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Dealing With The Barn Sour Horse
What Is 'Barn Sour'?
A barn sour horse is one who always wants to go back to the barn. Usually, this is a problem that comes up when the horse is taken out on the trail - most barn sour horses are fine with being ridden in the arena or pasture, but start to act up when taken off the property.
The first symptom of barn sourness is a subtle one...the horse will move just a little bit slower when going away from the barn and faster on the way home.
What Causes It?
Most of the time, the barn sour horse is actually what we call 'herd bound'. He's anxious and uncomfortable when he is away from his friends. As horses are herd animals and always happier in a group, herd bound behavior is very common.
In other cases, the barn sour horse may be anticipating a reward when he gets home. For example, always feeding a horse grain immediately after riding can create a barn sour horse because he wants his grain and he's going to get it. This is particularly noticeable with horses that are already prone to being food aggressive or food motivated.
What are the symptoms?
The barn sour horse generally moves slowly when going away from the barn and faster when going towards it. This behavior can escalate into taking off as soon as the horse hits the last stretch of the trail.
Barn sour horses may also try to make a dash for it if they turn around a corner in the trail and can suddenly see home. If the rider happens to come off, then a barn sour horse will head home at full speed, which is often dangerous. If they cannot get home, barn sour horses generally head for the trailer.
Some barn sour horses may plant their hooves and simply refuse to go down the trail in the first place.
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What is the cure?
A lot of patience and time. Barn sourness is one of the most frustrating problems a horse can develop.
One mistake that is often made is to take along a buddy. This will generally fix the symptoms, but do nothing about the underlying problem. Instead, the following steps should be taken.
1. Never canter or gallop towards home (even if your horse is not barn sour, do not 'run' the last stretch of the ride. It both causes or exacerbates barn sourness and can leave the horse hot). Always take the last part of the trail at an easy walk.
2. Do not feed immediately on returning to the barn. Make the horse wait a variable amount of time so as to break the cycle of anticipating food. (Do always make sure they have water, however).
3. Change your routine so returning home ceases to be the end of the ride. One good course of action is to do a brief school in the arena before putting the horse away. Other trainers have had good results with just riding on past the gate, and repeating until the horse is calm.
4. Improve your relationship with the horse. Most barn sour horses are uncertain, nervous and lacking in trust in their rider. If they think of you as a member of the herd, then they have no reason to think they are 'alone'. Ground work is key to this, as is being firm but consistent. You should neither let a horse walk right over you, nor beat it for its infractions.
5. Think of ways to make trail riding more fun. A barn sour horse that was made so by the association of food with reward may well respond to being given a reward while out on the trail. Dismount, make a fuss of him, and give a treat or two (but not always in the same place, or he might start rushing to that place instead).
If you do all of this, your horse will eventually stop being barn sour, but be warned. Barn sourness can take weeks, if not months, to cure.