From Sweet to Sour: How to Deal with a Barnsour Horse

Do you hesitate to ride your horse on the trail, dreading the inevitable spinning or bolting when he decides he's done for the day? Does your arena work degenerate into a wrestling match as he ducks across the center or makes a beeline for the gate? Does he dig his feet and holler for his buddies before you even get him out of the stall?

If so, it appears you have a barnsour horse, and it's up to you to modify his behavior – and your own – before somebody gets hurt. Your chances of success are good, assuming you're patient and put some effort into the job.

Barnsourness results from a combination of factors, not just your horse's natural instincts and personality, but also your own style of management and riding ability. It helps if you understand that barnsourness is basically just an exaggerated form of your horse's inborn herd instinct.

"A horse knows he is more vulnerable when he is away from his companions or his most familiar territory," says Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the animal behavior clinic at Cornell University. "To a horse, security means being with the herd, and for this reason, many horses are reluctant to be led or ridden away from the group."

Personality also enters into the equation, observes Dr. Dean Scoggins, equine extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois. In his experience, barnsour horses tend to fall into two categories. The most common situation is the horse who is very insecure and fearful; he just wants to go back to the stall and hide. The other type is basically lazy; the horse who would rather hang around the barn and eat and rest than go to work.

If one of these profiles fits your horse, here are some guidelines to help design a retraining program:

Underlying Problems

What you interpret as barnsourness may be genuine physical discomfort or emotional distress. Begin by checking your horse carefully for tender places, examining his mouth, poll, chin, back, sides and belly. Examine your equipment as well, and fix or replace anything that doesn't fit or work well. Scrutinize his work environment, looking for elements that may cause him to become anxious.

Use Groundwork

Before you get back in the saddle, do some groundwork to reinforce basic commands such as "walk" and "whoa." While this can be helpful for any horse, groundwork is especially useful with stubborn horses. The stubborn horse has made a habit of doing his own thing and not paying attention to the rider. "Groundwork teaches your horse to follow your directions, so when you get on his back, he's much more willing to follow that pressure and go where you want him to go," Scoggins says. While on horseback it helps to carry the same dressage whip you used for encouraging your horse to walk from the ground.

Vary Your Route and Distance

Don't come and go the same way each time you ride, and don't always turn around to head home at the same place, suggests Houpt. Vary your dismounting spot, too, so your horse doesn't anticipate that relief. Instead of always getting off at the barn at the end of your ride, dismount occasionally at a gate some distance away and lead your horse home. "That way, the reward of your getting off doesn't always take place right at the barn," she says. In the process, your horse will learn to associate different locations with the end of his work.

Don't Let Your Horse Run For Home

When you go out for a ride, make sure your horse always travels more slowly returning to the barn than leaving it. For at least the last quarter mile, bring him down to a walk so you both can relax. If he speeds up when the barn is in sight, turn him around and head him back in the opposite direction, until he drops back down to a walk. "Once he's slowed down, you can start him toward home once again," Scoggins says. "Repeat this exercise every time he starts to run back home. Only allow your horse to go toward the barn when he's on a loose rein and his temperament is quiet."

Offer Your Horse a Picnic Lunch

Often a barnsour horse can be enticed into venturing from home by feeding him out in a far pasture or on the trail, rather than at the barn. Take your horse's dinner along in your saddlebag or backpack and give it to him when you reach the farthest point from home. Teach your horse that if he goes sensibly for two miles, he'll be rewarded with something to eat," Houpt says. "The idea is to give your horse new and pleasurable associations with his working environment, so he'll look forward to his time out of the barn as well as in."