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Ask Cynthia - Why does my horse have a sour attitude? - Natural Horse World

Ask Cynthia – Why does my horse have a sour attitude?

“A few weeks ago I got bucked off Blaze. I know that it isn’t a rare occurance when we have horses but it really scared me. We had been travelling really well up until then but something has changed….

We were riding in the round yard – me and Blaze with Rob on Fred. Blaze seemed very ‘cranky’ (ears back, reluctant to move forward) so I kept on persisting, trying to mix it up a bit – side passes and indirect rein etc. She was going ok until I asked her to walk on forward – ears flat to her head and rounding right through her body. She started to buck and to be quite honest, I would have won the rodeo if it was a comp… I managed to get flexion but then lost it again and she took one big buck and off I flew! Once I managed to scrape myself off the ground, I walked to her and she was shaking like a leaf! It really worried me that she was in such a state….

I am concerned that the saddle may not fit her perfectly so I’m getting my wintec fitted by a lady at Horseland AND I also got Gaynor Ross (Chiropractor) around to see Blaze. Blaze has an old injury to her front right foot and Gaynor thinks that she may have been caught in a fence when she was a baby and may have torn some muscles in her shoulder – but this shouldn’t cause much pain now although we are working on the injury.

Anyway, I haven’t ridden Blaze since (until I get the saddle checked) but I have been doing ground work with her nearly every day but she seems to ‘dislike’ me… When I do some circles, friendly – even brush her she puts her ears back on her head and stamps her back foot. She has even tried to take a half hearted kick at me when doing circles. Cynthia, what do I do?

I hope you can help me. I love Blaze so much and want us to be partners… Am I taking the wrong approach?” Cathryn.

Cynthia’s Solution: You have done the right thing in getting Blaze checked out for possible physical causes for the issues you are having with her.
If you haven’t mde any changes to her feed (for instance a new grassy pasture or toxic rye grass, may cause irritable, nervy behaviour and bucking), then the next consideration for a mare is to notice if this behaviour occurs all the time or just at certain times of the month.
She may be experiencing hormone problems which can cause some mares to become crabby around the time they come into season. If this isn’t the case then her sour looks may be that she’s trying to show you she’s still higher in the pecking order – the same as she’d drive away a pesky youngster lower in the herd.

The ground work you do needs to establish a partnership where you are clearly the leader so maybe she has read from your body language that you you possibly aren’t a good leader yet and she is taking on that role. Check that you are not ‘giving ground’ to her – notice if she causes you to step out of her way or move backwards when she’s coming close to you when you play ground games.
A good way to check this while circling is to place a marker such as a tyre or a cone in the middle of the circle and ensure that you walk around it as she circles. If she’s pushing on you, you will step onto or behind the tyre or cone and you need to then correct this by pushing her out with the tail end of your rope or your training stick. If she has a kick at you, then drive her hindquarters away from you – keeping a shorter rope so she can’t turn her hind end to you.

Other reasons she may show a sour attitude are a boring routine or she is learning faster than you are therefore not being challenged enough which is like your teacher asking you to repeatedly do something you mastered long ago (like your x tables or the alphabet). Try to play with her in an interesting way that is different every day by setting up different challenges and obstacles. Even moving the same obstacles to a different location can help. There are some good ideas for challenges on my Ideas Page that should help get your lateral thinking going.

It might also help to mix up or expand the type of training you do – for example horses that learn quickly love ‘Clicker Training’ and its a great way to improve your timing and thinking of how to break tasks down into achievable steps. For more info on Clicker Training go to my Book Review and my Links Page.
As for the riding, again, you’re doing the right thing in checking saddle fit first. When that is sorted out it might be best to ensure that you have good communication and respect on the ground before attempting to ride again. When it is time to ride, spend only a small amount of time in the roundyard and incorporate some challenges like poles to walk over and cones to weave through.
Once you’re sure she is responding well, go outside the yard to ride over the other obstacles you have or ask Rob and Fred to lead on a short trail ride at a walk. If you feel her starting to round up again in preparation for bucking, get off and make life uncomfortable for her so she is not rewarding for ‘gettting you off’. Play some active, yielding games at the trot or if you’re in the roundyard, tie your reins up safely and send her around at the trot for several laps until she wants to acknowledge you and come in.
Then get back on and just sit there for a while to give her comfort for having you on her back. Try to finish the riding session on a positive note by getting off when she has walked without wanting to buck, even for one lap around the yard, then she will give you more next time when she remembers that riding was not a big issue.

Remember that if you find yourself struggling to make progress then get hands on help from a reputable instructor.

How to help your herd bound horse
by Cynthia Cooper

Often referred to as being ‘barn sour’ or rushing home, the herd bound horse just wants to stay near the barn or get home and back to their mates as fast as possible.
It can turn in to a frustrating if not dangerous situation, especially if you’re out on the trail and lose control when you head for home.
Some horses display mild issues such as jigging, reefing on the bridle/ head tossing, or just speed up their pace, while others can buck or rear when held back.
All they are trying to tell you is they would rather be back home with their friends, especially their best buddy.

TrailrideAloneSo aren’t you supposed to be one of their best friends?
Well, if your horse doesn’t see you that way, there are many and varied ways to convince them that you do have their best interests at heart.
Spending more time doing friendly things away from the herd is a good place to start so the horse sees time with your as something special, not always hard work!
Take them out for a walk to nibble on nice grass and other plants they don’t have access too in their paddock. Catch and saddle them but just go out of sight of the herd and give them their bucket feed instead of riding.
Take them to the round yard/arena for some ‘treat (clicker) training’ and finish with a nice grooming session.
When you do go for a ride, stay within the horse’s ‘comfort zone’ and work on gradually expanding that combined with positive reinforcement so your horse can learn to cope with being away from the herd.
Remember to include some reward breaks for grazing and resting during your ride to strengthen the bond and trust you have – and to show your horse its not all about you – they are considered too!

There are so many ways we can give our horses a good reason to enjoy our company, from grooming, to finding their itchy spots, feeding them and taking them out with a mate instead of insisting they go it alone.
This is one of my favourite ways of exercising more than one horse at a time – I ride one and lead one. They then don’t mind leaving the herd so much as the three of us become the herd that goes out to explore!
My horses see going for a ride as a wonderful opportunity to see new places, find things to eat, and get a nice grooming session at the start and finish.
It only takes a bit of practice in an enclosed area to teach a horse to lead another, and to get comfortable with the rope, learning to ensure it doesn’t get caught up under your horse’s tail.

RideLeadingIts also helpful to teach the horse being led to keep its head level with your leg, or go behind on a long lead for where there are narrow trails or gates to go through.
When starting out with leading like this, select two horses that get along well together and ride the more confident/dominant one – in most cases this works well although sometimes, the dominant horse can be less confident and be better off led!

If its not possible to take another horse out too and you have to go alone, here are some suggestions to help expand your horse’s comfort zone so they learn that leaving the herd is not all bad. Deb in the USA sent in this strategy that worked for her ‘barn sour’ horse;

“Today I placed three grain buckets in a triangle in a mile square field, and used the telephone poles to line them up so I could remember where they were. I walked her to the field, then hopped on, and rode her in a straight line towards the first bucket. Since she was walking away from home, it was a hesitant, drunken cowboy kind of walk to the first bucket. It helped me to have the bucket to focus on, so when Eclipse turned her head towards home, my focus stayed in the direction I wanted to go.
She was pleasantly surprised to find food sitting in the middle of this field. I headed her to the second bucket, towards home but angled away, and she argued a bit more.
Once she got the idea, she started relaxing. By the time I had started the fourth circuit, we were on a casual rein, and she was a million times better than when we started.
Tomorrow I will do the same thing, and then gradually move the buckets further away from home, and even start putting the buckets along our usual trail ride.
I just want to cruise down the trail and have a casual ride. I don’t need all this drama, and I bet she doesn’t either. This is a nice, calm way to help a horse through the anxiety of leaving home.”

From here you could then carry your treats with you instead of having to continue putting buckets along the trail. A pocketful of ‘horse trail mix’ (sunflower seeds, oats, chopped carrot) will be a welcome treat when you reach various points along the trail.
You can also use the treat rewards on the way home to reinforce good behaviour, and if it all falls apart, you know you’ve gone a bit too far out of your horse’s comfort zone.

When their behaviour gets dangerous or you simply don’t want to put up with jigging, you can get off and walk if your horse has good ground manners. If your horse keeps walking too fast and passing you, simply yield the hindquarters so they end up behind you again, and keep walking. Pretty soon your horse will find it easier to stay with you, especially if you reward them with a treat for doing so.

There are many more options for helping your herd bound horse – just doing a web search on ‘Barn sour horse’ or Herd bound Horse’ will find thousands of pages and many varied suggestions from trainers worldwide. Some advice is good and some will only reinforce your ‘do as I say’ attitude (I’d rather a ‘would you like to?’ attitude), so here are a few I’d recommend for further reading:

Advice from Cheryl Sutor

Advice from Cherry Hill

Scot Hansen’s article focuses on our own herd bound behaviour too.

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