The Use Of The Round Yard
Once upon a time round yards were only to be found on the properties of professional horse people. They were very commonly used by race horse breakers and a few old bushies. But it was rare to see a round yard being used by non-professional trainers and riders. But thanks to people like John Lyons, Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts, round yards are almost mandatory on any horse property.
But just because many people have a round yard at home does not necessarily mean that they know why and how to use them. Some folks just use the round yard as a type of lunging ring. Others use them to ride in because their lack of confidence does not allow them to ride their horses in bigger spaces. Neither of these reasons are good enough to justify a round yard, but they don't concern me nearly as much as the people who use the round yard to drive their horse around in an effort to get them to come into them. This activity or approach to training is probably to blame for many of the problems we see in horses.
It is a great thing to have a horse who wants to be with you. But note that I used the word, wants. Most people (including trainers like John Lyons and Monty Roberts) drive their horse around and around the yard until they will do almost anything to be allowed to stop. John Lyons even says in one of his books that a horse should be run until his "lungs ache". This attitude to using a round yard has become the norm. It seems that most people feel that if a horse does not respond in the appropriate way (such as facing up to you) that they should made to run even harder.
The problem here is that such an approach does nothing to help a horse feel good about being with the human. If the horse felt that the best place in the round yard was right next to the person, that's where they would stand the moment you entered. But when a horse decides that being on the track or hanging by the gate or the side of the yard closest to his paddock is a better option than being next to the person, we make them run. We try to make being away from us such a miserable place to be that they eventually give up and resign themselves to the idea that standing near us is better than having to run more miles. Yet, we have done nothing to make them feel good about us, we have just make them feel more miserable about not being with us. We have given them the choice of a bad idea and a worse idea. We didn't make the right thing easy at all. We just make the wrong thing really miserable.
I bring this topic up because we have seen several horses lately who have had considerable round yard work in the hands of professional trainers who have driven them around and around for a long time in order to make them submit. The result has been very worried horses who are always on alert to flee. If asked to just walk a circle in the round yard, these horses take off trotting or cantering as if they had been hit on the rump with a cattle prod. If you ask them to slow down they get very worried because they have learned that their job is to run. It's very sad. But it is very understandable when you consider how they have been trained.
There is no excuse for driving a horse in a round yard or any yard. It does nothing towards the education of the horse or towards your relationship with the horse. Directing a horse is one thing, but driving is another. Driving just brings the flight response close to the surface. So when asking a horse to walk, trot or canter in the round yard or any circle, think of sending his thought forward. Think of directing him with a feel.
As for teaching him to come to you at liberty in a round yard, think about making yourself as least threatening as possible, while directing that his thought not drift to the gate or outside the yard to his friends. If his thought leaves the yard in hard way, apply just enough energy to give him a reason to bring his mind back into the yard. Let him search where in the yard he should be. While he is searching do nothing. But when he stops searching and his thought begins to leave outside, do just enough to motivate to keep searching inside the yard. How much is enough will depend. You want to do as little as possible, but as much it necessary. Sometimes, enough will just be a shift of your foot or cluck of your tongue and other times you will erupt in a fit of energy (never at the horse). It will be just enough to get a change from the horse thinking outside the yard to inside the yard. Then you do nothing but wait.
In this way, when the horse looks at you or turns to you or walks to you, it will be because he figured out for himself that it was a good idea. It won't be because you made being on the track such as horrible place to be that he gave up trying to avoid you. In time he will begin to consider hanging out with you is the best thing that could happen to him. You will become a comfort in his life. With my horse Riley I have seen over and over when he is by himself and struggling with being separated from his best friend, that once I show up he settles completely. He looks to me as a comfort; as someone who he can rely on to provide the same good feelings that being with his friend gives him.