Training a Buddy-Sour or Barn-Sour Horse with John Lyons

Horses love the familiar even more than we do, so getting separated from home or friends is legitimate cause for upset. But like us, our horse can't always have things the way he wants them, so we have to help him deal with the emotional trauma he's experiencing. Through training a buddy-sour or barn-sour horse, we'll have a good, horse-specific game plan.

Horses love the familiar even more than we do, so getting separated from home or friends is legitimate cause for upset. But like us, our horse can’t always have things the way he wants them, so we have to help him deal with the emotional trauma he’s experiencing. Through training a buddy-sour or barn-sour horse, we’ll have a good, horse-specific game plan.

Fortunately, we have a big horse asset working in our favor. Horses have a one-track mind.

Anyone who’s tried to quiet a horse left behind by his buddies knows that no attempt at feeding carrots or soothing talk will work. And anyone who’s ridden a horse who adamantly refuses to leave the barn can tell you that it seems the horse can only think “back to the barn.” So what’s the solution? Use the horse’s own emotions to train him. Here’s the plan.

In a safe area where the horse isn’t upset, work on particular exercises that give you good control. Be specific in your requests. Don’t just lead or walk the horse around.

Cool-headed Training

  • Realize that responding to a cue involves the horse’s mind, body and emotions.
  • Take learning cycles into account.
  • Work through the “bad” parts without anger or frustration.
  • Ask yourself if the performance problem you’re dealing with could be primarily emotional.
  • Distractions can be used as an opportunity.

Anticipate what tools you’ll need if he were to get upset. Moving his hip over will give you control of the horse’s hindquarters, which may prevent him from bolting forward or pulling away from you. Moving his shoulder over gives you control of his front end. That will prevent him from crashing into you if you lead him from the ground. Steering the shoulders or hindquarters is also much more effective when riding than just steering the nose.

Let’s concentrate on what we want the horse to do. We’re going to separate him from his buddy or the barn just momentarily, then relieve his concern by immediately returning to the buddy or barn. We’ll work that “get upset and then calm” process while we ask him for specific movements. Getting worried isn’t hard and getting calm isn’t hard. But that emotional roller coaster is. The horse will learn that getting worried is too much work, and he’ll relax and trust your signals. Gradually, we can lengthen both the time away and the distance from the buddy or barn.

The rule we follow is: Ride where you can, not where you can’t. That means we’re not going to have a fight with our horse in a place where we don’t have control, which essentially means we’re not going to fight with our horse.

In the following examples, if your horse gets too upset, then you’ve tried to take him too far too fast. Backtrack in the lesson to where he’s under good control and relaxed, then increase the distance or time.

Barn Sour
Let’s say that you have a horse who gets upset when you try to ride him away from your property. Pick a particular exercise, for instance, riding your horse forward, then asking him to drop his head, then moving his shoulder over. Mount up by the barn, assuming it’s safe to ride there, and ride about 10 feet from the barn. If your horse does well there, ride back and forth, asking him to do whatever exercise you’re doing really well. Ask him to drop his head until his head is at the elevation you want and he’s as relaxed as you’d like him to be.

But don’t just ride along mellowed-out. You want his mind to be actively engaged, and that means his shoulders, hips and feet have to be answering the questions you ask of them: Can you move over 6 inches? Good. Now can you walk forward three steps? Good. Now how about dropping your head a little and moving your shoulder over while you walk? Excellent. Now speed up for four strides, then stop. Move hips 90 degrees, walk forward three steps, 90 degrees more and you’ve changed direction. Good … and so forth.

Now you’ve established a distance from the barn where the horse feels safe. You’re going to go away from and back to that area as you exercise your horse’s emotions.

When the horse responds perfectly 10 feet from the barn, continue asking him for specific movements, but ride another five feet from the barn, turn left and ride back toward the barn. When you’re 10 feet from the barn, turn around and go another eight feet away from barn. Then turn around again and return to the 10-foot distance. Repeat, moving out to 20 feet, then back to 15, then to 20, then to 10 and so forth. Work in that area until your horse is as comfortable 20 feet from the barn as he was at 10.

Carefully notice when your horse’s performance begins to drop, when he begins to get distracted or worried. Don’t go farther away until he’s relaxed, but instead practice going toward and away from the barn lots and lots of times. Though it may seem unnecessary – perhaps your horse only protests when he’s 50 feet from the barn – you’re laying an important foundation that will make 50 feet a non-issue.

Your goal is to have your horse’s full attention on you, and you’ll recognize that by his performance. It’s not a mental thing. It’s physical with horses. So ignore whatever else he’s “saying” to you and concentrate on where you want him to put his head and feet.

Build on what you’ve started, moving 25 feet away and back to 10, then out to 20, then back to 15, then out to 30 and back to 25, then to 30, then to 20 and so forth. Mix up your left and right turns. Be sure to give your horse plenty of rewards. Give him the chance to relax walking away from the barn.

Once the horse is relaxed and obedient 30 feet from the barn, your job is to just extend the lesson in time away and in distance from the barn. So you’ll stretch the time that he’s 30 feet from the barn, say from two seconds to 10, then 20 and so forth. And you’ll increase the distance from the barn. Don’t do both at the same time, though.

Ride 20 feet from the barn and stay that distance riding parallel to the barn for 20 seconds, then ride five feet closer to the barn and stay there for 30 seconds. Then ride to 30 feet from the barn, but only stay there for five seconds, then ride back to the 20-foot distance. How do you think the horse will feel when he gets to 20 feet? He’ll relax. He’s done that before and he knows he’s OK there. You’ve made progress.

Keep developing the lesson along the same lines. Make it fun for you and the horse by staying positive. It’s not a battle of wills. It’s a chance to practice your skills and reassure your horse that you are competent and he can trust your signals, and that leaving the barn isn’t a traumatic event.

Eventually, you’ll work up to riding 100 feet from the barn and returning to the 50-foot distance after two minutes. Then you’ll go around the corner, out of sight of the barn for about three seconds, and then back to the 80-foot distance, and so forth.

Even when you’re a quarter-mile from home, don’t assume the horse has totally forgotten about the barn. It’s natural for horses to get animated when you head toward home, but if your horse gets truly excited, you have to keep working through the lesson. He may be fine a quarter-mile from home, but only for two minutes. The key will be to keep your concentration with regard to asking him for maneuvers that require his attention. There will be a day when you can drop the reins and let him think his own thoughts, but it isn’t today.

This may be a one-time lesson or it may require repeating. But if you concentrate on improving your horse’s skills, it will be a positive experience for both you and your horse.

Buddy Sour
We’re going to use the same philosophy in working with the horse who thinks he’s joined at the hip to his buddy and that separation means death. Substitute the word “buddy” for “barn” and you have the idea. But we’re not going to start 10 feet from the buddy. We’re going to start with the two horses side by side.

This is a great lesson to do with a riding friend, as it’s good practice for both horses and fun to have someone to work with. If you’re not riding, though, you can have someone lead the other horse or you can both work from the ground. Just be careful regarding how you position yourselves, as horses sometimes strike or kick when they get upset.

Start out in an arena or safe place to work, such as a familiar trail. Coordinate the game plan before you begin. Ride side by side and, on the count of three, each of you turn your horses to the outside (tail to tail) and then immediately turn toward each other and ride forward. That alone will create a few giggles. Keep at it until you can coordinate it well, with the horses’ heads at the elevation you want. Work toward making beautiful turns. (Pretend you’re in the movies.)

As you might guess, the next steps involve making the turns wider, separating the horses by a few feet and then coming back together. Coordinate the distance with your friend so that your horse reacts by raising his head, which gives you the chance to ask him to drop it. Mentally picture him flexing emotional muscles. You want to strengthen the “calm down” muscles, so that requires lots of repetition.

You want the horse to get worried, but not truly upset. If the horse gets upset, you’ve gone too far, too fast. If everything goes smoothly with the first few turns, you’ll be tempted to rush things. Keep in mind that you’re trying to build a base and at the same time improve your horse’s response to specific cues.

Now you’re going to play with distance and time. Can you ride your horse parallel to your friend’s, but 10 feet from him? Try to do that for five seconds, and then come back together. Then ride parallel for five feet, then turn your horse away from your friend’s and then back to the five-foot distance. One time, have both horses turn and the next time only one.

Ride away from the other horse at a 45-degree angle for 30 feet, then turn and meet him back on the path. Have your friend do the same thing. When that’s working well, ride your horse away from the other horse, ride a small circle and then come back together. Ride around a bush, and eventually work up to where you can ride out of sight of the other horse, but for just a moment before returning.

When you two are old pros at the exercise, you can add changes of direction and speed. Ask your friend to stop her horse while you keep riding yours forward. That will test your leg cues, as your horse will likely think he should stay with his buddy.

When that goes smoothly, have the friend ride away and you stay behind. Don’t just stand there, though, waiting for your horse to react. You’ll want to have him working really well and engaged in answering your requests. When you feel that you have his full attention, that’s the moment to tell your friend to leave. Improvise as you improve, separating the horses for more time and longer distances.

You may have started this exercise as a way to solve a problem, but we can guarantee that you’ll have fun with it. We can’t advise you about your husband or daughter, but you may find that you have the separation problem at the end – you and your riding partner.

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