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!