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Under the Magnifying Glass: what do we mean by what we say?

Before sharing some ideas about the myth of horses being barn sour, let’s revisit the context in which we are using the word “myth.”  We are scrutinizing commonly held perceptions and/or beliefs under the magnifying glass of inquiry. What do the things we say mean and how do they affect our relationship with our horses?  It is through honest, unbiased reflection that we can start to untangle some of the myths surrounding horsemanship.  We have the opportunity, with each interaction, to reach out to horses in understanding, instead of with habits or because someone else passed along their own beliefs to us.

Myth Number Two:

“My horse is barn sour.”

It had become a recurring pattern: I put my leg on to the horse’s side, and he would rear up. I would spin him in a circle, and kick again, and up he would go. Maybe spinning the other direction will work? Kicking harder? Up he’d go, walking backward and flailing his front legs.

I had bought the Missouri Foxtrotter gelding to retrain (knowing that he reared) and sell, and although I had tried everything I knew, we were no more than fifty feet from the barn. As we stood in the middle of the dirt road, the sun highlighting his gray dappled and sweaty neck, I thought back to the past months, and how many things I had tried (with sporadic success) to get this horse to go out on the trail. We could do it, eventually, but always with the same beginning. How was I going to sell him as a trail horse, if he was so barn sour? 

If we’ve been involved with horses for even a short amount of time, we have either said or heard, “My horse is barn sour.”  Boiled down, it means that where the horse lives they act in a calm and agreeable way.  When they leave that place and we take them somewhere that is not familiar, they act in ways we don’t much like (or understand).

Horses look for a release from pressure, and the quiet state of mind that follows. Going away from familiar environs causes an increase in internal pressure, whereas going back to somewhere they know will decrease that pressure. In addition, returning from any kind of activity to an area where they are tied up, untacked, rested, then turned out into a familiar place with their herd mates is an incredibly large release. If we add a poorly fitting saddle, teeth that aren’t balanced (so a bit in the horse’s mouth may be uncomfortable), feet that aren’t sound, etc the release from being ridden becomes that much more amplified. It’s not any wonder they are in such a rush to get back to the barn (or the horse trailer).

It’s perhaps a difficult truth to look at, but when we say that our horse is barn sour, it lets us off the hook and pins the blame on the horse. That’s the first part of this myth.

I experienced the second part of this myth while doing an exercise in one of Mark Rashid’s Aikido For Horseman workshops.  The second part of this myth is that “barn sour” has nothing to do with a horse acting out. Disorientation, however, does.

For example, when you go to an unfamiliar state or country, you may feel disoriented.  As humans, we have the advantages of relying on maps, GPS, or local people to help guide us. Horses, who live by hearing, sight, smell and the feel of the surface underneath four feet (as opposed to two) receive their information differently. Every time we take them away from what is familiar, they will experience (to varying degrees) a rise in emotion. We are no different; when disoriented or lost we may feel mentally foggy, become worried, not know which way to turn, feel uneasy, or become anxious. The difference is that we can use our neocortex (the newest part of our brain to have evolved) to formulate a plan that will calm some of those emotions down.

Horses, on the other hand, will act the way they feel. There will be some sign, no matter how small, that they experiencing a sense of worry when we take them away from their known environment. Looking at the horse as “barn sour,” “spoiled,” or even “spooky” closes the door on an opportunity to see beyond the behavior to what the horse may be trying to communicate.

At that moment, I decided to go back to the beginning. I rode the gelding down the driveway, returning to the barn. Before he could stop, I asked him to turn and walk up the driveway, toward the road. At the end of the driveway, we turned again toward the barn, and after going most of the way there, we turned again and walked toward the road. This time, we went to the road, then turned and walked toward the barn. Over the course of the next hour, we alternated walking toward the barn, and then down the road, each time getting farther away, and further down the trail. By the end of our  time together that day, I could ask him to walk faster away from the barn, without him rearing up. Once we were at the farthest point from the barn, I dismounted, patting his now dry neck, and lead him back.

Over time with Jack (the rearing gelding), I researched saddles and saddle fit, made sure his feet were balanced, had chiropractic and massage given to him, and balanced his diet. I rode in or attended horsemanship seminars and clinics to better improve my skill. After six months, Jack and I could ride down the trail together quietly and the rearing disappeared. He became my best trail horse, and for 18 more years we rode everywhere we could. At the time, the experiences he shared with me were doorways through which I learned how to better understand him, and other horses as well. Now,  I see that all along he was trying to tell me, in the only way he could, that all he needed was time to figure out where he was.


Next month, check back in for a discussion of Myth number three:  “My horse is resistant.”