I recently read an article about “under saddle separation anxiety,” which is a fancy way to say barn sour. The article essentially said to train a horse who was barn sour, when the horse wanted to turn around, one had to merely “put a little feel on the rein,” which I’m assuming means to just squeeze the rein. I’m honestly not sure, as I have never had a trainer use this expression.
For anyone who has ever had a barn sour horse, the idea of of putting “a little feel on the rein,” is not only laughable, it is downright ridiculous. I read articles like these and wonder who they are actually written for- because I will tell you they certainly are not written for me or any horse I’ve ever trained. Articles that insinuate that you just need a little flick of the rein and get your horse to listen to you and everything will be perfect are, in my opinion, not only wrong, but they create a dangerous situation for the horse and rider who are genuinely having a problem. People who may have a horse who is very barn sour to the point of being dangerous and may try to do something as ridiculous as just putting “a little feel on the rein,” and end up getting hurt. It angers me to no end that so many trainers seem to have so little real-world knowledge of what issues the majority of horse owners experience.
What does it mean for a horse to be barn sour?
A horse who is “barn sour,” essentially just doesn’t want to leave either the barn or an area of the barn- it could be that he doesn’t want to leave the area of his stall, or the area where he is comfortable at the barn (often the area between his stall and where he is regularly exercised and groomed).
This is a very normal response for horses, as they are herd animals, and leaving the herd is dangerous. As a result, it often requires training and work beyond putting “a little feel on the rein” for the horse to be comfortable outside of his area, away from his friends.
Where to start
I start on the ground, with hand walking. Depending upon the horse, I might even need to walk with a friend who is also walking a horse. I will start with walking the horse away from the area where he is comfortable, to the point that I am safe and he is safe. This is very important, as some horses are so barn sour that they can be dangerous, and their response can end up putting you or them in danger. I’ve seen horses pull back and spin around in order to try to go back home. I’ve seen them rear up; I’ve seen them pull back and spin, pulling the rope out of the handler’s hands, or buck and spin, dumping the rider. “Put a feel on the rein” indeed.
Remember again, the main two rules:
- Keep yourself safe.
- Keep your horse safe.
With these two rules in mind, walk your horse around, away from his normal area. If you do this regularly, and don’t make a big deal out of it, eventually you will expand the area where he is comfortable. When I would move to a new barn, the first thing I would do is to walk the horse around the grounds, getting him used to the area. I would hand walk him out on the trails, at least a short bit, so he knew that the trails were also part of “his” area.
If your horse is incredibly herd-bound, again, walking with another horse is very helpful, and do not try to push your horse too much. Expand your area just a little bit everyday, just enough to push him beyond his comfort level, but not enough to make him so uncomfortable that he wants to turn back or starts calling or gets upset. This means you need to be aware of your horse as you’re walking him- pay attention to when he puts his head up, or if he tries to turn his head a little on the line. If he keeps looking back, or starts to refuse to move forward, make him walk a few feet further, then start back to his comfortable area- it should always be YOUR idea of where to go, and if you continue to push your horse just a little in a way that doesn’t hurt him, that will let your horse know that he can trust you- and he will transfer that trust to when you are on his back.
Barn Sour on a Ride- Bring a Buddy
Some horses are fine all over the ranch, but when you take him out on trail, after a short time he wants to turn back. Again, this is completely normal- your horse does not feel safe when he’s away from his herd. This is one of the many reasons why building a relationship on the ground is so important, so you can establish that you are a leader and he can trust you.
I’ve found that a buddy is such a help with a barn sour horse- either another rider or even ponying another horse along. The horse feels that he is not alone out on trail. That being said, I’ve seen some horses who are so barn sour that you could literally bring every horse from the ranch out on trail with you, and he would *still* run back to the ranch! A barn buddy often helps a number of horses, however- once your horse is used to going out with friends, he will be more likely to be comfortable alone out on the trail.
Ride Every Stride
I’ve found that some horses who are barn sour are allowed to be naughty because their owner is a beginner or novice rider, or just isn’t paying attention. The horse will take advantage of the rider’s inattention and will turn around once he realizes that the rider isn’t focusing on him. This creates a situation that is beyond barn sour and ends up being an issue that is very frustrating for the rider, and requires retraining. I knew one horse who became so difficult that his rider ended up circling most of the ride, which was dangerous as the horse would sometimes decide to spin around on a single-track trail.
Instead of allowing your horse to get to the point of turning around, you need to pay attention to your horse, and be constantly communicating with him. You do not have to yank on the reins, but have enough rein so that you can gently correct him before he is able to turn around, and put leg pressure on the same side (if he is trying to turn to the left, for example, use leg pressure on the left and gently pull with the right rein). If he does turn around, then turn him right back around so he is facing the way you want him to face, and ask him to walk forward again. Depending upon the situation, you need to make a decision as to what to do next if he refuses to move forward or tries to continue circling. If you are unsafe, then the best decision is to at least get your horse to stand, facing away from the direction he wants to go… then YOU turn him around and have him go back home (at a walk). This way, at least, it is your decision to have turned around.
That being said, you need to also be aware of how much you’re pushing your horse. You want the ride to be fun and comfortable for him, not a constant fight. Instead of planning a long ride, plan multiple short rides where you can be more attentive and you are not pushing your horse as much.
Be Realistic in Your Expectations
Some horses are never good out on trail alone, and are just safer with a buddy, and some are honestly better out on trail alone. Horses sometimes need a buddy for a while, then are just fine going out alone. Some horses, depending upon their life experiences, may never get to the point that they are safe around the ranch, but are still uncomfortable out on trail. This doesn’t mean you don’t keep working with your horse and building up your relationship with him, but sometimes you just need to be realistic in understanding your horse’s needs. Quixote, for example, took a very long time to be comfortable with walking around the ranch and standing at the crossties, but Cindy Lou, for all of her neurosis, is just fine being anywhere on the ranch as long as she can see all of her horsie friends. Hershey will go out on trail I can drive him down the street without any issues as long as he has horsie friends- but he screams every other stride if I take him out alone. Tamahome is better when I pony Gypsy out on trail, but if I ride him out on trail consistently, he is just fine without her. I’m not going to pretend that just putting “a feel on the rein” is going to help any of them be more comfortable out on trail- it takes time to build a relationship, then it takes time to get the horse comfortable in a new situation.