Ask an Expert

Training Outside the Round Pen


I have a horse who, in a round pen or arena is wonderful and super responsive to a smooth snaffle, but when I go out on the trails, he is exactly like the horse in the Fighting the Bit post. It is as if the gelding I am referring to forgets all his knowledge after he exits the arena.

I've gone back to the basics and worked him on a flat area outside the round pen and an arena on the ground, and he does great. The moment I get in the saddle, though, I'm back to square one. This is not the first horse I've started, nor will it be the last. And this horse has never offered to buck with me on him.

-Erica Ripp


Dear Erica,

It sounds like your horse does fine in a small pen and accepts the bit well and responds to your cues to stop, go and turn, but when you venture into a larger or unknown area, he seems untrained. This is not uncommon at all and in fact, it is indicative of a horse going through the stages of learning and also is an example of how location-specific horses are in their training.

When learning a new skill, the horse almost always associates a place with the response. For instance, if you ask the horse to stop at the gate, the next time you come by there, he will be thinking about stopping because he associated the gate with the cue/response. If you continued stopping there, he would soon learn that the gate means stop. Instead, you ask him next time in a different place so that he begins to associate your cue with stopping and not the place.

In your instance, your horse has associated the round pen with having to stop-go-turn in response to your cues but he has not yet learned to respond in other places. Combine that with the fact that the round pen is safe and his options are very limited and the “outside world” is big and scary with many options, and it explains why he is not yet responsive to your cues outside. But don’t worry — it will come.

There are four stages of learning in animals (humans included), acquisition, fluency, generalization and maintenance. In the first stage, the horse is just acquiring a new skill — learning what the cue means and what the proper response is. In the second stage, fluency, the horse is able to respond to the cue correctly every time (this is the stage you are in). In the third stage, generalization, the horse learns to perform the skill in any location, regardless of the distractions and new stimuli (the locations being the round pen, big pen, trails, strange places, horse shows, parades, etc.). In the final stage, the horse is fully trained and no longer needs to learn new skills but he just needs occasional practice to maintain his training.

The first two stages can happen very quickly but getting the horse generalized in his training takes a long time and a lot of miles and experience (this is what we call the “wet saddle blanket” stage of training). This is the same reason why you hear people say, “but my horse does this perfectly at home,” when they get to the horse show and their trained horse seemingly becomes untrained. He is fluent in his skills at home but not generalized in his training.

You’ll need to continue riding in the round pen, focusing on your horse learning specific cues and responding consistently. Then you’ll move on to a bigger pen but lower your expectations and go back to basics (stop-start-steer). Often when I go to a bigger pen on a young green horse, I’ll ride him for a while in a small area near the gate or near the barn (a safe place for the horse) until I feel like I have control and then gradually expand my work area as the horse becomes more responsive. Do not move on to a new place until you have reached total control in the last place. Through this process, your horse gradually becomes generalized in his training.

Although I am a big fan of doing groundwork, you have to remember that once you are on the horse’s back, everything is totally different to the horse. He has a lot more courage with you on the ground in front of him when he can see you and what you are doing or asking. Once you are on his back, he feels like he is the one in the line of fire (from a predator), and the cues you give from the saddle feel different than the ones you gave on the ground.

Continue doing your groundwork to establish your leadership and authority and to get the horse in the correct frame of mind (to learn effective groundwork exercises, see my video called Lead Line Leadership). For now, start your riding session in the round pen and focus on basic control, then, when he is going well, venture into a larger pen (hopefully nearby) and continue your focus on basic control. He should eventually learn to respond the same in any new situation as he progresses through the stages of learning.

For more information on this topic and many others, be sure to check out the hundreds of articles in my Training Library,  and you will undoubtedly find more information to help you and your horse in this journey.

Good luck and ride safely!
Julie Goodnight