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Curing a Barn Sour Horse

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

horse grazing in pasture

You know the type of horse ....they walk away from the barn like they have lead in their feet, if they move at all. If you do happen to get them any distance away from the barn, the instant you even hint that you want to head back toward the barn, they take off like they've been shot out of a rocket for the barn!

A horse like this is NO fun to ride. They can be irritating at best, dangerous at worst. It is a horse's natural instinct to find comfort with their 'herd'. The barn represents their herd mates, food, rest, and the end to riding. It's not hard to imagine why this bad habit develops, but if left unchecked, this common, stubborn habit can enter horse and rider into a downward spiral.

I am not claiming to be any kind of horse expert but was asked recently to share how I got my horse to overcome her barn sourness. I have used this strategy for other horses that amounted to asking for a brisk trot or canter away from the barn any time they picked up a faster rate than asked heading to the barn. So for example, I turn my horse to head home on a trail ride. We are at a walk, but the horse picks up a trot and starts to 'jig' and get faster and faster knowing he is headed to the barn. I would turn my horse around, (go back the direction I was coming) and make him go briskly away. After a few strides, I would head for home again. I like the reward of a loose rein if they are obeying. At any point while headed back, if the horse picks up speed without being asked and is not easily brought back to the correct speed maintaining a loose rein after the cue to slow down, I would repeat turning him around and briskly head away from the barn. They usually catch on pretty quickly that its easier to go the speed I ask toward home. This worked for my easier barn sour horses.... but not Willow!

I don't want to say Willow was a bit of a nut case when I got her ... but she was. She was/is insecure and easily rattled. She didn't respond to leg cues or leg pressure and really didn't respond with a very good whoa either. When I first rode her in my riding ring after coming to my place, she would not even go around the ring on the rail, or at an even speed. She was balky and hesitant any kind she was ridden away from the barn, spooked at the far end, and wanted to bolt back to the riding ring closest to the barn. My riding ring isn't even very big and is close to my barn. I worked with her on the ground to get better manners and her attention on me. We did simple ground exercises such as changing direction on a lunge line, giving to pressure, lateral movements, pivots on the forehand and hind, and occasionally going on walks in hand and practising some of these same exercises. I wanted her to experience being out of her comfort zone and still paying attention to me.

I stopped riding her until we had some time on the ground and I felt she had the concept of giving to pressure, moving away on the forehand and hind when cued. I worked on voice commands of whoa on the lunge line.

When I started back to riding, I wanted to not get into the habit I am pretty sure her previous owner did of hanging on to her mouth because she would just brace and charge thru. At first I didn't do much more then walk a few strides, whoa, stand quiet (loose rein), walk a few strides, whoa, etc. I made sure I gave her 'the release' of my hands or leg cues as a reward for responding correctly.

I found with Willow, she pretty quickly lost focus if she picked up any speed faster than a walk! Luckily, she is a TW and very smooth :) so one of the things I did with her to get her to just be able to be ridden around the arena on the rail, was not continually try to stop her when she went fast back to the barn side of the ring. I let her wear herself out a bit by letting her rush back but then kept the momentum up heading away and made the far side of the arena her resting spot. She had one corner in particular she would spook at so I let her kind of rush around a bit and then when I sensed she was receptive to the idea of stopping... had her stop close to the scary corner. I could eventually have her nose in the scary corner, while she rested from rushing around the arena.

We went from there to being able to walk or gait on command around the ring on the rails. I was at a bit of a stand still, because I still could not trust her to take her out very far from the barn because she would have bolted. I had to find a way to keep challenging her but not in a way that set us up to get into a big fight or give her the chance to bolt on me. :) My goal is to avoid getting into fights with my horse - and stay safe. I had tried the strategy I mentioned early to turn her around the opposite way riding her up and down my lane, but I ended up needing to use one rein stops and much too much in rein and force to get her to slow down or turn. I could see we would not get anywhere with that.

What I did come up with is this:

My turn-out, riding, paddock and pasture areas are set up behind my barn probably very similar to many of you. What I decided to try with Willow was bring the other horses in the barn and then open to gates to these areas. I would ride her meandering in and out of these different fenced areas as well as in and out the gate that lead to an area beside my barn and to our private lane. The other end led to the horses large pasture. What all this met was I could ride her in and out of her 'comfort' areas and to areas that challenged her. In the beginning, remember, even riding at the far end of the riding ring was challenging. What this also allowed was, at least initially,

1. I had a fence to help slow her down or stop her so she couldn't get away with bolting.

2. We didn't ride in a predictable pattern that she could anticipate and react in her old habits of balking and rushing.

If she 'rushed' to the barn, she quickly found out that her ride was not over, but we would then ride beyond the barn and meander back again, weaving in and out of the different gates and paddock areas. As she settled into this, and I found her responding well to whoa, riding on a loose reing and allowing me to rate her speed, I would push the boundaries on each end of our loop. On one end was out the exterior gate and down our lane and the other end led to a large pasture. I looped around and eyed where she would begin to feel anxious on these furthest spots and tried to catch it where she was just eased out of her comfort zone but not so much that her anxiety heightened. I also choose those spots as her 'resting' stops. She was allowed to just rest and relax for a moment each time around and each time pushed the furthest spot just a bit further.

I rode her in everything from a rope halter to a snaffle to a curb bit. We settled on a curb bit for now as we refine neck reining and bravery. :) She came to me being ridden in a long shanked walker bit.

I was careful not to ride around the barn in a particular pattern, sometimes riding at a walk and others at a gait, but was careful to make the 'work' take place by the barn and the resting spot at the place at the edge of her comfort zone. If she fell back into her old habit of rushing to the barn, I used that momentum to continue 'working' her in the riding and paddock areas. Doing this kind of thing in Aug. allowed me the advantage that horses tend to be a bit lazier in the warm weather then they do in the other seasons.

I was able to progress from the above exercise to riding her around what I call our trotting track which is just a wide space between the pasture fence and our property line that makes for a nice intermediate step between the riding ring to riding in an open field.

Our trotting track, on the far back corner, has a nice incline that ends at the barn. This is a nice place to canter green horses but also really assisted me in breaking Willow of running to the barn. As we rounded the corner and began up the hill the first couple times, she wanted to take off for the barn, but the incline made her work harder so all I had to do was sit deep in the saddle and only give a half halt cue to slow down rather that what she was used to prior, which was for someone to haul back on her mouth. I firmly believe she experienced the reward of the release from leg and hand cues and at other times, allowing the loose rein so her head could lower and she could mentally relaxed went a long way in breaking this habit. Granted, if you have a horse that is going to bolt on you, I would ride in an enclosed area, like I did or even better, go back to ground work and get a better foundation before riding.

View as we take a lap around the trotting track.


Hand grazing and walks away from the barn went a long way in helping her feel comfortable leaving her friends.

You can see by her expression she is a bit freaked out here! :) But she minded me and we kept moving forward. I would describe her as a horse low on the pecking order, insecure but sweet and kind. She actually did really well once she knew I wouldn't lose my temper, cause her pain or push her too fast.

If you've enjoyed reading about Willow, I have a couple blog entries from several months ago when she first came to me. I had to start off with pretty small steps. You can read them here:

Happy Trails!

Sue & Willow

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