Dealing with the Barn Sour Horse

Horse throwing rider as he bucks and turns to go back to barn.
Horse throwing rider as he bucks and turns to go back to barn. lostinfog

Barn sour is a term used by horsemen to describe a horse that doesn't want to leave home, presenting resistance or complete refusal if you try to ride him away from his comfort area.

Horses become barn sour for various reasons - usually human error in handling or training, not understanding how the horse's mind works.

As a herd animal, the horse prefers to be with his buddies. He may be reluctant to leave them unless he is well-bonded with the human who is leading or riding him.

Some horses become "barn sour" because nearly every time they are ridden they are worked hard or asked to repeat extensive lessons. They soon realize they'd rather be in their stall or pen than being ridden.

Other horses continually try to turn toward home, simply because they are insecure and want to stay in a familiar environment where they feel safe, or they are impatient to get home so they can end the work.

Some may speed up, even trying to run home, whenever you do start home. The horse is focused on getting back to the barn rather than paying attention to the rider.

He may become dangerous if he's so determined to stay home that he rears or bucks when you try to ride away from the barn, or bolts when you start home during your ride.

The barn sour horse can be challenging, but there are ways to re-train him if you think about why he is acting this way and use common-sense horsemanship tactics to change his mind.

For a horse that doesn't want to leave the barn, often the easiest way to start re-training him is to ride in the company of another horse.

The companion horse is a good influence and a distraction. Your horse may focus on his companion rather than wanting to stay home.

Make short rides and try to have them pleasurable experiences for the horse, without punishing him for balking. When you get back, work the horse for a while around the barn before putting him in his stall or pen.

Ride circles, changes of direction, and various maneuvers so the horse had to work whenever he gets home.

Do some short rides with your friend on the companion horse, bring the horses back, and then work the barn sour horse in an arena so he has to work hard - and then walk slowly away from the barn again, with the other horse.

Eventually the horse learns that the easiest part of a ride is going away from the barn, and that the hardest part (with the most effort required) is when he is right there at home.

For the horse that wants to run back to the barn when coming home, the point at which you start back home (and he wants to speed up) is when you start working him hard.

Depending on the terrain, you may choose to do lots of small circles, or just turn and go a different direction.

When you again start toward home, if he speeds up, just turn and go in a different direction. You make it harder for the horse to do what he wants to do than if he simply stays relaxed.

When he does relax, he gets the reward of going back home - at the speed you desire instead of rushing.

You give the horse a choice, and make it his decision, but it may take multiple changes of direction or working in circles to change his mind.

If he wants to bolt back to the barn and continues to give trouble, riding with another person helps. Having another horse can provide security.

In some situations, if a horse still wants to run back to the barn, the second rider can have a lead rope to snap onto the horse (to a halter under the bridle), so he can't take off.

It helps to ride some of these horses with a rein snapped to the halter, so you can pull on the halter if necessary and not just the reins.

You can apply pressure to the halter instead of having it all on the bit, and can yank his head around (to prevent bolting) without hurting his mouth. You don't have to put excessive pressure on the bit when you need to be firm.

Every horse is different and you must figure out what works best for each one. It usually helps if you can convince the horse that he'll have to work hard if he tries to do what he's not supposed to do.

Horses tend to take the easiest way out of a problem. If he realizes that the easiest thing to do is walk away from the barn, rather than working hard when he's at the barn, that's what he'll usually do.

This same tactic works out on the trail. When you head for home and he speeds up, you make him change directions, or do circles and zigzags to keep him guessing - so he never knows exactly when you are actually going to head home.

You might even get off and let the horse graze for a few moments in a grassy area. He gets to experience something pleasant while he's away from home, and might realize that home isn't the only safe and good place.

For some horses you might ride them away from home and then meet someone along the way with a trailer, and trailer the horse home. This strategy can break the run-home cycle.

What you choose to do depends on the horse, your riding ability, the location and terrain. In some instances you might let the horse hurry home and then make him keep working in large circles.

You could let the horse run home and into a pen and keep him galloping in circles until he gets tired. This can discourage many horses from trying to run home. Instead of trying to slow or stop him when he tries to run, encourage him to run faster, and it soon becomes work.

He doesn't get to stop when he gets home; he has to keep going.

Most horses decide they don't want to hurry home. Your tactics are more successful if you can work with a horse's way of thinking instead of against it; then what you want him to do becomes his idea.

It doesn't help to punish a horse, because that merely confuses him.

There is no magic solution that works for every horse, and some people are better than others at applying a remedy. New riders, or someone dealing with a spoiled horse, may have more trouble with some challenges. In some cases, especially if the rider does not feel safe, a professional should be used to fix this problem.

You must establish trust, and this takes time, but another drawback is that inexperienced riders and new owners often want to baby the horse, and then don't understand why he doesn't respond the desired way or why he takes advantage of them.

The horse must learn to respect and then to trust you. Some horses keep pushing and testing your authority. It's important to be consistent.

The horse is more secure with a consistent person, knowing what to expect. It confuses a horse to be confronted with someone who is too lenient one day and too firm the next.

The horse has to learn what the rules are. We don't punish the horse that is barn sour or wants to rush home; we just make that horse work - until he realizes that he doesn't really want to do this much work.

Basically you are just trying to change the horse's mind so he'll choose the easy route.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.