Barn Sour Babies
All you want to do is head out on a nice ride, alone or with friends, you want to have fun and be safe. It shouldn’t be this difficult or scary! Instead, you have a hyper, hollering, jigging, rearing, bucking, bolting back to the barn horse that is no fun. In fact, your horse is downright dangerous. You have tried all the usual fixes and nothing works. How do you fix this and end the unwanted behavior and not die in the process?
The first thing to discuss is what “barn sour or buddy sour” means. The definition generally accepted is that a horse is unwilling, unable and unlikely to go away from the barn or paddock that he lives in, or away from his best friend. If his best friend goes with him, you have an enjoyable and happy ride. Or, if you trailer out, you may have a good ride, especially if he’s with other horses in a new place, because he’s away from home.
There are a myriad of solutions and many people who offer solutions, and some you find too abusive to try, but others seemed okay. Still, none have worked. Some of the most common ones are:
“Beat the feet” which means you make him work harder near home.
Make the thing you want (to go out alone) more fun than not going out, and this means you can “get after” him with whatever means you determine, he needs to “learn his lesson.”
Wear him out so he doesn’t object as badly.
Use drugs such as Acepromezine or another tranquilizer.
Supplement with “downers” or “calming agents” so he won’t fight.
Cut his groceries.
Fight with him until he submits by using intimidation and fear.
Wear spurs, use only near the barn.
Carry a whip, hit him near home only.
Use a snub post, also known as a patience post to teach him to be alone by placing him away from home, in time out until he stops fighting and gives up.
Just make him go and hang on coming home.
- Circle him. A lot.
These are the more common, not-so negative solutions:
Make him focus on you and not his buddy or his home.
Use patterns and tasks to get his mind on other things.
Hand walk him so he looks to you for friendship.
Vary the dismounting place following each ride.
Ride past his home and back again until he gives up.
Go out a short distance, come back to the barn, repeat a thousand times until he gives in.
- And other inventive things I’ve not thought of for this article.
Some of the above may have helped some, others you just won’t try, so is there another way to get him over his behavior? And what IS the cause of his acting out in this manner? What is he trying to tell you?
By now, you’ve read enough of my thoughts and philosophies on horse training to know what I’m not always in alignment with the rest of the horse world’s take on how to solve any particular problem and this is due to me not learning how to train from people, but rather from horses. People train horses from their own point of reference, meaning that today, it’s common to be a trainer by simply declaring yourself as such after working with a few horses or maybe completing a course through video, lessons and clinics. And hey, that’s all well and good and the methods taught even work. Usually. In general.
But when you learn from horses you don’t get a Level Completed certificate or a badge you earned or whatever. What you get instead, is a whole new way of interpreting the “problems” that horses present when they are sent to you for training. To get to the point, I mean that barn sour or buddy sour horses are not being difficult because they don’t want to work or want to be dominant or are acting up to take over. No, these horses are simply being good horses. The best horses! Why would I say this?
Because, to be a good horse in the horse world is not the same as being a good horse in the human world.
In the horses’ world, animals that leave the safety of the group are vulnerable. Alone, he becomes an easy target and susceptible to being killed and eaten. Herd animals band together because there is safety in numbers and this innate knowledge is known at a level that has nothing to do with logic. It is more reflexive and in line with the innate governing of how to be a horse that is passed from generation to generation genetically, and is not a learned behaviour. Horses are herd animals whose first objective in life is to be safe. After that, breeding, eating and companionship fall into place, and no, we are not, and cannot be a part of their herd because, well, we aren’t horses.
To be a good horse in the human world, horses must quiet their inner voices and ignore the hard wiring that keeps them safe when we are not in their presence. Like running for instance. We want to get on, race, run barrels, jump, do other gaming events and it’s fun for us. But is it fun for the horse? Sometimes, because they learn it is, but go back to the good horse in the horse world. He knows at a cellular level that running long distances for fun is not a good plan. It would take him out of the herd. It would deplete his energy. He would not be able to recover in time for a real emergency. So his runs for fun are short spurts and his runs for his life are for not being killed. His physical body reacts by increasing adrenaline, and his heart enlarges to better pump his blood to his muscles. And then it’s over and he recuperates. With us on and pushing for speed, the same physical things happen, but he is no longer responding to a life or death situation.
Back to the going out alone or away from home for your horse, if you look at it from his point of view, it’s clearly not that he’s being bad or ornery or contrary. So he “can have his own way.” He’s being a good horse in his world and look, he’s survived this far for doing so! Still, how do we help him become more willing to be a good horse in our world?
Keep in mind that horses are fear-driven and this colors how they interpret their surroundings. Emotionally, they are more like we are as toddlers and this also serves to help guide us in the best way to get them to do what we want. You wouldn’t punish a toddler for being afraid when his mom leaves, would you?
You can’t make your horse not be afraid of anything, including being alone in the world, but you can help him see that you can and will keep him safe in any situation. This requires both training and relationship. Remember that by helping him through the fear of leaving by changing his mind about how that feels will get his feet happily moving.
Horses are considered to be herd bound, barn sour, buddy sour or reluctant to leave home due to one thing and one thing only: Insecurity. Which is also separation anxiety, and if you are a normal, average human, there have been times or at least one time when you have felt it; that isolation feeling when starting a new school, or a new job, or being in a new city alone without Siri to guide you. It is uncomfortable to us, but we can logically think our way out of the feeling by familiarizing ourselves with the situation and thinking it through.
Horses do not tend to logically try to overcome their fear, they try to get away from the trigger and get back to feeling safe. If out alone, or away from a trusted friend, this manifests so that he appears to be barn sour and doesn’t want to settle down, listen to you, or walk calmly. Fear instigates motion for the horse and by trying to make him stop, stand, back up or even walk calmly will likely not be met with success. Sure, you can force him to do what you want him to do by pounding your chest and making him comply, and in some, maybe even most cases, you’ll end up with a horse who will then leave the barn and keep his feelings to himself (earned helplessness).
If you are uncomfortable making him comply because he gets “bigger” in showing his opinions, and he scares you (even a little) you may want another way of getting him to do what you want. I like to know my horse’s thoughts on a subject, but then my goal is get him to want to do it my way by changing his mind. I don’t see our relationship as a partnership where he has equal say; I always have the last word, but it doesn’t mean I must accomplish my goals in a negative or abusive manner.
Here is what I do, and it usually, but not always, works. The not always part is when there are only two horses on a property and I want to take one without the other. This situation is the hardest, in my opinion. They are not a real herd numbering two, so they depend even more on one another than when there are three or more. With two, it’s more buddy sour than barn sour, and more difficult to convince either that being alone is okay.
Start by understanding that your horse is truly troubled, worried and fearful. Remember that fear is one of only two states of emotional being and you want him to move into the trust state. Ask yourself how to best help him to that and then break your answer into twice the number of pieces as you originally planned. You’ll want to keep in mind that this Emotional Training is different from task oriented training, meaning your goal is to help him learn to handle his emotions rather than teaching him a specific maneuver.
Four components need to be considered when beginning this training:
Distance—how far you will go away from where he wants to be.
Time—how long you will keep him uncomfortable.
Threshold—how much is enough?
- Timing—when to reward.
Time: You’ll need more than you think and it will take longer than you can imagine. Don’t be discouraged!
Distance: Begin by grooming him and getting his attention on you through calm and happy moments. Take him out and away from his paddock or wherever you have been grooming and stop a short distance away. (Short distance is determined by the horse and is critical to keep him below threshold.)
Threshold is his tolerance level; it’s the point where his head raises a centimeter and his muscles tense. His feet may begin to move more, his breathing may increase and his heart rate shifts into high gear. He may whine. If you see him reach any of these indicators, you must immediately return to the spot he shows no signs of being anxious and make a mark on the ground, or place a cone or some other marker. This marker is your visual, and his, telling where his comfort ends and angst begins.
Timing: You’ll want to reward often, so when you are back near his buddy or stall, wait for him to settle, then take one step away and praise him immediately, while facing away from his desired safe zone. At this point, you may be literally only a meter from his stall, or you may be farther away; it depends on your horse. Watch carefully and remember to listen for increased breathing, feet shuffling, etc.
When you’ve determined his threshold spot, stop and intentionally turn him away from you (if you are on the left of him, turn him right). As you move him, ask for a slow, deliberate turn where he moves his shoulders around his hind quarters. Most important: Do not get under him to do this maneuver.
Once he completes his 180 degree rotation and is now facing his safe zone, pause, unless he is anxious, in which case, just take a step or two in that direction, then halt again. Praise and move toward his desired destination. You’ll repeat this as many times as it takes for him to stop fidgeting or being amped up, not going past that initial threshold mark and you’ll watch for him to indicate when you can move on to the next phase of training. Sometimes, this is the longest part of the exercise and may take anywhere from minutes to weeks to complete. You are simply helping him see that nothing terrible will happen and that it’s a fun game actually, with lots of praise and maybe even a treat. You’ll repeat the leaving and repeating over and over until there is no reaction from him. His friend will get bored before he does and that helps your horse relax as well.
The time this exercise takes is so variable, I can only tell you to be patient, allow as much time as possible and don’t do this if you only have a few minutes; at least when beginning. Remind yourself as you proceed that your intention is to help him. You are not training him, as much as helping him learn how he can control his own swinging emotions while keeping both of you safe.
Horses love games and they learn best while happily engaged in play, so make this exercise interesting for both of you by increasing his curiosity and desire. Be inventive. Set up “prizes” for him to find. A carrot in a bucket on a fence, or a treat in a pail near a tree, or even a handful of hay in an unexpected place when he’s facing away from home are all fabulous training tools! Once you are riding, you can carry a treat with you, or just allow him a bite of grass during a rest on the trail. Set up an unexpected meeting on the trail with his buddy. In the ring, you can leave a bite of hay somewhere to reward him for a job well done.
Soon, you will be able to move your marker further away, and just as you learned where to place it the first time, you watch for him to tell you where your new markers need to be. You can do this exercise while riding him as well. You may want to set your perimeter by making in a circle of equal distance from the start point. When you are able to trot that circle, just stay on the inside of it, closer to his safe zone, never beyond the threshold point. What this accomplishes is better feel, better communication (try riding without using your reins as you work on turn on the haunches and transitions). Caveat: Keep it fun, this work is not to be done as punishment!
You’ll work out your own routine, but remember to vary the lessons. Some should be in-hand, some under saddle. Reward your horse more often than you think you should. Get bored, but keep going. As each day passes, you’ll see more relaxation from him and a willingness to go farther. Always remember that your goal is not to get him over his desire, but to help him see that the desire is simply no longer needed.
One last word of advice: Do not circle your horse to teach him patience or to slow him down. It doesn’t work because half of the circle is yours, and the other half is his. He’ll be quite thrilled when circling towards home and obstinate when on the half circle away from home. So what are you teaching him?
Let me know how you’re doing and any other thoughts at TanyaBuck.com
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May Spring soon arrive so we can ride Happily Ever After!