By Howard J. Cormier, LSU AgCenter Southwest Regional Equine Agent
A round pen is considered by many to be essential equipment for all horse trainers. Most people who buy their first horse hope to get a round pen as part of the package to advance their horsemanship skills. A round pen is valuable because, when used properly, it helps the horse accept the training someone will provide in a safe, enclosed environment. It is a good place to warm up a horse, especially one that has not been ridden for some time. Presumably, after the horse learns to accept the training administered by the human, it will lose its fear and become more compliant and willing to be trained. Presumably.
Before you go out and purchase a round pen, there are several things to think about to get the most benefit from this common piece of equipment. Of course you need to be aware of cost, but that’s a variable each owner will have to deal with. Too low a panel will encourage a horse to jump over, and too high will increase the cost. Let’s consider size, location, footing and upkeep.
The round pen, usually made of about 12-foot-long corral panels that pin together, is normally about 50 feet in diameter. Why 50 feet? This allows the horse to lope in a circle without undue strain on its legs. It is also small enough for the trainer to stand in the middle and direct the horse’s gait and direction. Too big a pen will quickly wear out the human who has to run across it to reach the horse with his encouragement tools to make it go faster, or change direction. There is no owner’s manual that comes with the round pen. Just as it takes years to become a horseman, or at least a good rider, it takes a lot of study and work to use a round pen properly. We will not get into that topic in this brief article, but I would like to help you think about more than the initial purchase.
If you recall that old formula you thought you’d never need to use, diameter times π, or Pi (3.1416) = circumference, you can figure how many panels you need for a 50-foot round pen. Fifty times 3.1416 equals 157 feet. Add a 6-foot bow gate, and you get a 163-foot circumference. Have I lost you? This will equal a 51.9-foot diameter, which is close enough to fifty. You’ll have to adjust this to fit the length of the panels you purchase. Don’t go for precision. You can’t cut off a piece of a panel to make the size perfect. Think ballpark figure, and you’ll be fine.
The next consideration is the location. We see lots of round pens in the middle of a pasture, away from the barn. Assuming that you will use your round pen, try not to put it far from the barn, where you will have halters, ropes, bridles, saddles and other tack stored. Also, what is the elevation? Will the area drain after a rain? If the pen stays under water, you won’t be able to get much quality training done in it. With most of our state being flat, you can’t easily find a hill next to your barn, but you might be able to haul a few loads of dirt to help drainage. You need to also consider that as the horse goes around the circle, he will throw dirt towards the outside. If you put belting or boards on the panels to keep the sand in, this turns your pen into a bowl that will hold water. If you have to use a shovel to cut through this levee so it will drain after every big rain, you’ll find that you will develop a low spot where the water carries dirt and sand away. If you’re on somewhat of a hill, even one you made, you can sink a 2-inch plastic pipe near the center, go down a few inches, then attach an elbow to a horizontal length that carries the water away from the pen. You must have some elevation difference to do this, but it works well. A good soil/sand mix will still require regular working with some type of disk or harrow. Once the soil builds up against your boards, the panels will be hard to unhook to get a tractor in, so a four-wheeler or ATV that is strong enough to drag a tool, but fits through a six foot gate, is a good idea. Another aspect of good footing is to manage grass. Be prepared to spray with a herbicide to kill the grass a couple of times a year. Upkeep of a useable round pen will be important to be able to get the most out of it. With good quality corral panels, you won’t need to repaint regularly, but you might need to treat rust that develops to prevent corrosion, especially near ground level.
Working a horse on hard ground can lead to injuries that take a long time to heal, such as splints or tendon strains, so let’s consider the footing. Regular dirt doesn’t offer much cushion and gets soggy if it stays wet. Too much sand will tire a horse and increase the incidence of strains and sprains. There needs to be a balance. If you just dump a load of sand on the ground, the horse will likely slip and fall because the sand is slippery on the dirt, so you need to mix it well before you begin actively working a horse. A sand/soil mix takes time to cure, or mix well. A tiller can be helpful for this. Avoid regular use of a disk plow because that will allow the sand to settle deeper into the soil profile. Till lightly, and once you have the mixture right, disturb it as little as possible to keep it loose.
I hope this gives you some helpful tips to get the most use out of this horse training tool.