• Kyle Van Splinter

Help for the Herd Bound, Buddy or Barn Sour Horse

Updated: Aug 4, 2020


Last month's blog was focused on WHY horses are barn sour or buddy sour or herd bound ......and the importance for us to teach our horses to trust and feel safe with us. Not only are trust and safety the keys to dealing with those issues but they're also the answer to minimizing spooking, bolting, and shying situations....Whoo-hoo!!!

So, how do we help our horses to trust our judgement…and ultimately feel safe with us?

Overall, it’s important to consider spending lots of non-demanding time with your horse. You should constantly try to communicate to your horse that you don’t always want something from them. The more you spend time doing this, the more the horse associates you with good, calm, and relaxed feelings. Know that when it comes to fear in horses, it’s not really a “thinking” moment, it’s more of a learned and instinctual “feelings” moment. So if they relate you to “good feelings” the more they’re going to trust your judgement and feel safe with you.

As many of you know, one of my current mentors is Sylvia Zerbini (for liberty training). Both she and to a lesser degree David Lichman (with whom I learned years ago) taught me how use vocal cues with horses and explained how well horses respond to them. Sylvia, in particular emphasizes the importtance of a "good memory" word in the liberty training that she does.

Developing a language with your horse using vocal cues which communicate some key behavior/feelings will be very helpful to create trust. A few examples are: "pay attention to me", a feel good "good memory" word which can also communicate "don't worry...we're fine"; and later a cue for "you're on the right track!". For “pay attention to me”, your sound or word should sound somewhat abrupt and short, yet for the other the words or sounds should be quite lilting and drawn out similar to the way you would address a child to communicate those calm, good things. Also, be sure that if you use words that are no more than two syllables

for each communication.

You'll now need to teach the "good memory" cue to help your horse feel good, calm, comfortable, and relaxed. The word should have a lilting sound to you would speak to a very young child. Your goal is to help your horse associate the word/sound with you; your horse should hopefully connect you with really good feelings, and safety. To successfully help your horse to make this connection with you: remember to also give your horse lots of non-demanding time as mentioned above. When your horse does something good, not only use your feel good word that represent: “gooood”, but also make sure to give them lots of relaxing, no pressure, no requests time …..essentially quiet time focusing on just enjoying the moment with your horse.

Next, once you’ve determined what your "pay attention" cue will be, you need to teach it to your horse using pressure and release strategies*. Give your horse a few opportunities for the “pay attention to me” cue … look for your horse to give you an ear, both ears, or ears and eyes. This cue is very important because unless your horse is paying attention, he/she can’t hear/focus on/process what you’re asking (similar to a teenager when on their cell phone). This escalation is the same kind of communication as horse higher in the herd hierarchy would act to a lower horse in the herd. So, here’s what it would look like:

In the Horse World: when asking for attention, a horse would:

1st: look……….

2nd move towards

3rd: put ears back

4th: warn that they're about to bite or kick

5th: bite or kick

Human/Horse World: how the human teaches his/her "pay attention" cue to their horse:

1st: look at their eyes

2nd: keep looking & make your cue sound

3rd: keep looking & make your cue sound & now up your energy too

4th: keep looking & keep your energy up & make your cue sound while you GENTLY tag your horse (essentially saying "HEY! PAY ATTENTION)** Give a big smile when your horse starts paying attention AND praise with your "good memory" word). SEE NOTES at bottom of page**

No matter which method you use (alternate method in NOTES at bottom of page**), your goal is that all you’ll have to do is use your vocal cue and your horse pays attention. Remember to precisely time your release as well as offer your "good memory" word, smile, and drop your energy when doing so. Also, be sure your timing and escalation is always very consistent. Initially, your timing will be fairly slow to give your horse as chance to learn and understand. Later on (days to weeks to months later depending on your unique situation) as your horse “gets it”, the timing of your escalation should get more condensed.

As discussed in last month’s blog, trust and safety are driving factors for a horse. When your horse has learned these cues while you’re on the ground, you can then use them while in-the-saddle. For instance, if there’s something worrying your horse, you can use your “pay attention to me” cue and then communicate with a “don’t worry….we’re fine” cue.

Of course, in order for all this to work YOU need to feel calm, confident, and not be scared or worried yourself. If you’re worried your horse will feel it and will know that he/she isn’t safe; your horse will also feel the need to shy, spook, bolt, or get back to another horse. In the next blog, we’ll talk a bit about this and how to help yourself feel confident which ultimately (along with the cues discussed here) will help your horse feel safe with you. The more you connect with your horse in this way both while on-the-ground and then ultimately while riding, the more your horse will see you as his/her protector and will trust you with his/her safety.

If you need help with putting all this into action, please feel free to contact me directly.

Additional notes:

*Pressure & release strategies are the cornerstones of natural horsemanship. If you’re not sure what these are, future blog posts will be covering these methods. Or, you can contact me directly.

**There is a big caveat to the “pay attention to me” escalation. If you notice that your horse is reluctant to give you one eye, the other, or both and possibly even averts their eyes from you and/or turns their head away when you offer your cue….you may need to teach this cue a bit differently. Horses may do this because of a lack of confidence, fear, a learned pattern of always having the human on (most commonly) his/her left side, or just generally has an introverted nature. Although giving you an ear or two is good, later when you may ask for some specific tasks from the ground, he/she may make incorrect assumptions as to your request since your horse isn’t looking at you. Depending on your horse’s nature, you may want to consider alternately practice having your horse give you one eye, the other eye, and maybe both eyes with your “pay attention to me” cue; offering the lots of positive reinforcement like the "good memory" word (often) and a reward afterwards might be helpful. To really pay attention to you, your horse needs to feel very comfortable looking at you. Every situation is unique, so you’ll need to consider what method to use when….or contact me directly for help.

Kyle Van Splinter

We move as One. Natural Horsemanship Training