Member Question: Why are some horses stiff when they ‘join up’ in round pen?

Hi Stacy,

I’ve been using a round pen as a training tool, and helping coach others with their horses in the round pen.roundpen

I’ve noticed that with most horses, when they choose to “join-up” and follow the person their affect is relaxed, content, attentive. They follow the person with a relaxed body, attentive but relaxed ears, soft eyes, relaxed lips/nostrils.

Sometimes, however, I see horses “join-up” with the person but they don’t have the same relaxed affect. Their ears are stiffly rotated out and back (not pinned but held tight), and lips are tight. They still follow the person, but the relationship looks and feels different to me.

Can you explain what’s happening with those 2 types of “join-up?” Is there a difference? If yes, what would you do to help the stiffer horse?





Thanks for writing and asking your question. Without me seeing the horse it is tough to know for sure, but here are a couple possibilities.

For some reason these horses are not fully engaged yet mentally. They can either be scared or bored depending on the rest of the symptoms. Either way, they understand what is needed for the reward (follow the human=easier than running) but they haven’t fully decided to trust/respect….yet.

Some horses have personalities that lead them down this road, they are natural born skeptics….like some people.

Other horses, who have had their trust broken through abuse, inconsistency, etc often have a scared feeling surrounding them. (tight lips, ears are sometimes back, sometimes perked forward) When I find a horse doing that I will say they are ‘holding their breath’ or sometimes I will say while riding them, ‘They just won’t exhale.’ Either phrasing makes the point.

Yet another, would be those who don’t see the need for you as a leader/respect you as a leader. They have more of a resentful feeling around them…which can also lead to the tight ears and lips. (tight lips, ears back more of the time)

Here are some ideas for both types of horses:round pen with tarp

The scared horse needs to be allowed to cycle through work cycles and then emotional cycles. Sometimes they relax best when they have been allowed to move, then engaged mentally, over and over. They want to see the pattern. I had one mare that was really weird about plastic bags. The first lessons were long! Every day for a year, I used the bags. After the first few days I could rub them all over….but it took the whole year before she ‘exhaled’ while I did it. That is when I truly knew she was over it. Now she can go for a year without seeing a bag, I can whip it out and try to scare her, and she almost smiles because she knows the answer.

The resentful horse doesn’t think you have much to offer. He may even find you boring. Show him you can be creative. Add more variety and engage him in unique ways. If he is really pretty good at something, leave it alone and explore something new, then when you come back to the ‘old’ stuff it will be fresh again. For example, once my horses are ‘safe’, I cycle through groundwork and riding. Teach the old reiner how to bow (advanced groundwork)…he will think you have gone crazy….but creative!

Well, there is some food for thought! Let me know which horse you think your dealing with….or maybe even a combination. That’s what I love about horse training = the variety!


  1. LadybugFarm on November 25, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    i would like to add another type of horse… one that has been “round penned ‘to death'”. i have witnessed these types of horses acting out the motions of “joining up” but they are not in it mentally because they have been run around a round pen so much that they just kind of zone out. for these types of horses i would GET OUT OF THE ROUND PEN. 😉

    i’m not a huge fan of the round pen as i feel it allows the human to put too much pressure on the horse with the idea that they will get things done, however the feelings of the horse are often over looked because it appears the horse is cooperating. try all your round pen, liberty moves out in a big arena or open pasture and see if your horse is actually cooperating or going through the motions because he has no where else to go. liberty (outside of a round pen) really does equal the truth!!

  2. Terrie Goiney on November 24, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Stacy, love your response to Chelsey..look forward to her answers of your two questions..and you answering them too. I was also thinking her mare was jealous as I read her story. Thank you also for your expanding on Lauries question about cycling through work and emotional cycles..

  3. Crystal Kilgore on November 24, 2014 at 1:18 pm


  4. Chelsey L on November 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm


    I’ve got a question if you could help. It’s not 100% this situation, but I think it could fall under this category.

    My mare (rescued her when she was 1, she’s now 6 and was abused and severely neglected, started and trained by me) has been my best friend. Always neighs and runs up to me in our 12+ acre pasture with the herd. She’s also boss mare. Very respectful of me, always wanting to please.

    Every time I take another horse out of the pasture, and specifically while I’m working them in the arena, my boss mare stares through the gate at us, usually head low, ears straight forward and body ridged. At first, I thought she may be worrying about her herd-mates. But when I turn the horse out, she doesn’t even bat an eye at the other horse and is much more interested in me. When I take her out, the other horses can be screaming and she doesn’t care one bit. She may nicker if we are leaving the property, but that’s it. They never distract her from work. Out in the pasture, if I give attention to another horse for an extended period of time, she will come up, ears back, bare her teeth at the other horse and push them aside by squeezing between the two of us, then looks at me ears forward. She only shoulders the horse and never me.

    Recently, I’ve been working a bit with a new rescue (took me a year to get her to join up as you talked about here where they actually breathed; we did most of our work in the pasture though because I could not catch her; she hadn’t seen a person until the previous owners roped her, hog tied her, tried to brand her which resulted on scars along her back, threw her in the trailer and took her to auction after they realized she was still alive out on the ranch). I’ve now been taking her to the arena to work more on joining up, and have maybe 3 short rides on her.

    My boss mare stares the exact same way. Every time I take her into the arena.

    Lately, when I go out to the pasture to retrieve my boss mare (who’s my main show horse), she looks at me differently (Very expressive in her eyes; you’d think she’s a person). As I get closer, she turns around and walks away. Her ears are back more often. Sometimes she gets maybe twelve feet or more away from where she started. I’ve brought a treat out for her, which she doesn’t get until she has the halter on, but she gets very search-ey so I don’t like to use treats much. I’ve also done the “I’m interested in something else, or another horse” method and she tends to see right through it, albeit a little more curious. She eventually stops and looks at me, ears up, but as I approach her, her ears go back again and her eyes change and she looks away again. It looks solemn, sometimes irritated. During ground work she’s more reluctant. We used to be bareback with just a rope around her neck, now she’s barely my partner on the ground.

    It’s not like she gets very far before she stops and looks at me, but it’s far enough and such a drastic change. I don’t want her to begin thinking she can just walk away from me and outrun me. I’ve tried multiple ‘tricks’ and training methods, but she’s just so darn smart. I’m reluctant to continue using them unless the trainer knows the whole situation. Which is why I’m here.

    I’m a little at a loss. It seems like there’s more emotional things going on with her, rather than just a normal “I don’t want to be caught/I don’t want to work.”

    Also, I don’t have a round pen, but I do have an 80×95′ arena with 6′ fences. I also have a 6 acre pasture, and two small paddocks and one stall. I’m moving her to the smaller pasture.

    I know it’s long, but thank you for any help you can give. Feel free to repost this somewhere if you feel it’s appropriate, or if I didn’t post this in the right area.

    Chelsey L.

    • Stacy on November 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Chelsey- I am laughing at your perfect description of my pony when I was growing up. Only, I could add one more thing…if I ever got on my mom’s horse (he wasn’t around the first few years…only the pony) my pony would charge the horse, ears pinned and all the other symptoms you have described.

      More recently, Popcorn, (lead horse, etc) was mad at me….same thing. I know I haven’t seen your horse so (disclaimer here) I might not be accurate but….

      You are describing PERFECTLY….jealousy. Sorry, but I can’t stop chuckling while I type this.

      The good news…you have really built a relationship! The bad news is…she is ticked.

      Translated another way, pretend she was a good friend-your best friend. Then you started tutoring someone who needed help in math…so you spent more time with them….then your relationship started to get a little weird…are you following me.

      Congratulations on first, building such a strong relationship. Second, on describing so perfectly what is happening that I think I can picture it….Now here is your challenge!

      If you think I have identified correctly what is going on, I want you to come up with an answer.

      Question #1-In the above mentioned situation where you were a ‘math tutor’, how would you improve your relationship with your hurt friend…and you still have to keep on tutoring.

      Question #2-How could you translate that into something you can do with your horse?

  5. […] RSS ← Member Question: Why are some horses stiff when they ‘join up’ in round pen? […]

  6. Laurie Spry on November 22, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    ‘The scared horse needs to be allowed to cycle through work cycles and then emotional cycles’. I have a ‘scared’ one who has obviously been pressured and confused in the past. Can you explain what you mean by that first sentence (of yours)?

    • Stacy on November 23, 2013 at 8:55 am

      Laurie, I will try! If only I had a scared horse and a video camera….here goes without it.

      Imagine that you are scared. Your body is tense, your uptight, holding your breath, jump at every movement. Your co-workers find you on edge, your boss walking in makes your blood pressure rise…out of fear and anxiety. You go home and it is hard to drop that feeling…being ‘uptight’ is becoming the norm. It is getting harder to find places where you laugh. The snowball is growing, gaining speed, heading the wrong direction.

      Now, imagine all of that except that when you go home you go out for a jog. You have decided to run your first 5K next spring. Unexpectedly though…you have found another WONDERFUL side effect….six weeks into Couch to 5K you realized that when you physically push yourself; lungs burning, muscles aching….strangely it feels better. You realize that you haven’t taken a breath this ‘deep’ in sooooo long. You actually begin to crave deep breathing….because you found it in exercise. Now, tonight at home you won’t be as tense….and maybe you will eventually look for a new job.

      Many scared horses need the opportunity to move, run, buck….it does two things. It increases the chance that they will discover that they can take a ‘deep’ breath, and it allows them choices. They know (we are still talking round pen here) that they have a choice to leave. They need to know that they can leave and breath before they can stay and breath.

      Then when they are in an emotional cycle, one that is not physically demanding but is emotionally hard (stand while I rub you with the stick and string, etc) they are still breathing hard and remembering the choices. Remember, this breathing hard is not about getting them tired; it is about showing them they can stand there without holding their breath. Done right they only need a few sessions of physically demanding work to catch onto this. If you find yourself needing to lunge them hard, let me throw out a number-say for more than 8-10 sessions (things vary from horse to horse but this gives you an idea that I’m not talking months) then your probably not making the point clear.

      Good news….episode 13 of Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac, demonstrates and talks a lot about physical and emotional training cycles. Watch for it December 4th!

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