We recognize the problem. One horse becomes anxious about leaving another. It could be that he merely puts his ears back and balks as you lead him out of the pasture, leaving his buddies behind. Or he might start bobbing his head up and down, taking short steps, and threatening a “temper tantrum” when you’re out on the trail and his buddy slips out of sight.
We use the term “buddy sour” to describe the behavior of a horse who gets upset when he’s separated from another horse. Ironically, the length of time that the two horses have been buddies doesn’t have much to do with the buddy-sour behavior. Two strange horses can trailer together for five minutes, and the horse prone to getting buddy sour will holler and carry-on for his companion when they get separated, just as if they’d grown up together.
It’s sometimes tempting to rationalize that since a horse’s nature tells him security is to be found in a herd situation, we can excuse his behavior and bring him back to his buddy for reassurance. There may be times when that’s the safest thing to do in the short run. But if you have a horse who shows signs of being buddy sour, you have some training to do.
Buddy-sour horses can be downright dangerous. Like a drug addict desperate for a fix, a buddy-sour horse is focused only on getting to his buddy. He’s not paying attention to his rider or even to where he’s going. Scolding a horse when he’s in that condition-hollering at him, kicking, jerking the reins and so forth-only adds to the problem. He works harder at ignoring you in order to stay focused on his buddy. He truly thinks this is a life-or-death situation.
Whether your horse merely expresses anxiety at being separated or has a full-blown upset, getting beyond the problem requires weaving two goals into one lesson: helping the horse to develop emotional control and improving his responses to your cues. It’s the separating, not just the being apart, that’s difficult for these horses. So we’ll practice separating lots of times.
Friends Helping Friends
Ironically, solving the problem for your horse involves enlisting the help of a friend who will ride your horse’s buddy. Prior to the day of your training ride together, you should each work your horses on small maneuvers, improving their responses to rein and leg cues.
Getting Beyond the Crisis
• Separation anxiety is an emotional problem. The behavior that accompanies “buddy sour” is a training issue.
• Solve the problem by allowing the horse to get slightly upset, and then calm, then slightly upset, and calm again.
• Use short, specific requests to get the horse to focus on you.
• Ride your own horse, and don’t worry about what your buddy is doing.
During the course of the prep work, you’re going to ask your horse to speed up and to slow down as soon as you ask. Also work on getting the horses to move their hips or shoulders over and to drop their heads on cue.
Rather than drilling on just one thing, you’ll want your conversation to sound like this: “Take three steps forward; now slow down; now take a step slightly to your right; good, drop your head; now let’s straighten out again.”
With each request, you’re going to use rein or leg pressure on your horse, and you’re going to consciously release him from that pressure the instant he complies. Later on, when your horse gets upset, he will only be able to focus on you for an instant at a time, so you’ll want to condition him that when he feels pressure, he can relieve that pressure by obeying your cue.
Think of each request as the ringing of a phone. If you don’t condition your horse to answer the phone each time you call, he’ll tune you out. That’s precisely the problem we have with the buddy-sour horse. He’s so focused on his buddy that he tunes out the rider.
With practice, he’ll answer the phone even when he’s upset, even though he may growl a “whaddya want” answer at first. When you merely ask him to drop his head, and then you hang up the phone the moment he obeys, he relaxes-both because dropping his head can be relaxing, but also because he’s not getting irritated by the phone.
That’s why the release is so important. If your horse can get off the phone, he’ll answer it the next time it rings. But if he gets stuck on the phone, so to speak, he’ll just let it ring the next time.
Here’s the Plan
Now that you’ve tuned up your cues, you’re ready for the buddy-training ride. Begin with the buddy horses traveling shoulder to shoulder. Have a nice chat with your friend, and get your game plan organized as you let your horses warm up.
Review your cues, reminding your horses to pause a step when you ask, or to move a smidge to the left or right. At the count of three, each of you should turn away from the other, as you see in the photos. You are going to basically turn 360 degrees, ending up side by side again. So you’ll go from walking shoulder to shoulder, to turning tail to tail, to coming around nose to nose, to walking shoulder to shoulder again. You’re not asking your horse to spin, just to make a complete turn so the horses end up side-by-side, happily walking together again.
That first turn may or may not have caused your horse to get upset. At minimum, though, he’d have gone through a “What’s going on here?” moment, which would have increased his heart rate. When he immediately turned back to his buddy, he relaxed again. It won’t matter that he was thinking, “That was weird.”
Back at the Barn
Horses have the same anxiety about being separated when they’re back at the barn as when they’re out on the trail. The solution is still a matter of using repeated small separations to let the horse learn that being separated isn’t the crisis he thinks it is.
If your horse is “barn sour,” then prior to the “sour” lesson, you’ll want to tune up his response to your “speed up” cue. When you squeeze your legs to tell him to go forward, he should increase his leg speed right away. Squeeze or kick gently until he gives you one faster stride, then let your legs hang quietly.
Until you have that cue down pat, there’s no sense in trying to ride him away from the barn. Your horse will either disregard your leg cue, or he’ll end up backing up.
The same is true if you are trying to lead your horse away from the barn. Tune up your “go forward” cue, tapping his hip with a short whip to tell him to step forward, and ceasing your taps the moment he does. Ride or lead your horse 10 feet from the barn, and then return to the barn. Work up to moving 20 feet away, then 10 feet for 10 seconds, and so forth.
What if the “sour” horse is the one left behind at the barn? Use the same program, keeping him busy answering your phone calls as someone else leads or rides his buddy 10 feet away. Remember to hang up the phone-release the lead rope or rein-each time your horse does what you ask, regardless of where the other horse is.
Vary the distance and time away to allow the horse to get ever-so-slightly upset and then calm again. If he gets full-blown upset, you’ve pushed it too far. You need more short-term and short-distance separations.
Horses don’t like to be upset any more than people do. Imagine that terrible feeling when your stomach does flips, like when you think you almost nodded off at the wheel or you said something really stupid. Now imagine that your brain said, “Never mind. False alarm.” Your stomach would have sarcastically said, “Thanks a lot.” Imagine that happens time and time again. After about the fifth time, when your brain sends the get-upset signal, your stomach will say,” Why bother?” And it doesn’t react.
That’s what you’re going to do with this lesson. You’ll separate the horses just enough to get them to worry, and then bring them back together quickly enough that worrying was a waste. That emotional roller coaster is hard to take, so the horses will learn to remain calm-to wait and see if separating is worth getting upset about. In the meanwhile, of course, your cues will put them under momentary pressure and then release them from that pressure. That cue and release will be a distraction from the emotional upset, and will actually work in your favor.
Now that the theory and the first turn are behind you, let’s have some fun. Talk with your partner about how you are going to separate the horses for a moment at a time. It could be that you both turn away. It could be that one of you does. Perhaps instead of turning 360 degrees, one of you sidepasses six feet away, you ride parallel to each other for a few feet, and then come back together again. Whatever your plan, make sure it involves separating for a few seconds, and then coming back together. And be sure that you keep both horses busy obeying your cues, just as when you first practiced.
When you’ve done all that enough that both horses stay calm when being separated, you’re ready to make the separations longer. You have two ways to do this. The first involves the distance from each other, and the second is the time apart. One of you should ride about 10 feet from the other, and then return. Then ride away for 20 feet and return. Then ride away for 10 feet, stay away for 10 seconds, and then return.
When everything goes well at 10 feet, work up to 20, then 40 feet and so forth. Ride around natural obstacles such as trees, hills or rocks to help make things interesting for you and to keep your horse focused on where he’s going. When the horse gets upset, don’t scold him; instead, give him little jobs to do…. “I know you want to see the other horse, but for now do this, good, now do that, good,” etc. Eventually, you’ll work up to where you can separate for minutes at a time, and one of you can get out of sight of the other.
Be sure to keep your horse engaged, so working with you becomes the alternative to getting upset. It may take more than one session, and your horse may seem fine for a while, then get “buddy sour” again. Don’t let that sour your own attitude. Instead, use it as an excuse to have a fun exercise with your own buddy and to improve your horse’s training and your rapport with him at the same time.