Barn Sour Horses

Barn sour horses are one of the most common problems we get asked about. As frustrating as this can be, we would sure not want to vent this frustration on the horse. When you really stop and think about it, it actually is pretty smart on the horse’s part. Would you want to leave your buddies, your feed or grass – giving up that freedom to go work? Probably not, so it is with this understanding we come at this “horse problem.”

You tend to see barn sour horses the most with horses that may not get ridden very often or are really insecure. Conversely though, when being ridden might cause the horse problems, due to abuse or ill-fitting gear, we can’t blame him for wanting to get back to the barn.

The best way to avoid this situation is to get with the horse through feel right from the start. Again here, as on some of our other pages, I hesitate to say, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” simply because it seems like some people get stuck on the “wrong thing difficult.” (Which isn’t a very good deal for the horse.)

As with a lot of things to do with horses, I wouldn’t make a big issue of barn sour horses. If you do, it can get a lot worse. You should start with some simple things back at the barn either on the ground or mounted. You really need to have a good foundation on the horse before you ever think of leaving the barn area. Here is a list of things I check out on any horse I ride. If he won’t do these, I personally wouldn’t want to ride him – let alone leave the barn.

When you have the horse doing theses things, and he is pretty soft about it you should feel pretty safe about going anywhere. If after this, there is still something going on inside the horse, I would really try to figure out what was behind it.

  • Is he scared or lacking confidence
  • Is he in pain (from my bridle/saddle etc.)
  • Is he trying to take over

Lets take a closer look at each of these…

A Horse that’s Scared or Lacking Confidence

If your horse scared, you should go back closer to the barn, just at that point (spot) where he wasn’t bothered. Here you might do some things that you know the horse is comfortable with. (Like trotting a circle etc.) Then when the horse doesn’t seem too bothered, try to move just a little further out. You don’t want to get in a hurry to get away from the barn and scare the horse even worse! He just might beat you back to the barn, if you know what I mean. It also helps if you can have someone on an older horse ride with you. You want to be operating with a lot of feel, especially on a colt!

A Horse that is in Pain

If the horse is in pain, you want to correct this right away! You don’t want to build a troubled spot in there that you are going to have to fix later. Always double-check your gear (tack) to make sure it’s right and not causing problems. Also be aware of your horses movement that there is no sign of soreness or lameness.

A Horse that is trying to Take Over

If your horse is trying to take over (take control) it is because he feels he needs to. Really it goes deeper than that. Someone has to be the leader in our dance with the horse. If its not you, then the horse gets really troubled and feels like he must take over to survive. This idea of us being the leader is just that – being a leader. It has no connection with dominating or demanding. None at all! If we don’t offer the horse direction through feel, then believe me he will do some “directing” of his own. In the case of the “barn sour” horse, he’ll try to go back to the barn.

When the horse is trying to take over and its going bad, just go back to the barn! While there we would stay busy. Maybe loping circles or doing work on a soft feel (collection). I would advise throwing in some backing and maybe side passing – Anything to stay busy. Now I wouldn’t be trying to murder him or “run him in the ground.” That’s not the point. (See Below For My Thoughts On This) Probably all of us have things we could work on when it comes to our horses! Why not do them at the barn. You should be watching for a chance to leave again – when your horse gets soft and really quiet. When you do go to leave, you need to be quiet on him as well (staying out of his mouth etc.) allowing the horse to think it through – They will to. It won’t take very much of this (being busy around the barn and being quiet when he leaves) for the horse to say, “Dang, I’d sure like to go somewhere other than the barn.” What happens in the end is your horse is happy to go with you, wherever that is.

It sounds kind of simple and it is. It may take a few times though. Bill Dorrance said, “It takes the time it takes.” He was right on. You might miss a trail ride or two, but the next time you get to go out, chances are it will be a lot better for you and your horse.

My Thoughts on “Running the Horse in the Ground”

The most common advice that you may hear concerning “Barn Sour” horses is to take him back to the barn and work his butt off (punishment). For some horses, running them in the ground might “work.” But it also may just get your horse in better shape to run further next time. The idea here is to be working with the horse where real communication is going on. When you take your horse back to the barn with the idea of punishing him by running him in the ground, communication stops. Instead of operating with feel, we’re operating with frustration. Not a good thing with horses – or with us. Why not come back to the barn with the idea of helping the horse get with you and you get with him – where real learning and communication can take place. Ray Hunt says, “We’re really not working on the horse, we’re working on ourselves.” This way of true horsemanship is really a way of life.

For questions or comments about this issue, please contact us.

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