I was talking with a good friend who was having trouble getting his horse to go away from the other horses. Having a herd or barn sour horse is such a common problem and I wondered what could be done to improve this situation. The late, great horseman, Ray Hunt, always said, “Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy”. This thought reminded me of an exercise I have seen Buck Brannaman and Tom Curtain do with many a herd or barn sour horse.
The horse is seeking security from the barn or herd because this is all he knows. He is not trying to misbehave. What is needed is to allow the horse to voluntarily change his mind and seek comfort with you. The underlying principle is to make being at the barn or with the herd unappealing and offer another alternative that brings comfort to the horse. You have to be patient and give the horse all the time he needs to make the right choice. Sometimes you might not get as far along as you want but quit when your horse has made a good effort and come back another day to build on that effort.
Depending on what horse temperament you are dealing with you can approach the challenge of a herd or barn sour horse in several ways.
Fire horse temperament – The Fire horse wants to please you and is very sensitive. This horse can sense when you are unhappy and this bothers him. Let your Fire horse hang out with the herd or around the barn but think about how unhappy you are with him there. Praise and pet your Fire horse when he even looks away from the herd and get real happy. You may have to show your annoyance by lightly tapping your legs on his sides or swinging your crop or mecate rein. Never act angry but be very quick to praise even the slightest thought your Fire horse has of being away from the herd. Once your Fire horse has changed his mind and decided to be with you then do something he enjoys and is good at, praise him lavishly and call it a day.
Earth horse temperament – The Earth horse also likes to please but he can stand a bit more pressure than the Fire horse. Most Earth horses aren’t real keen on hard work so loping or cantering circles close the the barn or herd will get old for them very quickly. Like with the Fire horse, notice even a thought away from the barn and reward it with allowing him to rest. When he moves or looks back at the barn, go back to work. Once your Earth horse has gotten with your plan then get off and let him eat a little grass or hay and just hang out with him.
Metal horse temperament – The Metal horse is most comfortable when he is doing a task that is familiar to him so when he is drawn to the barn you can take the opportunity to work on some new exercises. Maybe you have been wanting to teach him shoulder in or want to perfect his rollback. Too much mental work will have your Metal horse dreaming of getting back to doing something he understands. Don’t be surprised if your Metal horse takes a bit longer to figure out what the rules of the game are. Be willing to quit with him even if he has not left the herd but is focusing less on them and more on you. End the work with a task your Metal horse is familiar with and has learned well. Congratulate him on his fine effort and put him away.
Water horse temperament – The Water horse is wanting to be at the barn or with the herd because he feels safer there. Make scary noises or wave your hands and legs and go with your horse as he moves his feet. Never try and direct him but let him move as much or quickly as he needs to. As soon as he looks or moves away from the barn get quite and still on his back. When he looks or moves back to the herd get active and loud. When your Water horse gets with you, do a mentally stimulating exercise to keep his focus and then get off before his thoughts shift back to the scary world around him.
Wood horse temperament – The Wood horse wants to be with the herd because they are more interesting than you are. Make the herd a place of boring, tedious work. Back circles, practice counter bending, do collected walking. Set up something interesting, like jumps or some cows to move, away from the herd and point your Wood horse that way. When he thinks or turns back to the herd, go back to boring work. Your Wood horse may try to change the subject by acting out instead to doing what you ask. Resist the temptation to be drawn into a fight because that would give your Wood horse exactly what he wants. Be safe and if you have to dismount then continue to work your exercises from the ground. Once you have convinced your Wood horse that the herd is a boring place finish with something fun like jumping some jumps, working cows or checking out a new trail.
As I have been thinking about barn and herd sourness in each different horse temperament I realize that horses are not the only creatures who can seek comfort in the wrong places. How many times do we turn to friends, therapists or self help books when we find ourselves confused and unsure. God knows exactly what is in our hearts and he wants to guide and comfort us in all our troubles. He also wants to share in our joys and successes. He will never punish us for our mistakes but he will let us live with the consequences until we turn to him for a better way. Think about this next time you are working through something with your horse. There might be a lesson for you as well. Madalyn