From Sour To Sweet: Solving Barn and Buddy Sour Problem Horses

Here's advice from three industry experts on how to work with beleaguered barn buddies to correct their buddy-sour behavior.

You may be heading out for a trail ride, off to a horse show, or up to the front arena for a training ride. However, if you have a buddy-sour horse in your pasture, you know what a disaster this separation process frequently becomes. You know the drill: You have to trick your way out of the gate so you don’t end up with the two “best buddies” (who seem practically joined at the hip) following you out. Then, once you make it past the gate safely, the negative behavior begins.

Lack of attention, constant vocalizations, and pacing are some of the behaviors exhibited by these anxious horses-both those heading out and those staying behind. The scary part is that these annoying actions can quickly escalate into dangerous behavior-rearing, spinning, striking, and/or bolting. And both handler and horse can inadvertently find themselves in harm’s way.

In the following discussion, three industry experts-Clinton Anderson, Dr. Jessica Jahiel, and Ken McNabb-offer their ideas on changing buddy-sour behavior to help you deal with this potentially dangerous issue.

Question: From your experience, what causes some horses to become herd-bound and exhibit buddy-sour behavior, while others are unaffected as they either go off on their own or are left behind?

Clinton Anderson: Horses are herd-bound, prey animals. Millions of years ago, a horse’s only chance of survival was to be in a herd and outrun predators. While we have domesticated horses and have trained them to compete in various events, we haven’t ever been able to completely breed or train the reactive (prey animal) side out of their brains.

Before you can begin to fix your horse’s buddy-sour issue, or any issue for that matter, you have to first understand the way your horse thinks. As a prey animal, he has two sides to his brain: the reactive side and the thinking side. The reactive side is what Mother Nature tells him to use, and it’s what has kept the horse alive for millions of years. The thinking side is what you want your horse to use when you’re around him. The thinking side is the calm, rational, analytical side of the horse’s brain.

To get your horse to use the thinking side of his brain, you first have to gain his respect. How do you gain a horse’s respect? By moving his feet forward, backward, left, and right, and always rewarding the slightest try.

A respectful horse will willingly ride away from his buddies, and be attentive and respectful of your cues. A disrespectful horse will revert to the reactive side of his brain when you try to separate him from his buddies and will fight you every inch of the way. The difference between a buddy-sour horse and a horse that willingly leaves the barn all comes back to respect.

Jessica Jahiel: Every horse is an individual, and although there are good, established principles and logical progressions in training, it’s important to deal with each horse as the unique creature that he is. Just as one child might be happy, comfortable, and at ease his first night at sleep-away camp, another child might be desperately unhappy and cry all night long.

What makes one horse feel insecure and frightened might not bother another horse at all. By and large, though, the more worried and insecure a horse is, the more likely he is to become herd-bound and buddy sour.

These conditions can come on very quickly-a perfect example is the young horse on his way to his first show. Even if this is the first time he’s ever met the other horse sharing his trailer, by the time he gets to the show, he’s certain that this other horse represents safety and security, and he’ll probably have a fit if the other horse is stabled in a different barn.

For horses, bonding isn’t a matter of getting to know and like another horse over time, it’s a matter of deep-down, instinctive knowledge that a horse on his own is a horse in danger. The herd equals safety; no herd equals no safety.

Horses that truly trust their riders are much less likely to show herd-bound, barn-sour, or buddy-sour behavior, because those horses have learned to accept their humans as not only herd members but herd leaders.

Ken McNabb: This is really a two-part answer. First, some horses in a herd will naturally be lower in the pecking order, therefore they require more security. They’ll either receive their sense of security from their rider or they’ll receive it from the horses in their herd.

Any time a horse screams for his buddy, you need to imagine that he’s really screaming for help, and you need to help by practicing any exercise that will bring his focus back to you.

Part two of this answer is that a lot of herd-bound or buddy-sour horses are developed by us, as riders, by inadvertently releasing the horse from any pressure when he’s around his friends. This convinces him that the nicest place to be is among the herd.

Question: What usually causes buddy-sour behaviors to escalate and become dangerous?

Clinton: Horses are firm believers in the “safety in numbers” concept, making it very natural for them to want to be near their buddies. When a horse starts to get anxious and nervous about leaving his buddies, what do riders usually do? They pull on the horse’s mouth with two reins and attempt to force him away from the other horses. When you do this, you instantly make your horse feel trapped and claustrophobic, because you’ve taken away his ability to run.

Since you’ve taken away your horse’s ability to run away from the situation (his flight reaction) and go back to the other horses, his only other option is to fight-kick, buck, rear, etc. The more you try to force him into leaving his buddies, the more he resists, and the more dangerous the situation becomes.

Jessica: Since a horse showing such behaviors is saying “I’m afraid, I’m insecure, I’m worried, I feel threatened,” the worst thing you can do is to show your own fear or concern. Your reaction can make the difference between a horse that calms down and relaxes and a horse that goes into a full-blown panic.

You need to take on the role of a strong, secure herd leader, and that means taking charge calmly. Inappropriate reactions (for example, curling up in fear and hyperventilating) will only convince your horse that he really is in terrible danger-after all, you, his rider, are clearly terrified-and that he’s the one in charge and needs to make a run for it if he’s going to survive.

Ken: Frequently, a rider will try to force his horse to go away from his buddies without adequately convincing him first that he, the rider, is capable of taking care of him, the horse. Remember, horses have survived since God created them by following their leader. That leader’s job is to tell them when it’s safe and to warn them when there’s danger. Make sure that you establish clearly with your horse that you’re the leader.

You Are Safe

Buddy-sour horses all have one thing in common: They’re worried and anxious about losing their protection in the form of their pal, so they don’t pay attention to you as their leader. Here are the key points made by our league of experts.

• As prey animals, it’s actually very natural for horses to react in the extreme when they perceive that their protection-in the form of their herd-leaves them. There’s safety in numbers, except when the number is one!
• Understand that showing force or fear with a buddy-sour horse only makes the situation worse. By sharing or showing these emotions with your horse, you’re essentially confirming that there’s something to be worried about, so he’ll oblige you.
• If the horse you’re riding shows signs of escalating his fearful behavior, put his mind on you. Make him move his feet, pay attention to your cues, and relax.
• Become your horse’s herd leader, and he’ll be happy to go with you anywhere, because he trusts that you’ll take care of him.

With patience, leadership skills, and a deep breath, you can work your way through your horse’s buddy-sour behaviors and develop the partnership that you seek with him.

Question: What can a rider do in the midst of a buddy-sour outburst to avoid getting hurt?

Clinton: If you’re riding your horse in a group situation and need to go your separate way, but your horse doesn’t want any part of it, try this: Instead of thinking, I need to separate him from his buddies, think, I need to make him feel uncomfortable being around his buddies.

Attempting to drag your horse away from his buddies will only make him fight you more and put you in a dangerous situation. The more you tell your horse, “don’t go there,” or “don’t do that,” the more he wants to do it.

As soon as you feel your horse getting anxious about leaving the other horses, begin to move his feet and make him hustle. Trot him around in circles, canter serpentines in and out of the other horses-do anything you can to get him to move his feet and start using the thinking side of his brain. You want to work him hard, preferably at the canter. You don’t want this to be a vacation for him.

After 10 to 15 minutes of working your horse hard around his buddies, move him 50 to 100 feet away from the other horses, and let him rest. Put him on a loose rein, rub him, and give him a chance to catch his breath.

It’s important to find a starting point for your horse, so when you first begin, you may only be able to take him 20 feet away from the other horses. That’s perfectly fine, because little by little you’ll gradually build his confidence in the situation. If you know that he’ll act up and get disrespectful 15 feet away from the other horses, rest him only 10 feet away from the others. Make it your idea to stop and rest rather than your horse’s idea.

Let your horse rest for five minutes, then walk him back to his buddies. At first, he’ll be eager to get back to the other horses, but as soon as you’re next to them, immediately put him back to work hustling his feet. After repeating this process, you’ll notice that each time you walk him back to the others, he’ll get slower and slower, because he knows that there’s nothing but hard work near his buddies.

Like in any situation with a horse, it’s important that you concentrate on the task at hand. Don’t tense up and become fearful. Any tension or fear you have in your body will transfer to your horse, making him think he has good reason to be upset. Keep your mind clear, and focus on moving his feet forward, backward, left, and right. The more you move his feet, the more he’ll start to use the thinking side of his brain and calm down.

Jessica: Obviously, the best way to deal with an outburst is to prevent it-barn-sour and buddy-sour behavior is much easier to prevent than to stop once it begins. However, if you suddenly find yourself in this situation, the best thing to do is to persuade your horse that you’re in charge. Do everything you can to distract your horse, divert your horse, and put your horse to work.

The message, “Don’t be buddy sour, don’t be afraid, stop that!” means nothing to your horse; it’s much better to work with his nature. Horses aren’t good at entertaining two thoughts at the same time, so give your horse something else to think about: Ask for a bend, a turn, a circle, a halt, a reinback, a turn on the forehand, a leg-yield, a series of walk-trot transitions.

Don’t try to teach your horse anything new-this isn’t the correct moment for that. Instead, ask for a little thing that he knows how to do. Then release and praise, and immediately ask for something else. Rinse and repeat, many times if necessary.

The key is to be assertive, not aggressive, because your goal isn’t to make matters worse by hurting or frightening your horse, your goal is to remind him that you are in control and he is safe.

Ken: There are many things that you can do, but the one thing that I want everyone to remember is that you’re not interested in being an injured hero. If the scenario becomes bad enough, I might even get off and do some groundwork exercises. My typical response would be to begin working in figure-eights or circles of control to keep the horse’s feet moving forward and direct his momentum to bring his focus back to me.

Remember, focus on what you can do. If you need to get off and work from the ground to avoid getting hurt, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t get into a confrontation with your horse in the saddle that will result in an injury to either you or your horse.

Question: What specific techniques can riders use to create a successful separation of barn buddies-both those being ridden and those left behind?

Clinton: Working a buddy-sour horse through his anxiety requires the use of reverse psychology. If you have a buddy-sour horse, he’s convinced that being with the other horses is the best place in the world, and why wouldn’t he be? At the barn or in the pasture with other horses, he gets to eat, sleep, and rest. Away from his buddies, out in the arena or down the trail, he has to move his feet and sweat.

If you were a horse, where would you rather be? I’d pick staying back at the barn with the other horses, too. So it’s your job to make your horse think that being with his buddies isn’t as much fun as he thought it was, and being away from them isn’t all that bad. You’ll accomplish that by making him work hard by moving his feet forward, backward, left, and right around his buddies, and then letting him rest away from his buddies. Horses are basically lazy creatures that daydream about eating and sleeping all day long, and will always choose the path of less work.

If the horse staying behind at the barn becomes upset, use the same principles with him. However, your first concern should be the horse’s safety. For example, don’t leave him in a barbed-wire fence that he could easily run through, seriously hurting himself. And don’t put him in a stall with a four-foot door that he could easily jump.

Instead, turn the left-behind horse out in pasture with a safe fence, and use the same technique by making him hustle his feet, forward, backward, left, and right from atop the horse you’re riding. Chase him around the pasture, making him hustle his feet, then leave the pasture, and stand 100 feet away from it. Let the pasture horse rest and catch his breath for several minutes, then go back in the pasture and move his feet. Keep repeating that cycle, gradually moving farther away from the horse and the pasture.

It won’t take long for the left-behind horse to lose his insecurity, because every time the other horse comes around him, he has to move his feet and work hard. Remember, horses are lazy creatures and would rather stand still and rest than work hard and sweat. You want the horse left behind to mentally get used to seeing his buddy leave and know that everything is going to be okay.

Rest is the reward for this exercise. If you don’t let the horse rest when he’s away from his buddy, you’ll defeat the purpose of the exercise. Horses don’t learn from pressure, but from the release of pressure. You want the horse to realize that when his buddy leaves, life is good, because he gets to rest. On the other hand, whenever his buddy comes around, he has to work hard and sweat.

When you’re dealing with a buddy-sour horse, the most important thing to remember is to get the horse’s feet under control. Move his feet forward, backward, left, and right. Make the right thing (being by himself) easy and the wrong thing (being with his buddy) difficult.

The best cure is prevention. Spend time practicing groundwork exercises with your horse, gaining his respect, and establishing yourself as the leader, then you’ll find that you have a controlled and willing partner in any situation.

Jessica: What a great question! For the horse being ridden, gradually increase his comfort zone, just as you would if you were first training him for trails. Good trail horses must learn to go alone or in company, to go first, last, or in the middle of the group, to be passed at various speeds, and to pass others at various speeds, and to leave the other horses and be left by the other horses.

All these skills can be learned, but horses aren’t born with them-all of them must be taught. Horses can learn to leave their home pasture and their best buddies, but they must be taught gradually and incrementally.

Teaching a horse to leave his field and his friends is like teaching a horse to get into a trailer. You’re asking him to do something that’s basically against his nature, so if you want the experience to be part of an ongoing series of useful lessons instead of a one-off, you have to understand and work with your horse’s natural instincts.

Stay calm, and make the entire experience as relaxed and friendly and pleasant as possible, so that the horse’s take-home lesson will be, “Okay, that wasn’t so bad, there was nothing painful, nothing frightening, I did some stuff, and I got some treats, I guess it’s really not a big deal.” Not, “Ack, that was horrible, I barely got out alive and I’m not doing it again, ever!”

Be pleasant and friendly. Communicate clearly, ask and release, reward with voice and pats and scratches and possibly with treats as well (depending on your horse’s personality). This is really just classical training in a nutshell: “Ask little, ask often, reward generously.” Don’t ask your horse to go off into the big scary world with a frightened or angry rider on board-ask him to accompany his trusted herd leader (that would be you) on a short, pleasant, low-key mission.

The day will come when you’ll be able to meander around on a loose rein and let your thoughts wander, but right now your job is to be alert, aware, and in charge, keeping your horse busy and happy and feeling secure that he’s safe in the company of his herd leader.

The horse’s nature is to take the line of least resistance-a horse will always look for the easiest way out. This is why making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult is such an effective training method.

If you want to take the trail to the right and your horse is determined to take the trail to the left, the one that runs alongside his pasture, ask him to go down your trail. As long as he moves forward, give him a long rein and praise and pats. If he tries to turn and go the other way, don’t punish him-give him something to do.

Horses focus on only one thing at a time. Your horse can’t focus on running back to the barn if he’s focused on you and on pivoting or side passing or doing whatever it is you’re asking him to do. Think of Homer Simpson: “I’m determined to do this, right here, right now, nothing is going to keep me from…ooh, is that a donut?”

For the horse left behind, “No horse left behind alone,” is a good working philosophy. People who have two horses in a pasture together and can take only one horse out at a time often have terrible trouble, because even if the horse under saddle accepts the situation, the horse in the pasture may be frantically running the fence line screaming for his missing buddy.

The easiest solution is to add a third horse to the field. You take one away and that one has you for a companion; you leave two and they have each other. No horse is alone; no horse is likely to panic.

If your horses are in a drylot, food can be a major distraction. “Left behind with a snack” isn’t quite as good as “left behind with a pal,” but after a day or two of calling and running and ignoring the snack, the horse in the drylot will figure out that the other horse leaves and returns, so there’s no need to panic, and in fact the other horse’s absence means more food and no competition for it, woo-hoo!

Don’t keep buddies apart forever. Enlist a friend to come with you and ride the buddy horse. The best way to teach two buddy horses to be comfortable out of each other’s sight is to take them out together and practice separating them for short periods to desensitize them to being apart. Gradually increase the distance and time involved in their separation so that you can steadily increase the size of their comfort zones.

Finally, make one change at a time! When you teach your horse to leave his buddy, use a familiar trail that your horse knows and enjoys. Or ride him in another pasture or arena that he knows and associates with pleasant experiences. Anxiety is cumulative: A new place plus a new trail plus new dangers plus no buddy will add up to an overwhelmed horse with an overloaded brain, too upset to enjoy the trail or learn the lesson you’re trying to teach him.

Ken: For the horse being ridden, any time your horse exhibits a desire to return to his friends, immediately trot him back to them and begin diligently working on any exercise that both your horse and you are comfortable with. This makes the time spent with his friends both strenuous and boring.

As soon as you believe that your horse is doing better, then you can begin a peaceful, quiet walk away from his friends. Repeat the process as many times as needed to correct the problem.

For the horse left alone at home, I’d recommend that you set up a training session, and use a second person, if necessary. When you leave the yard, and the left horse begins to call to your horse, ride back to the pen. Work the left horse around the pen using the same process I mentioned earlier for the under-saddle horse that doesn’t want to leave his friends. Do this until the left horse exhibits the desire to be left alone.

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