2018-07-21 / Columnists

HORSE TALES

Herd Bound, Barn Sour, and Buddy Sour
by Candice C. Dunnigan

A natural instinct for horses is the herd. Horses like to stick together. This is a way they live in nature for protection. But ever since they became domesticated, the herd transformed to any area in which they live. Nowadays, it is some kind of mutual site such as a barn, stable, field, or pasture. Some horses, not all, develop an aversion to leaving home sweet home. Then, if forced to leave, they will do everything within their power, including bolting, to come back to it. This is called “barn sour.”

Likewise, some horses, but not all, will not want to leave a particular horse or horses. They will be the most irrational of equines. These horses have to be within actual sight of another horse with whom they have bonded in a basic deep-rooted attachment. For us (the humans), it is irrational. For them, it is the most important thing in the world. This is a called “buddy sour.”

When we sold our farm four years ago, we kept three of our horses and we moved them to our friend’s comfortable stable. These are the three horses we bring annually to the Island, and we felt it was important to keep them together. Little did we know that the move to a new home downstate further bonded these horses, and two out of the three developed the very negative habit of not wanting to leave each other’s sight, i.e., buddy sour. Akin to not being able to “teach a dog new tricks,” we have now a challenge. The two, who are buddy bound, are both older animals. One (Horse A) we’ve had since he was six months old and now is 20, and the other (Horse B) is spending his 18th summer on Mackinac. Neither horse was so interdependent prior to the move, so part of the time this season has been spent on trying to retrain independence and lessening the nervousness.

A recent trip to the farrier here was full of spent energy for one of them. The older horse has been accepting of the younger one leaving the corral. His calls to him are infrequent. But a new surrounding (such as the shoe shop) heightened the younger’s awareness of other horses around him. While not bonkers, he certainly was full of agitation. The other horse, the third horse (Horse C) has a much less herd-bound attitude. He, however, has been a relative newcomer on the scene, having only been part of our horse group for seven years. Buddy sour is one of the vices horse trainers, such as Clint Anderson and John Lyons, make all kinds of money from. And, there are all kinds of do-it-yourself tapes, training books, or hiring a professional. There is no easy way in re-training.

I have spoken with several Island horse people with good horse sense, and the same kind of logic prevails. There is no magic bullet. Horses that act this way are not “bad” horses, but they are horses with problems, and problem horses take a lot of work and patience. Retraining has to be consistent, not just a couple of times a week. I have never cared to overanalyze a horse, but prefer to observe it and then see what immediate steps can be made that are positive.

In the case of buddy sour horses, we started to separate them quietly and just let them see each other over the fence. The new step has been to move Away from Bafew feet several times, then yards, and then over to the other side of the barn. We have taken C (who has the nonchalant attitude) out also and worked on tacking them up within sight of each other and then heading off on the trail away from the cottage, which has worked. However, the next step in this process is for A to be walked solo away from B and C and ridden by himself. Rome was not built in a day.

Barn sour horses are more common, often seen in horses that are used in riding stables. Often they go out in a line or a group. It is a daily routine and they soon learn it, no matter who is riding them. Eventually, after an hour or so, they will go back to the barn and into their stable, until the next time they go out. Why leave? Or, why walk to get back? It is faster to get back on your own terms. These horses develop stubborn behaviors. They may leave the barn, but refuse to move forward. At a certain point or spot they will try to turn around, confusing the rider, and quicken their step. Sometimes they begin to trot to jig or aggressively move toward home base, not listening to any aids.

Barn sour horses that are owned privately often pick up this habit because their owners heedlessly canter back to the barn, and the horses get the idea that the faster they get home, the sooner they can do as they please.

The best thing in both barn sour and buddy sour horses is to keep the focus on you. Give them some kind of job to do - walk over a stick, back them up to keep them away from the attention of the other horse.

Do these vices occur in draft horses, such as the scores of them here on Mackinac? Yes, it happens, but draft animals tend to be much more laid back. Even though they weigh more than 1,000 pounds, they tend to have a docility to them that many riding horses seem to lack. Possibly it is because they are working animals, pulling carriages, taxis, drays, starting and stopping, and have jobs to do all day. They are not here as pleasure horses going for a carriage ride or learning to jump cross rails, or do circles in a ring a few times a week. It is true that, after work, the same horses who have been on the streets all day will go looking for their same buddy after work in the turn-out lot, which can have as many as 30 horses in it, and seek him out to eat dinner with. The good thing about the draft population on Mackinac is that there is a large collective group of people who work with these animals daily. It is repetition of positive things, such as walking away from the other horse, paying attention to the human in charge that helps to break bad habits.

When working with young riders in stable settings here, one has to try extra hard to be confident in dealing with these vices. Horses that have spent all winter together may not want to be broken up. Or a new horse introduced to the stable just somehow instinctively finds a newfound friend and bonds to him like glue.

So I have an extra added project to work on this summer. The thing is, horses are smart, almost too smart, and they do have an extrasensory perception. They are flight animals, but you do not want to instill the fight in them, for a battle will ensue. By sheer strength and power, the horse will always win. But by some real determination, calmness, and willingness to take time, you can win a horse’s trust, or a kernel of it. I figure I have at least two out of three of these attributes.

Even on Mackinac, where the horses look so lovely from afar, there can be imperfections in paradise.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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