Natural Horse World

How to help your herd bound horse

by Cynthia Cooper

It takes a good relationship with your horse to have a relaxed trail ride together away from the herd.

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 or 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.

So 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 you as a good thing, 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 (or as far as they can cope with without being upset) and give them a bucket feed instead of riding.
  • Take them to the round yard/arena for some ‘positive reinforcement (+R/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 it’s 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.

Leading a horse out from another is a great way to work with herd-bound horses, and exercises two instead of one.

Its 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!

Expand your horse’s comfort zone.

If it’s 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 told me of this strategy that worked for her ‘barn sour’ horse;

“Today I placed 3 buckets with a little treat in a triangle 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.

More solutions.

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 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 Cherry Hill

Helping the Herd Bound Horse

Separation Anxiety

This video explains why horses suffer from separation anxiety.

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6 thoughts on “How to help your herd bound horse”

  1. Yoshi Morimoto

    I’ve had my horse for over a year now and she is super stubborn and refuses to go on the beautiful trails near her stables. I am so exhausted with walking her, giving her lots of grass time along the way, and her fighting me so much just to go on a nice calm walk on the trails that lead to the beach which she seemed to love the time she did make it. I pray one of these days we can go on trail rides

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Yoshi, please consider that your horse is telling you something by not cooperating with your wishes. Perhaps ask yourself have you looked after all her natural needs first? A horse that is this insecure may never be able to leave their herd/stable mates and be brave enough to go with you alone, especially if you’re acting like a human predator by fighting with her.
      If you can learn more about horse behavior and how to read their body language, learn about comfort zones and take into account that every horse is an individual just like a human, then you will make progress.
      Horses have feelings, emotions and habits like we do – imagine a very big scary man pulling you along towards a dark tunnel away from your friends – how would that make you feel?
      This is possibly how your horse feels when you try to take her away from her friends. Sorry to be so blunt and I trust you will find a better way to work with your horse instead of fight her.

  2. I like that you mention getting off as one of the options. Too many people focus on doing things from the saddle only. This does not help when a horse goes right brained and is clearly unable to follow the usual cues. It does not happen to me often (my horse going crazy on the trail), but it does happen. The last time was a few days ago, he was increasingly tense on the trail and then on the way home, he tried to bolt. I one reined him, worked him on the ground for a bit and got back on, with no improvement. I doubt any rider would enjoy sitting on a leaping, side-stepping horse that feels like he will explode any moment! So I one-reined him again, got off and spent even more time working him on the ground. Despite this and despite letting him canter up a steep slope, he was too fizzy and forced me to get off for the third time. I just walked him for ages, until we were BOTH calm. I think this is important to acknowledge: that we as riders tend to get fearful, and that the only way for us to calm our shaking nerves is to get off and walk. It took me maybe 20 minutes before I felt ready to get back on. I made damn sure the horse stood still to mount. This alone was an exercise in patience, requiring much backing up, but finally it worked. He was much more manageable this time, enabling me to correct the mild jigging very quickly and easily (including by riding back, away from home, to start with). I then proceeded to ride slowly all the way home, dismounting once again a short distance from the gate. I haven’t been on a trail since, but I did work him the very next day, and he was absolutely perfect. Calm, attentive, polite, despite the howling wind. I feel good about the whole experience, and ready to do more walking and ground work with my horse on our next trail ride. After all, the “trail” meanders through suburbia and contains many distractions, so it does require some extra desensitizing training. On the other hand, it is the perfect environment for creating a truly bombproof horse!

    1. Cynthia

      Thanks for sharing your story Dinka. I’ve always believed walking with your horse on the trail is a great thing to do, not only for stretching your legs, but for allowing their back to rest from the pressure of your weight. Also, its much easier on your horse and their back if you get off and walk down hills. I’m sure horses enjoy the experience so much more – and it gives you the opportunity to allow them to graze or pick at schrubs as you go along, which is an incentive for them too 🙂 Hope you have many more happy trails!

  3. Kelly munro

    Great article Cynthia with some really good advise, thanks. I am going to try the feed bucket idea worth my young fellow for his home trip. I hope you don’t mind if I share.
    On a side note I am attending my first fast track (now foundation) clinic in October. I always attribute my positive natural horsemanship journey to both Ken Faulkner for introducing me to natural horsemanship and you for kindly guiding me in the right direction. Thanks again Regards Kelly Munro

    1. Cynthia

      Yes please share – and glad to be able to help 🙂

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