. It’s a much safer design and truly functional for all levels of round pen training. For both trainer and equine safety, the use of electric and wire fences and materials such as pallets and tires should be avoided completely.

Tie rings can be added onto the outside of selected posts to secure extra equines outside the round pen while they wait their turn. A round pen with solid walls should be avoided. An equine that learns to work in an open round pen is less likely to feel “trapped” and fearful of abrupt movements and noises, so he can concentrate on his work. He learns to acknowledge and accept interruptions and will keep on working.

Using bolts for the two-by-twelve inch rails makes for easy replacement as the boards become worn, and putting a metal cap around the top with angle iron will discourage chewing when you are not there to supervise. The gate posts should always be steel, as wooden posts tend to sag over time. The gate itself should be framed in steel to keep it from warping and sagging. The latch on the gate should be easily accessible from both sides, but the gate needs only to swing into the round pen for easy entrances and exits. The round pen gate pictured swings in and has a sliding barrel bolt at the top that just catches through a four-inch sleeve on the post wing.

Once the cement at the bottom of the post holes is level and completely dry and the posts are sitting in the not-yet-filled post holes, attach the top and bottom boards all the way around, check each post and rail with a level, and then attach wooden braces to the entire round pen at each post to hold the position. Next, set in the gate (either finished or not) and close it to complete the circle. Check the diameter of the circle and the distance to each post from the center to make sure it is truly 45 feet round and that all posts are upright and level. Now pour the concrete into the holes around the posts. Allow enough time for the concrete to set up before removing the braces.

When the concrete has dried completely, clean the excess concrete from around the holes. Then finish hanging all the board rails, cap them with angle iron and add whatever tie rings you want to the outside of the posts.

Let some time pass before adding the sand to your round pen. Wet weather will actually help to further compact the base, which should be hardened so it can last for many years, so if you are expecting rain or snow, all the better. Once the base is hard and dry, add three inches of clean sand to the round pen—no more and no less. If the sand is not deep enough, the hard ground can hurt your equine’s limbs and possibly cause laminitis. But if the sand is too deep, it can damage ligaments, tendons and soft tissue. If your equine ingests the sand he may colic or founder, so make sure to use your round pen for training only, never for turnout or feeding. The round pen can be used as a holding pen, but do not place food or water inside and use only for short periods of time. Good round pen construction makes all the difference. With proper construction and attention to detail, your round pen will serve a multitude of uses for years to come.

For more information about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive correspondence training program, Training Mules and Donkeys, please visit www.LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Also, find Meredith Hodges and Lucky Three Ranch on Facebook and Twitter. And don’t forget to check out her children’s website at www.JasperTheMule.com.

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