Some friends brought their kids to the ranch to ride, and Ben took his horse, Cash, in the round pen to give a horsemanship demonstration to the parents. They have horses of their own and are interested in learning as much as they can. So Ben was showing them some training work. After they watched for awhile, I went over to see how it was going, and someone said, "Well, we thought Ben was supposed to be going places with the horse, but as far as I can see they're just going in a bunch of circles!"
We do a lot of circles in the round pen for training purposes, and if you don't understand what it is for, it looks like pointless repetition. One of the first things you do when training a young horse for riding is to put him in the round pen and make him run circles around you. This is called lungeing. We use our body language to drive the horse forward, turn, and stop him. What does it do? First of all, it helps to establish you as leader. Horses communicate with each other through body language, so we work with them in a way they can understand. As we establish our authority through assertive body language, attitude, and voice, the horse learns to look to us for direction. Lungeing helps them to focus their attention on the trainer, to learn respect, and to work out some nervous energy. We look for the horse to give us their attention with the nearest eye and ear. We also look for signs of submission: dropping the head low, licking and chewing. These are things the horses do with each other to show submission to the herd leader or to ask to be accepted back into the herd when they've been "kicked out" for bad behavior. The more your horse is focused on you, the better he will listen when you move on to the next thing, and eventually when you are on his back.
Lungeing is a basic exercise that we repeat throughout the horse's lifetime, no matter how seasoned and well-trained he is. Riding in circles in the round pen is another exercise to gain the horse's attention and respect. It is a much smaller space than a riding arena, so there is less chance of the horse getting distracted or trying to run away with you. It's quality time to build the relationship between horse and master. So take Cash, for instance. He's a well-trained, older horse. He and Ben have been together nearly a year, and they worked on their relationship almost every day for the first few months. He knows Ben is the boss. He is sensitive and responsive to Ben's voice. He knows what to do and how to do it. But Ben still makes him do a lot of circles in that round pen. It's not because Cash doesn't know anything. It's not punishment for misbehavior. Ben is taking him back to the basics to strengthen that good training foundation that has already been built. He does it to help Cash refocus and be the best horse he can be. And when they go out into the big arena or on the trail, Cash is able to listen and obey Ben so well because they have learned to know each other and to work together while going in circles.
This is an encouraging lesson for me. I look at my walk with the Lord and see how many times I seem to be going in circles, learning the same things over and over, struggling with trust and obedience even though I claim to believe God's Word. And sometimes I wonder why God doesn't give up on me. I wonder how He could not be frustrated and disappointed and angry because I'm just not getting it! But then I realized that those circles in my life aren't just a mindless repeating of the same lesson. They are not punishment for disobedience. It may be part of the process God uses to get me back on track when I sin, but it's not punishment. Some lessons take a lifetime to learn well. We have to repeat them over and over in different ways. But it's that repetition that builds deeper faith, trust, and character. Just like Cash....he's a great horse, but the repetition of those basics make him even better. He's never going to be so good that Ben doesn't need to train him anymore. And that's the way of God with us. God is using circling in my life to refocus my heart and mind on Him, to help me become more intimate with Him so I will trust Him, to teach me to give Him all my respect and worship, and to gently teach me to submit to His ways. God is making me more like Him, so that when He leads me out into the world around me, I can be a better reflection and witness for Him. And then we will really be "going places"!
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Romans 12:1-2
"A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher." Luke 6:40