The Myth of Join up in the Round Pen Explained

This is a difficult article to write. And the title is likely a little grandiose but I am going to have at it anyway and try to explain this thing called join up in the way that I and many others are coming to understand it.

The last thing I want to do is criticize the good work of so many honest and talented horse people who do amazing healing work by putting horses and non-equestrians together. So many people have benefited from an increasing  number of equine practitioners who are getting into the field of equine assisted/facilitated healing/learning/psychotherapy/coaching. I know because I am one of them. I have been planning my life around this work since 1998 and am passionate about what I do. I have witnessed many people light up and come alive in the presence of horses. I have never witnessed someone leave an equine facilitated session feeling sad, depressed, hurt, empty or used.  I am certain the many people involved in assisted/facilitated healing/learning/psychotherapy/coaching would say the very same thing. I wish we could all say the same about the experience that the horse is having. Too often, the experience of the horse is not considered or if it is, it is not really well understood.

Recently I recommended a video trailer on my Facebook page about a program in Saratoga Springs called Saratoga WarHorse where American veterans are paired with retired thoroughbred race horses to restore these vets to emotional health in ways that only working with horses can do. The video shows in a very touching way what this program has meant to so many men and women who have been scarred by their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theatres of war. Even as I was sharing the story I was thinking to myself – why am I staying silent about the experience of the horse in this? What can I do to educate people about this misrepresentation of the round pen experience? How can I help to get the word out that when watching the typical join up session you are watching something more akin to Stockholm Syndrome being enacted than any true willing partnership being formed between a horse and a person. When you see people having such a profoundly positive healing experience you just don’t want to spoil it by exposing the false premise upon which it is based.

The flawed premise comes from the fact that most people have a human-centric view of most animals. We fill in knowledge gaps with assumptions that suit our own understanding of how we humans respond, emote, communicate, value, and generally view the world. We tend to see horses, and in fact most animals, as less intelligent versions of ourselves, that value the same things we value, and that tend to react randomly and often unpredictably to things. Because we don’t understand their language and culture we make great assumptions about what they are experiencing and fail to see, incorporate or interpret the messages they are sending us that could clarify exactly what they are experiencing. I know because I was that way myself and I look back sometimes with remorse and regret for lost opportunities and the rude behaviour I inflicted on horses before I started to learn to speak their language and understand their culture.

First it ought to be said up front that if you were to go into a round pen with some horses and do what is suggested to achieve join up, you might find yourself lucky to be alive after being trampled and stomped. Not all horses are as forgiving as the ones that you see in the movies and videos. Some will respond to the rude aggressive behaviour that passes for “sending the horse away” by saying in horse language, “make me!” Those horses don’t make the short-list for this type of work.

Working with a horse in the round pen is part of horse training that has a particular purpose and when done right can indeed create trust, respect, and strong bonds between a trainer and the horse. What people are not necessarily clear about with this method of working horses is that it relies on the essential survival instincts of the horse: firstly, being able to read our energy, behaviour and intentions from our body language and chi, and secondly, responding to the so-called pressure/release of the join up session with the equine instincts that kick in at birth: run away from that which chases you and follow that which leaves you. The latter enhances the potential for survival of a birth on the run, along with the amazing ability of the new-born foal to get up on its spindly legs in under 30 minutes and gallop like a race horse, following a retreating mom.

The horse that goes into the round pen with a stranger and endures the traditional ‘sending away’ which starts these round pen sessions is first and foremost, a prisoner. Think about it for a minute. A prisoner. It knows that it does not have the freedom to live the life of a horse, grazing in open spaces and running away with its herd mates at the slightest sign of danger. The horse is not there by choice and responds, in that too-small space from which there is no escape, to the fear generated by the aggressive, threatening and rude – in horse language – mixed messages of the untrained human. The human is doing so with seemingly no provocation from a horse’s perspective. When finally the person stops and turns away, the horse is undoubtedly relieved and, still having no escape, takes the only available option. Since it cannot get away it will seek the company of the person – potential herd – by approaching and even touching. It is seeking safety and release from the threat. It is false to believe that this single interaction has created a relationship from the horse’s perspective. To the human however, the visceral experience of sharing the small space with a 1200 pound animal,  feeling the vibrations through the ground as it gallops around the pen fleeing on command, excites us in a way that can be intoxicating. Hormones are released. Brain waves change. Electro-magnetic fields are altered. There is no question that this is a full-body intense emotional experience. When the horse appears to seek our company, the meaning we make of it is that the horse is desirous of connection, trust, even love! This experience is real and valuable and authentic for the human in the interaction. The meaning we make of it is profound and life-altering in many cases. The problem is that it just isn’t necessarily the same meaning shared by the horse.

The language and culture of horses is fascinating and for those who take the time to learn it and try to ‘speak’ it, the experience is as profound as the pressure-release  join up method; in fact it is undoubtedly more so, because of the clarity of true two-way communication. Communication between any two beings is fraught with potential misunderstanding and false assumptions. When the beings are different species there is an added challenge. Trust and respect take time to build between people, they take time to build between people and horses as well and if you are not speaking the same language it is likely they will never build. Learning to speak ‘horse’ is not easy but it changes everything about how you relate to them. Interestingly, I have found it also changes the way I relate to people – for the better.

So, you may be asking, if so many people are getting it wrong, can we be with horses in a way that is respectful with clear two-way communication? I say absolutely! There is a growing number of people who are learning and teaching and sharing what they know about horses with a different, equine-centric view of horse training and communication. You can find out more by reading my blog and articles. You can find out more from people like Chris Irwin and his certified trainers and a small number of clinicians who follow a path that is different than the traditional North American pressure-release cowboy methodology. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or feedback about this. I might have opened a can of worms by writing this but that can needs to be opened.


P.S. This is the article that came into my line of sight recently and got me thinking that I had to speak up about the myth of the round pen.