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Working with Barn and Buddy Sour Horses

You try to go out for an enjoyable trail ride, but what you imagined as a peaceful ride over hill and dale turns into a battle of wills as your horse refuses to go forward, struggles to turn and head for home, and calls incessantly for his friends left at home.

Or perhaps the horse you take out is fine, but as you ride you worry about the one left at home… is he ok? Will he try to jump out again?

Dealing with barn and buddy sour behavior can be one of the most frustrating and patience testing situations that we face as riders. Unfortunately, it may also be the most common and the most difficult to solve.

Barn and Buddy Sour… aka Separation Anxiety

First, to clearly define what we are discussing, barn sour refers to a horse that wants to stay at the barn or that wants to rush back. Buddy sour refers to a horse who has become very attached to another horse.

Both are forms of separation anxiety.

What is important to remember that no matter how frustrating this behavior is it’s not defiance or disrespect, it’s anxiety and fear.

(There are cases where a horse may learn that he can simply refuse to leave the area of the barn or his companions in order to avoid work or other situations he considers unpleasant, but the majority of these “sour” behaviors are true anxiety.)

When a horse is removed from companions and/or the environment he feels safe in, he can experience anything from a slight increase in anxiety and displaying nervous behavior such as fidgeting, calling out, or head tossing, to a full panic, where he may bolt, crash through fences, or other potentially self-harming behaviors.

It is natural for a horse to be fearful of separation from his companions. The horse is both a prey and a herd species. There is safety in numbers if predators attack.

Also, the horse is a very social animal and part of his emotional stability comes from connecting and interacting with others, preferably of his own species.

Management Factors

There are some situations that make separation anxiety more likely to develop.

In a more natural herd situation, the horse may choose a best friend, but will have social interactions with many different horses.

With the limitations of domestic life, we often have to keep only a few horses together and as a result, intense pair bonding can occur.

This pair bonding tends to make separation anxiety worse, as the horse relies solely on his friend for companionship and stability.

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Also, the less variability that a horse has in his routine, meaning the more he stays in the same field with the same horses the more anxious he will often become when asked to leave.

Are some horses more prone to separation anxiety?

It would be a very interesting study to determine what determines personality, fear, and and confidence levels in horses. I’m sure the influences of genetics and early life experience could be debated just as they are in human emotional development, but it is obvious that some horses are simply more emotionally stable than others.

For many horses separation is often easier if they are being engaged in other ways. For example, while this isn’t always the case, it is often the horse left behind rather than the one leaving who experiences more anxiety.

What Can We Do?

The obvious next question is can we help a horse overcome separation anxiety?

I believe that yes we can, and there are two main paths to achieving this.

The first is to improve our relationship with the horse, and the second is to begin exposing them to more time out of their safety zone, away from the barn or their companions.

There is never one path to creating better relationships, but three keys are to create good associations during our time with our horses, be consistent in our requests, and be assertive enough to create boundaries where needed.

Even though we can’t take the place of an equine companion that our horse spends the other 23 hours a day with, we can become a trusted source of comfort and connection.

Some may consider this becoming a leader for the horse, but be careful not to assume that your horse will happy to follow you anywhere and do anything if you are just a strong enough leader. Contrary to what is often thought, horses do not simply follow the “leader” of their herd. Instead their social structure is much more dynamic.

Developing a rapport with the horse through having basic requests that the horse clearly understands is important. For example, walk forward, stop, back up can be simple responses we can ask for on the ground or in the saddle.

To quote John Lyons, in an article he wrote about barn and buddy sour behavior, focusing on basic responses is “anticipating the tools you’ll need” during bouts of separation anxiety.

It is important to honestly evaluate if you can handle the behavior your horse displays during separation anxiety.

Whether mounted or on the ground, you do need the physical skills to manage your horse’s movements in order to keep yourself safe and you need to be able to remain calm during your horse’s episodes.

If you are unsure of your own skills you may choose to either work in closer proximity to your horse’s “safety zone”, whether that is close to the barn or his companion, so that your horse’s separation anxiety behaviors remain low – at a level where you are comfortable working through them – or you may choose to have someone more experienced work with your horse during these times of increased anxiety while you build your own skills and experience in calmer times.

How to Begin

As with many other anxieties, separation anxiety is best worked through with slow, repeated exposure. Meaning your horse needs to spend more time away from his companions or safety zone to become comfortable leaving or having them leave.

In desensitization, there are three principles to consider when introducing something new and scary. These are distance, duration, and intensity. Try to increase only one at a time, not all three. The goal is to challenge your horse in order to face and work through some anxiety while not going “over threshold”, creating panic.

Begin by working with your horse in an area where he is only mildly uncomfortable. Perhaps 30 or 40 feet from the barn or his companion. Practice your basic responses: walking, stopping, and circling.

It is important to pay careful attention to your horse’s responses and emotional states. As he becomes calm in one area you can move further away. If he becomes too excited, you can come back closer to the safety zone. The goal, however, is to pay close enough attention to your horse’s emotional thresholds that you don’t go too far too fast. If you lose control or the situation becomes too unsafe and you need to return to the barn you can accidentally reinforce the anxious behavior by returning.

It’s not a fast or easy process. You will likely need to be assertive and use more pressure in your requests for the basic responses than you would under normal calm circumstances. Keep in mind that during times of anxiety, it is often not soothing that makes the horse feel better, but rather calm, consistent direction.

If your concern is for the horse left behind in the barn, you don’t have the time to consistently work with your horse, or if you don’t feel safe handling your horse away from his safety zone, you can sometimes change the horse’s management.

Periodically moving one horse away into a separate field or stall can be an option, as can introducing an additional companion for the horse left behind.

Watch all the horses involved for signs of stress and do everything you can to ensure safety – closing open stall fronts for example, or only using fields with extra high fencing for the excitable horses for example.

The behavior of domesticated horses will be related to their environment.

Working through separation anxiety requires patience, understanding, and consistency. Work to improve not only your relationship with your horse but your ability to handle him, being clear and assertive in difficult situations, as well as increasing his exposure to time away or apart.

Now I’d love to hear from you… have you had a barn or buddy sour horse? How did you help them?

See you in the comments,

Callie

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