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Creating A Barn Sour Horse

By Jeffrey Rolo

Envision this…

You set out to enjoy a peaceful trail ride with your horse, but as soon as you gain a little distance from the stable your horse begins to resist. He starts dancing from side to side and neighing loudly, but you're determined to press on. As the battle of wills escalates your horse begins rearing and that's when you decide to pack things in and head back home. Unfortunately, your horse is barn sour.

Or how about this…

You begin a long and soothing ride with your horse and everything is going along great. After thirty minutes have passed you decide it's time to turn around and leisurely head back to the stable. The closer you get to the stable, the more excited your horse becomes. As you reach the final stretch you're doing everything within your power to prevent your horse from galloping back to the barn like a madman. Unfortunately, your horse is barn sour.

Few things are as frustrating as a barn sour horse, yet more often than not we are responsible for creating that condition in the first place. Throughout this article I will use "you" in a generic sense when discussing the causes of a soured horse, but understand that it doesn't mean you created the problem – it could easily have been a past owner or trainer.

There are actually three types of "barn sour" states:

Barn Sour

This classification is reserved for horses that do not wish to head a distance away from the stable. The two most common reasons a horse may become barn sour are:

bulletInsecurity – The horse is fearful of leaving the barn and you don't have the bond of trust required to appease his fears.
bulletStubbornness – Some horses can become barn sour out of pure stubbornness; they simply don't want to leave the property!

If your horse is sour due to insecurity then chances are very high you didn't take the time to establish a bond of trust with your horse before taking him out for a trail ride. Most horses are followers, not leaders, so if you don't take the time to earn his respect then why should he trust in you to keep him safe in the big scary world?

Some horses are more courageous than others by nature, but ultimately it's the rider's responsibility to establish himself as a dependable leader for the horse before trying to push him beyond his comfort zone.

Just as with people, some horses are going to be more naturally bull-headed than others. But that being said, if a horse is barn sour due to stubbornness rather than fear it's probably because you or a previous owner/trainer allowed poor behavior in the past. Horses will often test their limits, and if they succeed in refusing to leave the property once then chances are high they will provide a battle every single time you try to leave the property. Before you know it you have a barn sour horse on your hands.

Eventually some horses can become so barn sour that even the best horse trainer may decide it's just not worth the battle and write off the horse.

Gate Sour

A gate sour horse will exhibit the same general behavior as a barn sour horse anytime you ask him to enter an arena. The common reasons a horse may become gate sour are:

bulletBoredom – Every single time you enter the riding ring you perform the same routine… time after time after time. Your horse is now tired of it and will do anything to avoid another boring session.
bulletDiscomfort – You work the horse so hard in the arena he leaves exhausted and sore. He sure as heck isn't going to look forward to such brutal sessions.
bulletStubbornness – The horse may simply be stubborn or lazy, and since he has determined you are not his superior he will begin a battle of wills with you to get out of working.

The first two causes above are self-explanatory and thus the preventative action required on our part to keep a horse from becoming gate sour should be equally evident.

Dealing with a stubborn horse is the trickiest of the three causes, but technically you shouldn't be allowing him to dictate the terms of your relationship to you. Before proceeding further you must establish yourself as the head honcho, because if you allow him to defy you more than once you run the risk of creating a permanently gate sour horse.

Herd Bound

A horse becomes herd bound when he is extremely insecure about leaving an equine friend behind. Rather than view the other horse as a buddy, your horse has views him as a vital security blanket he cannot do without. You will know the difference between a barn sour horse and a herd bound horse by the addition of some frantic and high-pitched neighing. If your horse neighs dramatically to his partner he is clearly herd bound.

The majority of herd bound horses are created during their earliest months of life when a human failed to instill a trust of humans into the foal. A foal should always experience human interaction at those early stages so that it's as natural for him to be in the presence of us as it is other horses.

There are two periods where a foal is particularly susceptible to developing a dependence on other horses: the imprinting period and the weaning period.

If you imprint a foal improperly such that you traumatize him instead of reassure him during your efforts to make him accept you as his leader, he will have an inherent distrust of humans. This distrust will put him at risk of becoming herd bound in the future.

The weaning period is the most stressful time in a horse's life, so it's especially important that you handle it properly. When the foal is pulled away from his mother it's essential that you fill the gap rather than another horse. I personally prefer to keep a foal isolated from direct contact with other horses during that period. He can interact over a fence, but hands-on interaction should be reserved for me. If you become his leader during this stressful time, chances are close to zero that your horse will become herd bound.

If you do put your foal into direct contact with other horses during the weaning period try to make sure he isn't matched with just one horse for an extended period of time. Companionship is fine, but an unhealthy dependence on another horse will put him at high risk in the future.

As you can see the horse owner is more often than not the root cause of a horse becoming barn sour, so being alert to the triggers will help you avoid encouraging this vice in your horse. If your horse is already barn sour then prevention is a bit too late, so I would recommend you read Working With A Barn Sour Horse to find advice on removing the vice.

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