I have a Barn Sweet Horse

Dear Maggie, I am 50 years old and have had a number of horses in my life. I now have a 3 year old Paint/gelding that is a pleasure to work around, he has a nice disposition and has really bonded with me. I ride him in the arena with no real problem but he has become so barn sour (in love with his stall) that when I ride him away from the barn his whole attitude changes and he goes into a bucking frenzy (not sissy bucking/he really throws a tantrum).

Story originally posted by: Maggie Flowers

He has never thrown me but his behavior is not getting any better. I have tried taking him off grain completely and it has helped a little but not enough I have changed saddle pads/saddles, tried different head stalls/bits I work him on a line or in the round pen to try and take some of the buck out of him.

I believe the whole problem is that he is badly barn soured. I have had some horses with that problem but not like him. There must be a way to get the bucking out of his head, so I hope you can help.

Davenport, Iowa

Hello Gary,

First realize that horses are very, very social animals. They bond quickly to a horse or place that represents safety and security. A mere change in artificial aids (tack) or feed deprivation will not cure this behavior.

The barn sour horse, the one that is reluctant to leave the stables or be separated from the any horse they have bonded with, usually constantly try’s to turn back, buck, crow hop during the leaving phase and when returning from a ride they excite to the point that it is difficult to hold them back. The term barn ‘sour’ is not the term of preference when it come to this kind of behavior. While at one of his seminars, trainer and behaviorist Pat Parelli stated that, “It is more barn ‘sweet’ than barn “sour”. The horse in question loves the barn. To him the barn means company, comfort, food, water, and rest, and most of all “no work”. “Saddling up means work,” says Parelli, and this is actually when they begin to have the stubborn mind set.

You can’t blame the horse, given reverse roles you would probably prefer the great life that exists in the barn. While riding, if he starts exhibiting the kind of behavior you’ve described; whipping, spurring and jerking him around will just confirm his opinion that being home is preferable to being ridden. As Tom Dorance says, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.”

With that in mind, let’s get down to curing and eventually preventing this irritating preference of his. In other words, “let’s play his game and beat him at it.” Let’s start by inching him out of the barn while you are a foot. Start by saddling him up, walking him out of the barn and then just tie him up somewhere in close proximity to the barn. Allow him to stand there for about 30min to an hour, depending on his attitude. Then just take him back, praise him for being quiet and patient, unsaddle him and turn him out. On the second day repeat the process but this time take him out half the distance further. On the third day again repeat the process, but this time try and obscure his sight of the barn. On the fourth day, saddle him up, walk him to the entrance of the barn, mount him, ride to the visually obscured spot, stand for about 5 minutes, dismount tie him for 15-20 minutes, mount him again, ride him to the entrance of the barn dismount, tie him there for 10-15 minutes, praise him walk away. Come back later, unsaddle him. When doing this entire procedure try to do it before feeding time. This way he learns to associated reward with good work and behavior.

Now, after the fifth day, hopefully it’s the weekend now, try taking him out. Make the ride so pleasurable and different everytime you go out. Vary the places you ride and surprise him with allowing him to graze or give him treats while temporarily stopped. But don’t do this in the same spot or at the same approximate time during any ride. Stagger this happening, to avoid him anticipating when these rewards will come. You can even use this strategy with regards to giving him water. All of this serves to convince him that, “all goods things aren’t always at home.”

We as owners and riders are often too quick to blame our horses’ ill mannered ways on them, When in truth we are the culprits. We tend to spoil them as in after a ride, we almost always immediately unsaddle, water, feed, groom and finally provide companionship which reinforces their desire to stay ‘home’. Why not keep him tacked up for about a half hour or longer, tie him and let him stand for several hours, immediately after a ride go to the round pen (if you have one) and put him through a workout that last from 15-30 minutes. His muscles are warmed up already from the ride, so it’s the perfect time.

You will soon start to see a change in him, one that says, “Gee I’m glad to see ya, take me out, it’s hard work being at home.” Again, remember in this case, consistency is not your friend. Never let a horse learn a routine. Always keep him guessing. This will help you encourage respect and keep you as the “alpha” in a herd of two. Good luck.

Maggie Flowers