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Curing a Barn Sour Horse

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 home! 

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’ so all horses have this tendency.  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 and can make a horse unsafe to ride.  

Her freaked out expression 🙂  It’s okay Willow, we will get thru this!

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.  First, I’ll share a strategy that I have used with success on other horses and then a new strategy I came up with for Willow since the first was not effective for her. 

Pretty Girl!  Worth the effort! 

Barn Cure 1:

Ask for a brisk trot or canter away from the barn anytime the horse picked up a faster rate than asked heading to the barn.  

For example, I turn my horse to head home on a trail ride at a walk but the horse picks up a trot and starts to ‘jig’ and chomp at the bit, getting 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 time, 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 it is easier to go the speed I ask toward home.  This worked for my easier barn sour horses…. but not Willow!  

Bad hair cut but getting the idea.  End of walk reward- alfalfa field hand grazing! 

I don’t want to say Willow was a bit of a nut case when I got her a few months ago … 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 time 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 practicing 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 certain her previous owner did of hanging onto her mouth because she would just brace and charge thru.  At first, I didn’t do much more than 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.  

Taking Willow for a walk. 

Reward Time! 

I found with Willow, she very quickly lost focus if she picked up any speed faster than a walk!  I equated it with her ‘losing her mind’.  Not good for a horse!  Luckily, she is a TW and very smooth 🙂 so one of the things I did with her to get her okay to be ridden around the arena on the rail, was not continually trying to stop her when she went fast on the 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 she would spook at so I let her rush around a bit and then when I sensed she was receptive to the idea of stopping (she was getting tired or realized there was no point in rushing) … I 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.  In a couple riding sessions, I had her consistently riding on the rail, at the speed I choose, without hanging on her mouth.  Reward!

I was at a stand still though, because I still could not trust her very far from the barn because she gave me every reason to believe she would bolt.  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. 🙂  My goal is always 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 rein and force to get her to slow down or turn.  I could see we would not get anywhere with that and just reinforce her previously learned bad behavior.

What I did come up with is this:

Barn Cure II:

My turn-out, riding, paddock and pasture areas are set up behind my barn probably very like many of you.  What I decided to try with Willow was bring the other horses in the barn to get them out of the way and then open all the 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 open area beside my barn and to our private lane.  The other end led to the horses’ large pasture.  I wanted her to experience being outside the fenced areas too but had to be it in measured steps. 

This arrangement allowed me to ride her in and out of her ‘comfort’ areas and to areas that challenged her, in small doses so not to overwhelm 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.  When a horse bolts to the barn and then stops being ridden, that behavior is reinforced and rewarded!  I was trying to set up the scenario that she experienced rewards for good behavior!   

2. We didn’t ride in a predictable pattern that she could anticipate and react in her old habits of balking and rushing.  I zig zagged and weaved in and out of the areas and occasionally went back to a couple laps around the arena, on the rail.  But always in a way she couldn’t anticipate.  This also gave me lots of time to work on moving off the leg and cueing whoa and rating speed.   

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 rein 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 to a beautiful alfalfa field and the other end led to our large pasture.  I looped around and eyed where she would begin to feel anxious on these furthest spots and tried to catch it so she was just eased out of her comfort zone but not so much that her anxiety heightened.  I also choose those furthest spots as her ‘resting’ stops.  We stopped to rest and relax there for a moment each time around and then each time I pushed the furthest spot just a bit further.  On the day things really clicked for her, the last stop was at the alfalfa field where I dismounted and hand grazed her.  Success and Reward! 

During the first few ring riding sessions, I rode her in everything from a rope halter to a snaffle to a curb bit.  We settled on a curb bit for now (with a loose rein) 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 predictable pattern, sometimes riding at a walk and others times at a gait.  I 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.  Plus, 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 so I wasn’t running her into the ground or in the position of her having extra energy and me tiring out.   

We were 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.  Again, I was looking for the baby steps to ease her into moving forward but not overwhelming her- or getting me in over my head! 

Riding the trotting track for the first time. 

Before riding out from the barn, we took lots of walks, out and about.  This gave her a chance to see new sights and spook, if need be, and know she was okay. 

Our walks often ended with a few minutes of hand grazing. 

Our companion on the rides is Molly, my Golden Retriever, always ready to go! Molly ‘helped’ by desensitizing Willow to dogs running up suddenly behind us or bursting thru the brush after chasing a bunny!   LOL  Thank you, Molly!  Willow now is less leary of dogs. 

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 her down rather than what she was used to prior, which was for someone to haul back on her mouth.  I believe experiencing the reward of the release from leg and hand cues and the loose rein, allowing her to lower her head helped her mentally relax and keep her mind engaged.  No more ‘losing her mind’ at a speed faster than a walk.  All this went a long way in breaking this habit.  

We couldn’t have done this without lots of prior ground work!  Be safe! Here Willow is being worked on a lunge line, out away from the barn.  

If you have a horse that is going to bolt on you, ride in an enclosed area, or even better, go back to ground work and get a better foundation before riding, like I did.  Or even better, get a trainer.  If you feel over your head, please, please get some expert help.  It is money well spent!

Willow, in early spring, overlooking the riding ring and paddock area. 

My main points I hope to offer to you from this experience are:  1.  Spend non-training time with your horse.  Grooming, hand grazing etc. to help build trust.  2.  Horses greatly outweigh and out muscle us.  I am a middle-aged woman.  🙂  I must always be looking for ways to work with my horse that does not involve brute strength or extreme athletism.  Know your limitations.  Look for the baby steps and don’t be discouraged by not having big chunks of time to do something. 15- 30 mins. here and there, with a positive outcome, add up over time to make a big difference!   3.  If you experience a lot of resistance in your horse, go back to the basics. 4.  By all means, STAY SAFE.  Get help if needed.  Hire a local trainer if you are in over your head.  Learn ground work methods and start from the beginning.  I recommend Carson James.    If you’ve enjoyed reading about Willow, you can read more blog posts here: or just put Willow in the search box at the top of this blog.  They are listed most newer to older so make sure to click the ‘more posts’ at the bottom to see the earlier ones.   Thank you as always for stopping by!  Please consider sharing on social media or stop by my website and etsy shop to see my horse paintings and pet portraits.  

My other horses…..

Cim, a TW gelding 

Porsche, a TW mare.

My own horse memes, found on my art website. 

Hope you are encouraged today and are encouraging others!  🙂 

Molly, my art studio dog, in between trail rides! 

Willow in the pasture. 

 My pet and horse portraits ….. always appreciate referrals!  See more at my website:

Pet Portraits! 

Willow resting in the scary corner…and then it wasn’t so scary!  

happy trails!

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