Sunday, November 23, 2008

Round pens: A cautionary tale

Over the weekend I visited a boarding barn in the area and was unlucky enough to witness an accident in a round pen. While it turned out okay as far as I know, it could easily have ended in tragedy.

The story begins...
I was visiting my friend Lori, who boards her horse Eli at a farm about 5 miles from where I board Riley. Several horses at this farm, including Eli, are on layup. To preserve their sanity each gets a few hours in a small portable "tubular type" round pen every day. I'm told this has been a practice for years, but recently the pen was moved to an area between two pastures.The pen is a foot from the pastures on either side, and two or three horses are turned out in these adjacent pastures.

Eli was in the round pen when I arrived. I noticed that he was playing with another horse over the fence -- nothing that seemed too serious -- squealing, halter tag, and nipping. After a fashion Lori went to talk to someone riding in the indoor, which was some distance from the barn. Standing in the aisle of the barn, I had a view of the round pen.

I saw Eli and the horse on the other side of the fence both rear -- Eli went pretty high up -- and something about the way he landed made me do a double-take. I walked closer, but could not tell what seemed so strange. It didn't look right. I started to jog and as I got nearer, I saw the problem. Eli had caught his right foreleg on the top of the fencing. His pastern was firmly wedged in the fence just above where the fences are pinned together (see photo). His left front leg was just barely touching the ground. He was standing fairly quietly as I approached. His leg was at an unnatural upward angle and his scapula was pulled back hard. Much of his weight appeared to rest on that right leg. He would periodically lean back as if try to pull his leg free.

Trying to avert a crisis
Knowing Lori would not hear me, I yelled the name of a young girl (Wendy) I had just met who was tacking up her horse. I pushed the fencing toward Eli, trying to lower it so he could more easily pull it out. I went between the fences and tried to push up on the hoof, but it was too deeply wedged to free. Wendy came running and i asked her to find someone who could help move the fence. Believe me when I tell you that I am useless in a real crisis situation. But because Eli was calm, I could be fairly calm. I figured we would need to dismantle the pen, and I tried to see how this could be done. The panels were held together with pins that were likely jammed from the weight of Eli and bolted chains. It didn't look very hopeful.

In short order, the barn manager came out, wielding bolt cutters. As he approached, Eli apparently decided the best course of action was to raise his upper body (rear) -- clever boy! He was trying to get out of his predicament the same way he got in it. On his first attempt, he tried to use his other leg to climb up the panel and got his other front leg caught between the rails. My heart sank. Now he was on his hind legs with both front legs caught. The barn manager asked me if I was ready for him to cut the chain. I said yes, not knowing just what I was ready for. Just as he was positioning the cutters, Eli lifted himself again and got free. When he landed he put weight on both legs, moving a little tenderly. The manager took him back to the barn, and closer examination showed some cuts/gouges but no major arteries or tendons hurt.

Is it just me, or did something bad just happen?
Lori was summoned to attend to her horse, but she was only told he cut himself on the fence. A few minutes later Wendy, Lori, and the manager were chatting casually while Lori hosed Eli's leg. I stood off to the side, quietly having a post-traumatic stress reaction. If anyone else was reflecting on how narrowly Eli had escaped a serious injury, it was not apparent from their demeanor. Maybe I should cut them some slack, I thought. It is tough to judge someone's feelings based on outward appearances. Then the barn manager excused himself to do the afternoon turnout. As I watched, he put out another group of horses in the same configuration -- another horse went in the round pen and horses were turned out in the adjacent pastures. The effort of keeping my mouth shut made my throat hurt. I had expected the manager to turn to us and say, "help me dismantle this thing and take it to the dumpster." But instead he turns more horses out. So much for risk avoidance.

Yes, Eli is okay. But what if he had panicked? What if he had fought? If he had leaned either direction -- well, legs don't bend that way. What if he had fallen? To me, this was a real life drama, and Eli was a champ! If he had not been so sensible, he might severed an artery or broken a leg, and we'd be getting a backhoe, not leg wraps and betadine. We all should have been hugging Eli and saying "Good Boy!"

Portable round pens: A safety issue?
In googling for more information about (portable) round pen safety I found no substantive articles on the subject. Not one. A lot of round pen ads make references to "safer construction." More telling, I found many anecdotes on bulletin boards like this a Horsetopia bulletin board posting that described the same kind of accident Eli had...

" A friend of mine had a severe accident with her horse not too long ago--he was turned out in an area that she had her round pen and he decided to try to jump INTO it....LORD ONLY KNOWS WHY....but she had a round pen with pins, so there was a space between the panels and when the horse reared to jump the panel his hoof slid inbetween the panels and got stuck, of course he paniced (this was an 18 hand draft horse) cut an artery, blood everywhere, round pen was a mess. Horse was fine, but it was a mess. If they would've had chains, bolt cutters would've gotten him out a lot quicker than trying to pry the pins out."

You can also buy panel caps to cover the gap in round pen panels constructed like the one that injured my friend's horse...

The takeaway message about portable round pens is, they ain't all that safe. Some are constructed better than others, but I would not leave a horse unattended in in a metal structure with gaps for legs, heads, or hooves to get caught. At least, not any more.


  1. Wow, I guess I just always assumed that round pens were for working rather than turn out. Tonka once tried to jump out of the round pen while being worked, unfortunately no one told Tonk that you actuallu have to leave the ground to jump. He got his knee stuck between the rails the horizontal not vert ones. He was fine but now we always use caution while round penning and never use it for turn out. Very lucky that it all turned out well.

  2. This post is really useful. We have these round pen panels from a previous time when we had a business, but never turned a horse out unattended. We used it for, well, a round pen to work horses in. I've never heard of a horse getting caught but I could see it happening. I'm glad to know they make caps for them. If we ever reassemble our round pen(doubtful) I'll certainly look into the caps.
    I'm thinking this particular accident might have been avoided if the manager didn't have it between two paddocks where the horses can play over the fences. Your friend is very lucky he didn't break a leg.Maybe she should show him the caps for future use. Good post.

  3. Thanks for this post. I am surprised there are not more accidents with these panels.

    Many people use panels for camping with horses, and I wonder how many times per year they have to help a horse remove his leg. I'll never forget one year at ridecamp, a horse went running through camp with an entire panel attached to him. He had his neck through it and he just ran off. I remember as he ran by, he only used three legs, the other he held high - he probably hurt it getting the panel detatched from the others.

    I also heard of a horse who lost most of his hoof wall from simply colliding just right with a roundpen panel.

    If I get one, I would want those panel connectors, and a plywood lining to at least keep their feet from hitting metal as they canter around.

    Funnily, the other day I heard someone say, "A horse will only run through barbed wire once. He'll learn from the experience and never do it again." I thought, "Oh, how you underestimate the 'flee' reaction in a horse." I took my husband aside later and told him, "You know that's not true. A horse will run through a fence as many times as he has a good enough reason to do so."

  4. Does your friend yet know what really happened? Maybe you could email her the ad for the panel caps, and she could suggest that to the barn owner. (I'd be suggesting to the barn owner never ever again in the round pen. Maybe the horse learned a lesson, but as we know with horses, that ain't necessarily so.)

  5. Thanks so much for posting the incident. You can never be too careful and I think we can always learn more about dangers we don't even consider.
    I'm so glad nothing worse happened.

  6. That's a scary story. I hope some one eventually relayed the whole incident to your friend. Seems a little fishy that the manager didn't explain. I wonder if there had been a previous incident? We don't use round pens here. But I have wondered if horses could get legs or a head stuck between the panels or bars. I guess that answers my question.

  7. Scary! Panels certainly can be dangerous, especially the cheap ones. Don't get me wrong -- I have a lot of those Powder River panels around -- but I train in a round corral constructed of 7-foot, 12-gague steel panels...and yes, caps to prevent legs getting caught.

    I use the lightweight panels for temporary pens at endurance rides -- a square of 4 makes a decent "stall." Does anyone know whether those caps will bend 90 degrees for use in such an arrangement?

  8. oh no! what a horrible accident. i'm so glad no one was seriously hurt.

    those round pen panels with the pins terrify me. i have always been worried about a kicking horse getting his foot through the gap, or getting a neck, leg (like poor eli) or halter caught in the gap at the top. the round pen caps seem like a good compromise, but i'd still supervise a horse in one of those pens...

    i have a priefert round pen which has chains instead of pins and the panels all connect flush to one another (assuming you put the chains on tight enough) so that nothing can get caught between the panels - this was probably the deciding factor when i was shopping for round pens...

    another nice feature of the chains is that i can even use these panels for temporary gates, etc, without worrying about the ends sticking out and catching anyone... if those pin panels are not connected to one another, they have sharp projections at either end...

    if anyone is interested:

  9. To clarify, I think at least initially (before we were reasonably sure Eli was ok) we didn't want Lori to be upset -- in fact, I was the one who relayed the news to her. Her horse already has a career-ending condition and she was devastated when that was diagnosed. I am also concerned about appearing to diss the barn owner, who she likes and who (I think) provides good care. When she got the details eventually they were told so casually and in a manner that was almost joking, I'm not sure she "got" how dire it could have been. I did speak to her later and tried to convey a bit of the drama, without upsetting her.

  10. Great information...this is something I have never thought about.

  11. A couple of places I boarded at used round pens, but only for training. Horses were never turned out in them, because as one trainer put it, it was meant as a training aid. A horse went in to be worked not to relax.

    The barn manager wasn't making a big deal out of it because he would be admitting liability. It's your decision, but myself, I would be telling my friend what had happened and to keep an eye on where the horse strained himself. It may take several days for the muscle to heal, especially if the horse is still limping. He may have torn something inside without it being obvious now, but at later date will reoccur seemingly without cause.

  12. Barbara that is also my concern -- I'm afraid he's hyperextended something in his leg or shoulder. I did speak to her, but it is delicate.

  13. Yikes. Thanks for the photo of those caps - useful info to know they are available.

    We don't have round pens. I almost bought some of the panels earlier this fall when our miniature donkey broke his leg, but when I thought about it, I did wonder about legs and heads and what might happen w/o constant supervision.

    I hope the horse doesn't have repercussions from the accident.

  14. That is totally terrifying! I emailed my best friend your blog entry because she uses a round pen all the time with her young horses, but thankfully she showed me the type of round pen she has which would prevent this from occuring.

  15. If your friend reads blogs, maybe it would be a good idea for her to take a look at your post. It sucks to say it, but this was not a minor accident, this was a disaster in progress and your friend needs to know it. The barn manager needs to know is no favor to her to not realize what she might be up against the next time this happens, and how easy it would be to prevent it. How awful for everyone, but especially get the PTSD and the delicate dillemma. Good Luck!

  16. Frightening! Fortunate things turned out well. Have never understood people that leave their horses in a round pen and walk away.

    Thanks for posting this info!

  17. I am very satisfied with my 60 ft. diameter round pen. I only use it to work my horses, never as turn out!

    I firmly believe that horses need pasture for turnout. Not a small confined space. They are healthier if they can self-exercise. Sure, my guys might get a cut now and then, but they are so much happier being out all day in a 50 acre turn out.

    It is not the fault of the round pen if someone uses it as something other than which it was meant to be.

  18. This is a useful post. That makes me think twice about using round pen panels.

  19. I am convinced this particular blog post came just in time to save my yearling. My boarding facility has a habit of turning horses out in the round pens when the pasture is too muddy. I mentioned this blog to them and requested that they buy the caps and install them immediately. My yearling was turned out in the pen the next day and being a typical baby was full of energy running, bucking, rearing etc. During his play he reared up and caught his front leg over the panel right at the junction (where a cap had just been placed) I fear what may have happened if the cap hadn't been there. Cate P.

  20. I can't believe they turn out their horses in a round pen!!! Never would have thought. Here in Texas most round pens are constructed of boards--or like my friends--bamboo (long story) but used strictly to lunge or work in saddle! Very informative post!

  21. Thanks for the information on panel caps. I'm a little late to this thread having just googled info on panels and come here. I just bought panels for an outdoor riding area--120x96, but it's the chains. After reading the comments, though, it makes me a little nervous. We've always used panels and never had an accident, but I can see where you could!

  22. i found it very informative site chicken coop kits nice information.


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.