Trail Tips: Riding Near the Home Front, Part 1
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
I pulled into the parking area of an abandoned gas station on highway 16. The gentleman I was to meet was already there. After introductions, he pulled out the shiny pleasure harness I had agreed to buy. It looked new. I asked why he didn’t want it any longer. With some hesitation he explained that the harness had belonged to his wife. She had been the horse person in the family, but had died in an accident along the road near their home when she fell from a horse she was training and struck her head on a rock.
On the three hour journey home I could not keep the gentleman or his wife’s misfortune from my mind. How did it happen? Did a vehicle scare the horse? Was the horse stubborn, barn sour, or herd-bound, fighting every step of the way? I never knew the reason, but one thing was clear: horses can be dangerous.
Right from birth horses display varying degrees of curiosity, courage, and fear. Young horses that show good amounts of curiosity and courage, and lack fear, are good candidates to become confident and independent trail horses.
Horse related deaths are most often the result of a blow to the head and secondarily a blow to the upper torso. After a lifetime on remote trails, I know how few serious accidents happen in the backcountry compared to the number that happen on the farm, field, and road. Whenever I see a rider along a roadside, particularly a young rider on a busy road, I get a sudden chill, a slight sinking feeling in my gut.
The circumstances make riding near home more dangerous. On roads, vehicles and bikes pass by. Working around horses daily, we are often in tight situations while feeding, handling, and training. Horses can be herd-bound, barn sour, pullers, hard to catch, frightened, or aggressive.
This article is the first of a two part series (see "Trail Tips: Riding Near the Home Front, Part 2") that will look at common problems with using horses at home, including barn sour and herd-bound horses, and some ideas for safe riding near the home front.
The Young Horse
Trust and your position as the leader are the cornerstones of a good relationship with your horse at home. Fear and a lack of security are the trail horse’s enemies.
Imprinting and weaning time are excellent opportunities to build trust and respect with a young horse, which you will need when you take the horse away from the yard and his buddies. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
For the past 18 years I have raised and trained between four and 16 foals each year. From birth it is apparent that foals display varying degrees of curiosity, courage, and willingness to accept new surroundings. Within a few weeks of birth it is often possible to predict which horses are good candidates to become independent trail horses that will be willing to leave the herd and accept, even enjoy, the unpredictability of the trail.
Whether at birth, weaning time, or later, your role is to earn the trust that is typically the domain of the mother. Imprinting is a good thing provided it is completed properly. I generally spend the time to earn trust and establish the perception that being close to me is a comfortable place to be at weaning time. We also begin to earn our status as the alpha being when we halter break at this time. Instinctively most horses are followers, so if handled properly they develop into willing partners in your effort to earn trust and become the leader, which is the key to a horse that behaves well at home and when you leave the yard.
Barn Sour and Herd-Bound Horses
When talking about barn sour or herd-bound horses, we often say they do not feel like leaving their buddies or the comfort of the yard, but it is not really a matter of what they “feel” like doing. A horse’s social interactions and bond with their herd mates is the security they rely on for their wellbeing and survival. Ripping herd mates apart is like ripping them away from their security blanket and they will fight like mad to get back to safety, to escape the vulnerability of separation.
A horse may become barn sour or herd-bound in the first place because of a lack of proper upbringing. It may also be related to varying degrees of natural fear, stubbornness, laziness, or learned behaviour if the horse considers himself to be the alpha being in the horse-human relationship. Your ticket to curing a herd-bound or barn sour horse is to earn his trust and become the leader, first and foremost.
Let’s take a ride on that herd-bound or barn sour horse. He is easy to identify by his behaviour: constantly trying to turn back, sidestepping, backing up, and possibly rearing. Add to that the desperate whinnies to his equine friends.
To begin, take away the idea that the yard is the easier place to be. Work the horse at home before riding out. It does not have to be a grueling, sweaty workout, but consistent ground work in hand, on a lunge line, or in the round pen can be beneficial. This will also help establish that you mean business as leader. Take small bites. Ride out short distances, maybe several meters, and apply simple pressures for simple responses like turn, circle, back, and stop. Ask for some standing time. You absolutely cannot do what the horse wants to do.
If the horse is difficult to the point of being dangerous, I will dismount and lead him back toward the yard and beyond the place we started from; you do not want the horse thinking he won the battle and is now headed back to comfort. At this point we do a more vigorous workout with a calm join-up and some standing time. This should not be difficult if your horse has had proper ground work and you have built a relationship. Then ride out or walk out again. Repeat the procedure if the horse continues to be difficult.
If you ride out further and the horse begins to fuss again you may choose to walk circles in one spot until the horse settles down and stands for a moment; or dismount and lunge the horse on the spot until he behaves. Never let the horse choose when to start and stop, or where to go. Always keep the horse guessing about what you will ask next so you control his mind.
A horse that is happy to ride solo is a joy and a true buddy on the trail. Photo: Troxel
Never let the herd-bound or barn sour horse choose the pace. If you are going to trot at all, do it only when you ride away from home. If you allow the horse to change pace on his own, when you head back he will naturally try to run towards home. When I ride a herd-bound horse and he begins to get antsy or trot as we head back, I immediately turn him away and ride in the opposite direction until he settles down, often standing, dismounting, and tying the horse to a tree for some standing time. You should always give your trail horses standing time practice at home and on the trail. If a horse fusses and paws while standing, keep him standing until he stops and relaxes, even if it takes repeated sessions of an hour or longer. Hobbles are a good training device for quiet standing practice. Once the horse calms down, reward him by letting him go or continuing on.
Do not feed your horse or give him treats upon returning to your yard as doing so will just confirm that getting back was the right thing to do. Giving him treats while you are out on the trail is acceptable. If the herd-bound horse has a difficult time being away from his buddies even for a short time or a short distance, such as around the corner of the barn, then feed the herd-bound horse away from his buddy. The horse will fuss to start, but will soon associate leaving his buddy with desirable feeding time.
When going for a ride on a herd-bound horse, do not trail behind the buddy horse to alleviate stress. Using this crutch will just make it more difficult when you want to go out on your own. It is acceptable to have another neutral horse along to take the edge off. The more rides you take, the better.
When returning home, take the horse to a separate corral or area some distance from his usual space and other horses. Wait a while before removing the saddle so that the horse does not think he needs to get home to get the saddle off. Doing some ground work as soon as you get home further instills the concept that getting home was not necessarily the easy way out. In a half hour or so, remove the saddle, then let the horse stand again for a while before letting him go to his usual space. I will keep the seriously herd-bound horse isolated for several days and build a friendly, trusting one-on-one relationship with him before returning him to the company of other horses.
You want trail horses to be friendly toward one another, following each other down trails through good times and bad, but a herd-bound horse is trouble as he fusses and acts up to get closer to his buddy in the string. I often separate buddies that are overly attached and send them out with different horses.
Depending on a rider’s training ability, patience, and time, dealing with and successfully treating a herd-bound or barn sour horse can be a tall order. I have sold a few horses over the years for that very reason, and would not blame you if you did; a change of owner and scenery may be just what the horse needs. Certainly you do not want to be dealing with a horse that is dangerous because of his determination to do what he wants.
The Emergency Stop
It’s a good idea for all trail riders to understand how to perform an emergency stop. Take a short rein on one side and aggressively turn your horse to disengage the rear quarters. If your horse takes off on a run, use the emergency stop to slow the horse down. This is something that you need to practice at home until your horse understands the procedure, so that if you do need to use it in an emergency, your horse will turn and eventually stop.
If, like me, you are experiencing snow and cold weather, and are thinking about trails more often than riding them, I wish you happy thoughts and good luck with your horses!
Main article photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr. - If you do not have leadership and control at home, you cannot expect it when you make the horse vulnerable by asking him to leave the security of the barn and his buddies. Ground work is the most effective way to establish yourself as the alpha or dominant being.