How to Correct a Sour Horse

08/10/2022

It’s well known that horses can become bored and sour about their workload. And although you might loooove your 20m circle or your usual trail route, and wonder why your horse isn’t more enthralled by it, it’s hardly surprising. If you had to do the very same job day in and day out for most of your life, you’d probably get bored. Or at least want a good vacation from time to time! 

Horses who have become sour are often pretty unpleasant to ride. And more than that, they can also be dangerous. So how do you know if a horse is feeling sour and what can you do to make it better, so you can get back to practicing that 20m circle (but more happily) pronto?

What’s a Sour Horse?

First off, what does a ‘sour’ horse even mean? Basically, it refers to a horse having a dislike of or a negative mental or emotional reaction to a specific situation. They’ll be unhappy when they’re asked to do certain tasks and leave or enter certain situations.

If a horse is sour, it often relates to arena work – but not always. They can also be competition sour or even ‘barn sour.’ An arena or ring sour horse might be fine out on trails but hate working in the arena. A barn sour horse might refuse to leave the herd to be ridden or worked with. You get the picture!

What Does a Sour Horse do? 

Ring sourness is the problem most people encounter. This may or may not be linked to competitive outings, but many horses are actually better at shows due to the new atmosphere. 

If your horse is ring or arena sour, they might display some or all of these behaviors when you take them into the arena to do some work:

  • Rearing or bucking
  • Napping (especially towards the gate)
  • Refusing to enter the arena 
  • Becoming lazy or unmotivated 
  • Acting generally “difficult” with pinned ears, resistance, spinning, and so on

Keep in mind that your horse might not necessarily exhibit sourness in the same way as the next horse. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell whether a horse is sour. 

Like a lot of behavioral problems in horses, the signs can easily be confused for something else. Like what? Often naughtiness, or even pain. Though it’s never a bad thing to check a horse for pain if they are acting differently or unusually, it’s possible they’re just sour and bored. Just like how some bored kids might become disruptive, whereas others might simply be distracted. 

Luckily, there’s quite an easy way to find out if your horse is sour. The first step is usually to change the work entirely, or give them a bit of a holiday. If their attitude does a 180, you might be dealing with a sour horse! And if that’s the case, what do you do? 

Working with a Horse Who has Become Sour

The first thing to do is figure out why your horse has become sour. Usually, it’s a case of boredom or overexposure to the same situation. Occasionally, it might be because your horse has had a bad experience (or a few) in a certain situation. Regardless though, the main goal is to change the place or thing they don’t like into something they do. 

So, how do you do that? The first approach is to tackle boredom. 

Image: Unsplash

Nipping Boredom in the Bud

You can do this in a few ways. Firstly, you should be adding plenty of variety to your horse’s work to keep them interested. Your own circumstances will dictate exactly what you can do (for instance, not all of us can jump or do trails) but to mix it up, consider trying to add one or more of the following to your usual routine so your horse does a variety of different things:

  • Doing trails 
  • Trips to new places (beaches, new trails, arenas at a different barn etc) 
  • Longeing or long reining (inside the arena or outside)
  • Hill work
  • Jumping, polework, or cavaletti 
  • Hunting, cross-country, or gallop work 
  • Flatwork and dressage 
  • Schooling in a paddock field or outside the arena

By mixing up their routine, your horse will reap benefits. You’ll find your horse is happier to school on the flat if they’ve had a couple of days of trails or jumping, or that your lazy and sour horse who doesn’t want to trot transforms when you work on the trot over raised poles or when you’re trotting up and down hills.

Then, there’s the work itself. Plenty of horses who only do dressage, for instance, are still quite well stimulated and enjoy variety. Though it’s always good to cross-train for your horse’s physical and mental development, you can add variety and keep your horse interested while still staying within the same space and discipline. Make sure to change pace, direction, and focus often. Maybe one day you work mainly on going forward and back in the canter, another you do some lateral work, and a third day involves plenty of short and sharp transitions between the gaits.  

Then, you can also try a short break from riding. If your horse is feeling ring sour or competition sour, taking away the negative stimulus for a bit can help. Which means a holiday from being ridden or competing. It doesn’t have to be months off, but giving your horse a couple of weeks of grazing and field time can do wonders for their mental state. Especially if you go down to visit, groom them, feed some carrots, and generally form a bond which isn’t reliant on time in the saddle. 

A Bit of Reverse Psychology 

If you’ve ever studied any kind of horsemanship, you’ll know about the idea of rest being a reward for a horse. If your horse won’t load into a trailer, for example, the advice is often to longe or do groundwork with them nearby the trailer and only let them rest when they’re on the ramp.

You can apply this to a horse who is sour too. All you have to do is make that arena the pleasant resting place! Naturally, this means working your horse and keeping their feet moving outside the ring, then letting them rest and chill out when they’re inside the arena. If you can also feed them treats or even their evening feed in the arena, that also helps to create a positive association. You’ll have to do this for a while, and pick up work again inside the arena when your horse has made the positive association.

Between this, you might want to do some fun, relaxed rides in different places. That way, your horse will be far less likely to associate you getting in the saddle with hard work. 

Bear in mind, you’ll still need to prevent the sourness from returning. Which is where the need for variety and mental stimulation comes in. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, you want your horse to enjoy your rides and for him to be a willing partner you work with, not one you have to coerce into doing things. A happy horse is always the goal!

What does your horse’s weekly routine look like? How do you prevent sourness from creeping in?

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