Cutting to the chase: How round-pen, lunging, and high-speed liberty work may compromise horse welfare

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Round-pen, lunging, and liberty training has grown in popularity in recent years in a number of equestrian contexts, due in part to the popularity of contemporary training methods and colt-starting competitions. When well applied, the round-pen can become a classroom, but when poorly applied and without an understanding of learning theory, training in the round-pen or on a lunge-line can pose significant risks to both horse welfare and handler safety. The most serious problems arise when exceeding optimal and safe thresholds of arousal in the horse, which can be detrimental to both human safety and horse welfare in at least 2 ways. First, through the appearance of conflict (e.g., behaviors indicating that the horse is not managing stress-inducing circumstances well) and defensive behaviors that are often associated with a flight response. Second, there is a risk of increased resistance to extinction of flight behavior and the subsequent spontaneous recovery of high levels of arousal and dangerous behaviors. Thus, if the arousal levels are very high, learning and performance are repressed. When arousal levels are insufficient to engage the horse (i.e., acquire and maintain its attention), learning and performance may also be inhibited. Thus, there is an optimal threshold level of arousal where learning can be optimized, and such thresholds are likely unique for individual horses. The precise range of these arousal thresholds is yet to be identified. It therefore follows that in the absence of this information, trainers should adopt a precautionary conservative principle and avoid high arousal levels. Doing so, coupled with optimal application of knowledge of learning theory, can make the round-pen or lungeline as a safe and useful addition to the horse’s training. To minimize the risks associated with training in the round-pen and working horses on a lunge-line, training goals, lesson plans, and training methodologies must apply scientific knowledge on equine ethology, cognition, and learning. Given recent increases in scientific interest in round-pen training, now is an appropriate time to discuss good practice in the context of lunging, round-pens, and other training techniques that may involve the chasing of horses. This review examines current usage, potential risks to horse welfare, and how to ensure training using these methods fosters positive learning outcome and promotes horse welfare.


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