Herd Bound or Barn Sour Horse

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  1998 Cherry Hill     www.horsekeeping.com

How To Think Like A Horse
Making Not Breaking, The First Year Under Saddle
     I once was hired by a woman whom I will call Mandy to help her with what she described as her "schizo-frantic" gelding.  Bellows, she told me over the phone, was the first and only foal she had raised.  She bought Bellows as a weanling and assigned her older gelding Squatter, the task of raising him.  In a nutshell, Bellows was now five years old, and Mandy worried that she would never be able to ride him safely.  Although Bellows had been to a reputable professional trainer and Mandy had ridden him successfully at the trainer's, once she brought Bellows home, she found that with increasing frequency he behaved dangerously.  To best help Mandy, I felt it was necessary to see the horse in his home setting and get a thorough history of his early handling.

     When I drove up to Mandy's barn I saw two handsome geldings in well-kept pens quietly munching the last of their morning's hay.  Neither of them showed any apparent signs of a Jekyl and Hyde personality.  "Just wait", Mandy said as she led the older gelding, Squatter, out toward a nearby pasture.  Before she and Squatter were even ten feet away, Bellows kicked into his "other personality".  He raced back and forth along one side of his pen, wheeling wildly at the corners, crashing into the metal panels, all the time screaming the most piercing call of alarm.  I had heard enough of Exhibit A so quickly gestured for Mandy to return.

     Once Squatter was back in his pen picking at the dregs of his breakfast, Bellows made the transformation to his previous self, Mr. Mellow.  Mandy then suggested that I lead Bellows around to the other side of the barn where he wouldn't be able to see Squatter.  Bellows was a gentleman to halter and lead through the gate but with each step we took away from Squatter, I sensed a building tension.  By the time we were on the opposite side of the barn, I was on the other end of the lead shank from a dancing, prancing, screaming keg of dynamite.  Squatter, meanwhile, looked up from his feed with only casual interest as if to say, "What....?"

     For the finale, Mandy saddled up Bellows, took him out to her arena (she asked me to lead Squatter along, of course) and demonstrated the fine quality of Bellows' riding training.  He had learned all of his Ps and Qs at the trainers and cooperatively demonstrated them for Squatter and me.   "Now," she said with a quavering voice, "start leading Squatter back to the barn and turn around to see what happens but, please, don't go all the way to the barn....."  Well, you can guess what happened.  And it wasn't a pretty sight.  After we brought the session to a constructive closure, we put the horses away and sat down with a big pot of coffee.  I asked Mandy questions about Bellows' formative years.

     What I found out was that Mandy had inadvertently committed a good number of major errors that contributed to and reinforced Bellows' dependency on Squatter.  Her mistakes as well as others commonly associated with the herd bound horse are covered in the next section.  Following that are ways to prevent a horse from developing this undesirable personality trait.  Finally, there are some suggestions for dealing with those horses that already have the habit ingrained.

     Herd bound, also called barn sour, is a complex which causes a horse to misbehave in various ways when separated from a group of horses (the herd), from a buddy or preferred associate (in Bellows' case, Squatter), or from a physical location that represents security (the barn or feeding area).

     Some of the behaviors a herd bound horse can exhibit include but are not limited to: balking or refusing to leave home, running toward home, racing to catch up with a horse ahead, wheeling around suddenly, swerving, rearing, spooking, carrying his body crooked and always trying to back up or turn around, becoming gate sour in an arena, moving short and quick, getting behind the bit, screaming, pawing, stall walking or pen walking (pacing back and forth), and pushing at or through fences or gates.  Some horses that can't cope with their insecurity when confined can form vices such as cribbing or stall kicking when separated from other horses.  Doesn't it sound like the kind of behavior that you'd rather prevent than have to deal with?


The number one cause of a horse becoming herd bound is insecurity.  A horse that does not feel safe or content within himself or in the world of humans is more apt to have a desperate need to be near other horses, often a specific horse termed a preferred associate or buddy.  Preferred associates are most graphically portrayed by two horses that stand head-to-tail and perform the ritual of mutual grooming.  It is natural for horses to want to be near each other because they are gregarious animals who, over the last 60 million years, have learned that they are safer and more content in a group.

     The strength of the bonds between herd members contributes to herd safety and in part, allows the herd pecking order to function.  Foals initially have the strongest ties with their dams.  As foals grow older, they look to other herd members to satisfy their need for social and sexual interaction.  Horses participate in many social customs such as mutual grooming, grazing and drinking, playing for physical and sexual development, and sleeping routines.  Good managers know the importance of allowing "horses to be horses", that is, to allow a horse to see, hear, smell, and if possible, interact with other horses.  However, turning a performance horse out in herd situation is impractical in many of today's horse operations.  Therefore, domesticated horses, in order to be useful in the world of humans, must be made to feel secure eating, sleeping, and being handled and ridden without other horses necessarily in close proximity.

     The causes of insecurity in a horse can vary widely.  Foals are so greatly influenced by their dam's personalities that a foal with a very timid dam may inherit and develop a timid manner and may stick close to the dam's side, remaining very dependent on her.  Foals with self-confident dams, on the other hand, are often curious and experimental and interact with all sorts of other creatures with great interest.  Such foals usually develop a strong independence aptitude early in life.  The combination of a healthy self-confidence and curiosity makes an ideal horse to train.

     Early handling by humans makes life-long impressions on a horse.  According to behavioral studies, foals that are handled early (as compared to unhandled foals) are more curious and investigative.  When handled foals are startled or alarmed, their fear disappears more quickly than unhandled foals that take longer to get over their fear.  Foals that are handled early are more apt to leave their dam's sides, play farther away from their dams, and show more self-confidence.  Unhandled foals are generally reluctant to leave their mother's sides.

     It is important that early handling is founded on sound principles of horse behavior and training.  Poor handling or over-handling is worse than no handling at all.  If the first handling lessons are fair and well-thought-out, a foal will have a basis for trust and confidence in humans and will look forward to interacting with people.  If, on the other hand, the first handling is inappropriate and rough, the foal will have no incentive to develop a relationship with humans.

     Weaning can be very anti-climactic or traumatic.  If a suckling foal has been handled properly and in a variety of situations, when weaning time comes, he will be mentally and emotionally ready to face it.  Separation from the dam will occur as if it is just another lesson.

     However, if a vulnerable weanling is managed improperly, he might shift into a stressful state of panic.  If a foal is unhandled prior to weaning and then is weaned abruptly, the foal's anxiety may cause him to experience long-lasting mental stress or to hurt himself physically.  Whether or not a foal has been handled, if weaning comes very late, such as after six months of age or more, it may be more difficult for the foal to sever its bond with its dam and form alternate relationships.  If weaning is incomplete, that is, if the foal still has access to the mare over a fence, for example, the foal may never move on to the next stage of emotional security in his development.  If a foal is weaned and put with one other horse for a long period of time, the weanling may form a strong dependency on the other horse as a substitute for the emotional loss of his dam.

     TRAINING Although horses respond best to a very consistent style of handling, they should not lead an existence so routine that it is boring.  Horses need a variety of experiences to make them well-rounded individuals.  The more settings and situations a horse can be exposed to in a positive, non-threatening way, the more easily the horse will be able to adapt to a new situation.

     After two semesters of working with their three-year-old horses, students in one of my college training classes faced the following practical final exam.  As a group, they were to ride off campus into a nearby small town where there was a vacant field next to an ice-cream store that conveniently had a drive-up window.  One-by-one, the students were to ride their young horses from the field up to the window, order, pay for, and receive an ice cream cone.  Then they were to walk quietly back to the group in the field.  I was delighted, but not surprised, that all of the horses passed this practical test.  Although the students had never taken their young horses into town before, and certainly not to a "ride-up" ice cream window, they had worked the young horses individually in indoor and outdoor arenas, pastures, alongside roads, all over the school farm, exposing the horses to a wide variety of animals, equipment, sights and sounds.  The young horses were mentally and mechanically able to deal with a brand new situation.

     Without knowing it, some horse owners reinforce undesirable habits in a horse by rewarding him when he acts badly.  For example, if a horse is in his pen, pawing and screaming because his buddy is off somewhere out of sight, it is not uncommon for a person to go up to the horse and talk baby talk, pet the horse, feed it, or worst of all, turn it out of its stall or pen.  All of these pleasantries have in effect told the horse, "Screaming and pawing are good behaviors, they get you something you want, something nice."  The next time the horse is separated from his buddy, he will once again paw and scream because, why not?, last time he got the goodies.

     There is a big difference between setting up a training session during feeding time and feeding a screaming horse to placate him.  Say you plan to work each day for two weeks on minimizing your horse's anxiety at being separated from his buddy.  At each feeding, you feed the insecure horse and take his buddy as far away as you can until the insecure horse gets anxious.  You stop at that point and wait until the insecure horse relaxes and resumes eating.  Then you return the other horse to its pen or stall.  The next feeding, repeat the procedure seeing if you can walk a little farther away.  Using feeding time to approach the problem this way is entirely different than using feed to bribe a horse.

     If it is the middle of the day and you take a horse's buddy away and the horse left behind begins fretting and you dump a scoop of grain in his feeder to try to distract him, you have rewarded him for his bad behavior.  The difference between the two uses of feed is similar to the difference between bribing a horse into a horse trailer by tempting him with a bucket of grain in front of his nose V.S. teaching him to walk in on command and letting him find that there is a treat waiting for him in the trailer's manger.

     MANAGEMENT  Some aspects of management can have an effect on a horse's level of security.  A cold, wet, sick, or very hungry horse is more apt to be physically anxious so will likely be emotionally unstable.  Sometimes just making a horse comfortable will make him content enough that he won't worry about the whereabouts of his companion.  But on the other side of the coin, an overfed and under-exercised horse can develop obnoxious habits similar to those of a herd bound horse.  However, such behavior is usually borne out of excess energy and boredom rather than from insecurity.


Early handling should begin with bodily restraint of the day-old foal.  This is an essential lesson to teach him that there is no danger in being contained and momentarily separated from his dam.  Gradually increase the period of separation during the first four months and by weaning time, the final separation will go smoothly.  A foal should be touched all over so that it learns to accept and not fear humans.  "Grooming" a young foal by scratching him on the withers and over the tail head further convinces him that the human touch brings enjoyment and contentment.

     In-hand lessons should be a part of every horse's training.  The more willing and consistent a horse is on the end of a lead shank, the more likely he will respond in kind when ridden.  Build up a horse's confidence and experiences by leading him over, under, around, and through safe "obstacles" of all sorts.  This will encourage his curiosity and independence and cement a solid working relationship with you.


If you have a horse that has been allowed to exhibit his herd bound behavior for some time, first implement the preventative measures suggested above.  If the behavior persists, select the appropriate corrective measures from the suggestions which follow.

 If the horse you are riding is herd bound:

     Although you might feel the safest riding your horse alongside his best buddy, in reality, it would be an accident looking for a time and place to happen.  If the person riding your horse's buddy happens to lag behind or race ahead, you may find yourself on a wheeling horse or a runaway.  It would be best for you to ride with horses that your horse is not bonded to and for you to ride with a variety of horses.

     Rather than start your ride at home, trailer to a park or trail head or to another arena or stable for your ride.  The lack of the familiar starting point may result in a decrease of old habits and will likely make your horse listen to you and look to you for guidance.  This is your chance to be assertive yet fair and build your horse's confidence about doing something new.

     If your horse is particularly feed-oriented (and what horse isn't?!) you can feed him away from home out on the trail when he is the calmest.  Even a few complete feed wafers can be enough of a reinforcement.  Soon your horse may begin to look forward to going away from home.

     To prevent your horse from hurrying home, do most of the energetic work, such as trotting or loping, as you are headed away from home.  Lateral work such as leg yielding or two tracking relaxes a horse and slows him down because he must step deeply underneath his belly and sideways as well as moving forward.  Be sure to always walk your horse on the way home, especially the last mile.  If you have worked your horse vigorously away from home, he will welcome the time to rest at a quiet walk when headed home.  However, many herd bound horses quicken the nearer they get to home.  Stop such a horse at various points along the way and just sit still.  You may need to turn him around and face away from home to get him to stand still.  If a horse is very spoiled and prances or jigs instead of standing still or walking quietly, you may need the help of a professional trainer.

     If you find yourself on a dangerously agitated horse, if you can dismount safely (often accomplished by facing the horse away from home for a moment and vaulting off), lead the horse the rest of the way home.  Of course, safe vaulting off should be practiced beforehand on a quiet horse.  And by suggesting you lead the horse home, I am assuming the horse leads safely.  In-hand work is a necessary and legitimate part of a horse's training and you should not think of it as defeat but as a means for you to regain control of a situation.  Some riders routinely lead their horses for brief periods during a trail ride so they can stretch their legs, the horse's back can have a short rest, and to regain control with in-hand work.

     Whether you are riding or leading your horse during the last portion of the ride, it is a good idea to walk past your driveway several times before you finally turn in.  Be sure you decide when its time to turn in toward the barn.  Use this principle every time a horse either anticipates where you are going or tries to duck toward home (or another horse).  Straighten him out and ride right past that point.  After he is convinced that you are in control, choose a moment and make a definite turn toward home.

     Once you get home, don't immediately hop off, loosen the cinch, and give your horse an apple.  This will just teach him to hurry home even faster in the future - all the hard work is out on the trail, all the good stuff is at home!  Instead, take your horse out to your arena and lope him quietly for about five minutes.  Then take him over to a strong, safe place to tie and let him stand there saddled (with the cinch loosened a few holes) for as long as it takes for him to give up his obsession of getting wherever it is he wants to go.  You may need to employ some means of restraint to convince him he can stand still.  See the following section on restraint for suggestions but never attempt any form of restraint unless you are calm, confident, and experienced.  Once your horse is standing quietly, untack, groom and care for him and return him to his stall or pen.

If the horse that is left at home is herd bound:

     Design his eating schedule to coincide with the time you will be taking his buddy away from home.  If the horse left behind associates that particular time period with something pleasurable such as eating, he will be less likely to feel threatened by his friend's departure and absence.

    Teach a horse that he can stand still.  Tie the horse safely to a strong hitching post.  Tie him at the height of his withers or higher.  The length of the tie rope should be long enough so he can hold his head at a comfortable level but not so long that he can swing his head around and get in trouble.  It's best if the tie area is rubber matted to prevent the horse from doing damage to the ground or himself if he paws.   The more frequently you tie the horse and let him stand, the sooner he will come to accept this as part of his daily routine and soon, he will accept being tied. The more familiar he becomes with the restraint of being tied, the more comforting he will find it.  In fact, in just a few days or weeks, you will find your horse will take advantage of the time that he is tied and take a nap!

     If you have a single horse or if you have two horses and one will be away for an extended period of time, you may wish to consider introducing a companion animal to your horses.  Companion animals can often fill the void created by the absence of a horse's buddy.  Goats, dogs, and even chickens have made successful companions to horses.  However, some horses have become so dependent on their companions that they experience mental anxiety when separated from them.

     If kept in the proper perspective, a horse's best friend and companion is often his trainer.  After all, a good trainer promotes confidence and provides a horse with many of the things that make a horse feel comfortable and secure: feed, grooming, exercise, and interesting and fair interactions.

     Unfortunately, not all stories have an entirely happy ending.  In spite of very conscientious work on both Mandy's and her trainer's part, Bellows' long-term, unhealthy dependence on Squatter could not be diminished enough to ever make Bellows safe for Mandy to use alone near her home.  So, eventually she sold Bellows and once again, Squatter became her dependable number one trail horse.  Then, after a year to think things over and formulate her new way of looking horse at behavior, Mandy purchased a yearling, Solo, and she vows to not make the same mistakes she did with Bellows.  And this time I have a strong feeling that she's going to make it.


  1998 -2006 Cherry Hill

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