Tired of dealing with your horse’s I-don’t-wanna-go tantrums every time you try to ride him away from his barn or pasture? Then there’s his constant, jiggy, I-wanna-go-back-NOW! behavior when you do manage to ride him away from it. If so, this article’s for you. I know such barn sour behavior is not only frustrating, but also is downright dangerous–at my clinics, I work with many discouraged riders dealing with this problem.
I’m going to tell you why your horse is so reluctant to leave home, what equine body-language cues indicate that a battle at the barn is brewing (see caption, at right), and how you can overcome his barn-bound problem. Use my simple, step-by-step approach, and you’ll establish the control you need to keep your horse’s nose faithfully pointed away from home and in whatever direction you choose.
Why is Your Horse Barn Sour?
Barn sour, or “herd bound,” behavior is the result of anxiety produced by separation from: a group of horses (the herd); a particular equine buddy; or a physical location that represents security (the barn, or pasture, which represents the herd’s focal point–food, water and social interaction).
The basis for this equine problem is one that many humans suffer from, too: insecurity. Your barn-sour horse becomes insecure when you ask him to leave the safety of his herd. As a prey animal, a horse’s only real defense is his ability to flee the threat of attack. Safety lies in numbers; not only does a herdful of hooves act as a deterrent to predators, individual herd members also alternate grazing time with “sentry” time, during which watchful eyes, ears and noses are tuned in to the threat of natural predators. The detection of such a threat sends a wave of alarm through the herd, giving the horses a chance to focus on the challenge, and to decide whether or not to flee. To become separated from the herd leaves a horse vulnerable to attack and thus can mean a death sentence.
This instinct hasn’t dulled, despite hundreds of years of domestication. With your barn-sour horse, the insecurity caused by this instinct is exacerbated by the fact that he hasn’t reached the level in his training at which it can easily be overcome. The result? You must teach your horse to be responsive to your cues. Once he’s relaxed, with his focus on you, he’ll gain the confidence to leave his herd behind, as he’ll look upon you as the competent leader of his herd of two.
Now that you understand the psychology behind your horse’s actions, you’ll understand why my approach works. The basis for this program is simple: You’ll calmly and patiently focus your horse’s attention on you, away from the barn and his buddies.
You’ll do so by doing two things: improving your horse’s responses to your cues and helping him to control his emotions. You’ll start out by calmly asking him to perform such basic, familiar maneuvers as turns and simple gait transitions in his comfort zone–that is, near the barn. As he repeatedly works through these maneuvers, he’ll relax and tune in to you. When he does, you’ll gradually increase the difficulty of the maneuvers, to further improve and test his responsiveness to your cues. As his emotions evolve from anxious to relaxed and confident, you’ll expand his comfort zone so he’s working farther and farther from home.
For this lesson, you’ll need:
- A safe work place. A safe, enclosed working environment such as a round pen or paddock in close proximity to the barn. The small confines of such an enclosure will help you to turn your horse’s attention to you; its proximity to the barn will make him feel secure enough that he can turn his attention to you.
- A smooth mouth snaffle. This will enable you to ride with two hands, so you can use your reins to literally “lead” your horse’s nose in the direction of a turn. I recommend a full-cheek snaffle (such as the one my horse is wearing). The bars on either side of the mouthpiece encourage your horse to tip his nose in the direction of a turn, by exerting additional pressure on his muzzle. For instance, if you use your right rein to guide your horse into a right turn, pressure from the left bar is exerted on left side of his muzzle.
- Markers. Gather 10 cones, or other markers, to create a “test” pattern.
- Time and patience. Although your barn-sour horse may frustrate you, you must praise and reward him when he gives you even the slightest positive response. Whipping and spurring would only exacerbate his insecurities. Plan on spending 2 to 3 hours on this session. Repeat it daily until your horse willingly moves away from the barn at your request.
1. Lead your horse to a near-the-barn enclosure. To give him added security, safely tie one or two of his barn or pasture buddies nearby (as shown). Mount up, and ride forward at the walk. To focus your horse on you, immediately ask him to perform a constant series of right and left turns, interspersed with walk-to-halt and halt-to-walk transitions. For example, walk five steps, turn right, halt for five seconds, then walk 10 steps, and so on. Don’t move more than 15 feet in any one direction before you make a change.
Next, focus on controlling one part of your horse at a time; when you control a single part, you’ll soon have control over the whole horse. For instance, using one rein, ask him to move his shoulder over, releasing the rein when he does. That tells him you’re going to be reasonable in your requests and reward him with a pressure release the instant he responds correctly. And that will build his confidence and relaxation.
The result of your turn, pressure/release and transition work will be that your horse’s head drops as he relaxes. Practice the maneuvers for at least 20 minutes, without stopping for longer than a minute at a time, until he’s consistently working with a lowered head and relaxed neck, his ears flicking back and forth, indicating he’s focused on you. At this point, introduce walk-to-jog and jog-to-walk transitions to your sequence, until you achieve the same relaxed, lowered-head posture.
2. Now slightly increase the difficulty of your sequence, to further focus you horse’s attention on you. Begin on the rail at a jog. Gradually speed up to a brisk trot. Maintain this pace for about three strides (not more than 15 feet). Then quietly bring your horse back to the jog by slowly picking up and pulling back on one rein.
Continue these on-the-rail, slow-to-fast-to-slow transitions every few strides, until your horse’s head drops and his neck relaxes. At this point, combine your speed transitions with the turning/halting sequence, until your horse is relaxed and responding instantly to your cues–as mine is here.
3. Next, fine tune your horse’s responsiveness by asking him to perform maneuvers at specific points in the pen. Place your 10 cones or markers randomly throughout the pen. Make up different patterns as you ride through the cones, combining turns, speed transitions, body-control maneuvers and halts.
After about 15 to 30 minutes of this pattern work, your horse’s body language should be similar to my horse’s here. His ears will be turned toward you, his head will be down, and he’ll tip his nose in the direction of the turn, following through with the rest of his body. If your horse is raising his head, tensing his body and fixing his ears in the direction of the barn, go back to Step 1, progressing only when he’s relaxed and listening to your signals.
4. To further test your horse’s responsiveness, increase the pattern’s degree of difficulty. Place pairs of cones/markers three feet apart, every 10 to 15 feet around the pen. Ask your horse to work around and through the pairs, performing tight turns and incorporating gait transitions at specific markers.
Plan your ride: Be sure you know what you’ll be asking your horse to do before you reach a specific marker–if you don’t you’ll confuse him, making him tense, and negating the positive effects of this exercise.
5. Once your horse’s body language tells you that he’s relaxed and responsive, it’s time to expand his comfort zone and teach him to control his emotions. You’ll do so by riding him away from and back to the barn. The idea isn’t so much to put a long distance between him and the barn, but rather to separate him from his comfort zone over and over and over again, until he stays relaxed.
Move to a safe, uncluttered area. Ride about 10 feet from the barn, then turn and ride back to it. As you ride away your horse will likely raise his head, getting concerned about leaving his security zone. When you turn back toward it, he’ll begin to relax. Keep going to and away from the barn within this 10-foot zone. At first, he may worry every time you turn away. That’s okay–it takes effort to get revved up, and he’s learning that you always bring him back home. So, with repetition he’ll learn to stay relaxed regardless of which direction you point him in.
When you can come and go without your horse getting nervous or speeding up, increase the distance from the barn. Ride about 15 feet away from it before returning to home base. Then ride out 10 feet from the barn, returning to within five feet, before riding 20 feet away. Play with the distance away, each time returning to home base.
When he’s comfortable being 20 feet away, practice the same exercises you did in Steps 1 through 4, occasionally returning to the barn, then riding about 30 feet from it, increasing the distance as his comfort zone expands. If at any time he tenses up, move back to his previous comfort zone, until he once again relaxes. Only then should you continue your away-from-the-barn progression, until you can ride him anywhere and he stays confident, relaxed and responsive.
John Lyons’ Troubleshooting, released in May 2006, dispenses step-by-step advice on solving such common behavior problems as trailer-loading trauma, spooking, biting, rearing and more. To order, visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com.