Round pens, or round arenas have been utilized when training and gentling horses for ions. Lately however, there seems to be some controversy regarding this particular tool. I call it a tool because that is exactly what it is. Like any tool it is neither good nor bad within itself. It is all up to the person using the tool, their skill, understanding of the tool and its purpose. Like a hammer in the right hands can build a beautiful home or a piece of furniture. In the wrong hands it becomes a weapon of mass destruction. When round pens first became popular the general technique was to scare the horse enough so that it ran around the round pen and only let up when it showed obvious signs of submission (head down and a licking and chewing motion of the mouth). This method is still in use in many places. However, a new movement is underway. A movement to create willing partnership with a horse rather than a slave who has learned to submit through induced fear by a dominant human. Partnership involves choice rather than force or coercion.
So the question becomes how we, as good and compassionate leaders for the horse, may inspire the animal to make the choice to partner with us. I think the answer lies in the development of earned trust. Horses in the wild get their feelings of safety from the leaders and elders of the herd. They are never forced to follow those leaders. They do because their survival depends on it. So how can we use a round pen to help us develop these all important feelings of safety? I believe this can happen by not moving the horse into fear by dominating it. But rather by asking for easy, simple, smaller movements and then rewarding effort. The best reward being the total removal of all pressure and input of energy towards the horse. This means no petting, no touching, no rubbing, no talking to, no looking at it, keeping our hands down and looking somewhere other than at the animal and relaxing our breathing (of course keeping an eye on the horse from the corner of our eye is not a bad idea). If you think about it, looking at someone from across the room is imputing it with energy, just the same as talking to that person or touching them. Removal of all pressure means removal of all energy input (total peace).
By asking for small, incremental movements (a few steps here, a few steps there) and then offering reward for effort (peace for some moments), the horse is asked to comply with relaxed, calm, easy, simple movement and never brought even close to its fear threshold. Repeated successfully even over a brief period of time, the horse will get into the habit of compliance, cooperation and partnering with the human in the dance of movement. Over time the movements can become bigger and more complex. There is no coercion, induced fear, force or domination, only good and clear leadership followed by lots of reward for compliance. The horse wants to comply/follow/be with and join with a good leader, this is their nature. This is part of how they survive. I think proper and compassionate use of a round pen is a great asset to the gentling, training and successful handling of any horse.