Ryan Gingerich - Ask the Behaviorist: My Horse Hates to Leave the Barn

March 29, 2009
Ryan Gingerich
Ryan Gingerich


I have a Quarter Horse, who, for the most part, is a very calm and not easily startled. He listens to me well on the trail, as long as I am riding with other people and their horses. Also, when I am riding at the barn, he’s fine. But when I try to lead him away from the barn — let alone ride him away — he gets barn/buddy sour. He’s blown up so big as to rear, spin, and kick out. His reactions scare me, and I’m sure he can feel that. How do I work with him in a safe manner, while also helping build confidence in both myself and my horse? I’d like to at least be able to lead him away from the barn property without a big blow-up. Help!
Mary McCourt


It can be frightening to have a 1,000 pound animal “check out” under saddle or at the end of a lead. You feel powerless, afraid, and don’t know what to do. By following basic guidelines and then building on them, it’s my intention to get you to understand your horse’s behavior and provide you tools to change negative patterns.

Horses are herd animals; they rely on group interaction to give them focus, direction, and confidence. Some are fine without their herd; others exhibit behaviors like what you experienced, with rearing, kicking, spinning. Your horse hasn’t learned to focus on you, nor has he learned basic controls. “Barn sour” behavior can cause huge grief, not to mention take away all the fun of being with your horse.

Start this process on the ground with a specific plan for each day. Don’t make your plan impossible, however. Instead, “chunk” it down to achievable pieces. Small successes will build to big ones.

• Zones. Begin by working within specific zones. Green means go, yellow is slow, and red is stop. The Green Zone is a place where the horse is responsive and listening to you, and where you’re successful.

• Basic controls. It’s imperative that you work on basic controls: Go, stop, left, right, back, and stand still. These controls are the foundation for everything you do with your horse. Get them polished on the ground before trying them under saddle.

• Lightness. Once you have accomplished the basic controls, work on lightness. Lightness includes relaxation, flexion, and strength of all the responses.

• Rhythm. When your horse is under control and has attained lightness, work on rhythm. Rhythm includes going fast and slow, speed up, slow down. Actually, rearing has its roots here. When the horse stops going forward and begins to slow his front feet, the pressure is ‘shot out’ the front feet and the horse goes upward. This is why we need to work on rhythm.

• Keeping in line. This helps your horse to go and stay in the direction you ask. It sounds simple, but keeping a line is exactly what your horse isn’t doing — he’s doing everything to avoid keeping a line. This is a big problem with buddy-sour or barn-sour horses. The horse stops going where you want him to go. He’ll do just about anything (buck, spin, rear) to get back to his buddies or the barn.

Once the horse is responsive and doesn’t display any negative behaviors, push the zone farther away from his buddies or the barn. In writing down your plan every day, note where this zone is so you can keep expanding it.

You might want to pick markers that give you a visual goal, such as a row of trees. If you’ve accomplished your goals within the arena, for instance, then lead your horse away from that Green Zone to the first tree, then the second tree, and so on.

When the horse begins to act inappropriately, you’ll know that this is where his Green Zone stops and his Yellow Zone starts. Train in this area. Get the horse under control using techniques mentioned above (basic controls, etc.) until you’ve created a new Green Zone. Then expand that Green Zone farther until you’ve moved outside of what was the Yellow Zone. This way, you and your horse are safely and calmly moving farther and farther away from the limited area, where the horse was initially comfortable.

If at any point the horse is becoming unsafe, take him back to the Green Zone where he is under control. Begin the process again, ever-expanding the zone area.

The longer you practice, the safer the horse should become. Right now, because your horse is comfortable only around his Green Zone, it’s clear that the horse has trouble with basic controls. Make your plan and follow the lessons of my program; ultimately your horse will be under control without displaying any negative behavior, no matter where you are.

This Q&A format allows only an overview; more complete answers can be found on my Web site.

From boyhood on his grandfather’s farm to his first job as an equine trail guide, Ryan Gingerich had a special relationship with horses. His desire to make horses his life’s work led him to complete a national horse training certification program, then study with one of the world’s top equine behaviorists. Years of further study helped Ryan, who is now deemed “The Behaviorist,” to develop his own training program, Connective Horsemanship. At his National Equine Behavior Center in Missouri, Ryan continues to hone and expand his knowledge, which he shares weekly on his RFD-TV show. When not at home, Ryan travels the country, helping owners and their behaviorally-challenged horses. Visit Ryan’s Web site at