Trainer’s Tip: Barn sour

February 25, 2020

by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center

Hello again! I hope everyone is enjoying our beautiful Colorado winter, which seems to be in full effect. Here at the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center, we are steadily moving forward with training and adopting horses in between shoveling and plowing snow. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for most horse owners to be unable to spend a lot of time riding courtesy of the short daylight hours, footing, temperature and tending to our horses’ basic needs. When horses sit for an extended period, it may be common for them to become “barn sour.” A horse exhibiting barn sour behavior won’t leave the barn and may throw a little bit of a fit to see if he will be able to talk you into letting them stay home.

In a previous article, I addressed buddy sour horses and mentioned that they feel safer and more secure when they are with another horse. The same logic applies with barn sour behavior. Most horses start to feel very secure and comfortable at home and don’t want to leave. Furthermore, they quickly learn that it’s a lot of work riding around, and they would much rather stay home and eat. Who could blame them? When this behavior starts, it can be very subtle at first then quickly escalate into some pretty intimidating stuff, such as rearing and bucking. Usually, when a horse starts to throw a fit, many people get off and put them away, which, in the horse’s mind means he’s getting a reward for unwanted behavior and will try harder next time to intimidate the rider more. Another common cause of barn sour focuses on your riding routine. Typically, we ride out away from the barn and have fun working our horses only to get home and take the saddle off, brush them, let them relax and then feed them. This routine makes all the good things happen for them at home, and all the work happens when they leave.

No matter the cause of barn sour, there are some things we can do to correct the behavior. When we go to ride out and our horse stops, backs up, rears, kicks out or whatever they are deciding to do to protest, put their feet to work right away. One of my favorite things is to trot circles right where they are very assertively, even if it is right in the driveway. If you can’t get them to trot, bend their head and disengage the hind quarters and get their feet moving by applying pressure near the rear girth with your leg. The key to all of it is to keep the feet moving. Once you are able to regain control of the feet, ask to walk off again releasing all pressure and making a calm walk an easier thing than sulling up or throwing a fit. One mistake I have seen riders make is they will perform a one rein stop when things start to get out of control and then allow the horse to stop completely rather than keep them moving. If we allow the horse to completely stop and take a break, we are again rewarding the poor behavior. Instead, once you have completed the one rein stop and kept yourself safe, immediately put the horse to work moving its feet. Once you have regained control, keep the horse working until it tries to leave the spot you are working in, and then let them. You might get one or two good steps in the direction you want then you might have to put them back to work. By doing this process, you are starting to condition the horse’s mind to think that it’s a lot of work to be here where it wants to be and less work for it to go where you want it.

An early indication that barn sour behavior is beginning is when your horse wants to hurry back to the barn or the trailer. When I notice this behavior, I start working right there, moving the feet and putting them to work until they settle down. I don’t constantly pull on the reins trying to slow them down. Another trick I use is to go out for a short relaxing ride, come home and really work there, trotting circles, loping circles, turning and getting soft. That way, your horse starts to look forward to a trail ride and knows there will be more work to do when they get back. The most important part of all of this is to realize that barn sour behavior is correctable and to be patient and just work through it calmly.

Barn sour horses are quite common and quite fixable with the right method. Reward the good behavior with release of pressure and easy riding, put the unwanted behavior to work making it more difficult. Reward the smallest change and the slightest try and your horse will start learning very quickly. Until next time keep riding with a smile and check yer cinch from time to time.