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Trainer’s Tip: Overcoming buddy sour behavior

Hello again, as summer winds down and we approach the fall I hope everyone has had a great few months riding. We have been very busy at the Harmony Equine Center bringing horses in and working with them before sending them out. We have seen a wide variety of horses of all different breeds and training levels. Having started our new owner surrender program, we have had several instances where two horses come in together after having lived with each other for most of their lives. Needless to say, they are usually quite attached. By “attached” I mean that the horses exhibit a behavior commonly known as “buddy sour.” The term basically means the horses have a tough time paying attention or functioning without the other horse around. Buddy sour behavior can often be scary and intimidating if you’re not prepared to deal with it.

Horses become buddy sour because they are herd animals, and they naturally feel safer and protected within their herd. When horses become buddy sour while being ridden, it’s a good indication that they feel safer with the other horse than they do with you. This doesn’t mean your horse doesn’t like you, but it can indicate that they just feel safer with the other horse, which is all they can think about. The trick to correcting buddy sour behavior is to start getting the horse to think about you and what you are asking it to do rather than worry about the other horse.

In any herd, there is a pecking order or a herd dynamic. Even if horses are best friends, one horse is the leader. The leader horse establishes its leadership by moving the feet of the other horse. You might notice that around feeding time. We can do the same thing be it on the ground or on their back. It’s very common for us as people to try to stop the behavior when it starts; this is natural because we want everything to go smoothly. However, any time we just try to stop a specific behavior, we unintentionally pick a fight with our horse, and that can lead to more problems. Rather than stop the behavior, redirect it by making the horse move its feet forward, backward, left and right. It’s important to be assertive while doing this and really make it work for the horse. Initially, you might have to stick with it for a while before you start to see a change. The instant you do see a difference, stop and let the horse rest. This rest break might only last a second or two, and if the horse starts up again, just go right back to work. The core principle of this approach is to make the right thing easy; and that is being with you.

There are also times when we try to ride away from the barn and our horse just simply won’t go, or they give us trouble when we ask. If this happens, follow the principle above, and put them to work right there at the barn. I like to work the horse any way I safely can, including trotting circles, loping circles, disengaging the hindquarters, rolling back the front quarters. I do this at a fairly intense pace and constantly change what I am doing (left, right, forward, backward, etc.). This method will eventually get the horse to start thinking about what you are doing instead of being buddy sour. As soon as the horse makes an effort to even think about leaving the barn or its buddy, stop the work and reward them for the effort. It might only be a step or two or just a glance, but it’s important that you reward that effort. If your horse starts to go back to the barn or to their buddy, resume work until another attempt is made. Depending on the severity of the issue, you might only get 50 yards away from where you started before you should deem your training session successful and stop. In extreme cases, I like to get off my horse, loosen my cinch and stand out there to let the horse catch its breath. In time, the horse will start looking forward to being out and away from the barn and its buddy because you have made it easier for them out there as opposed to the work involved with being buddy sour.

Each horse is different and will take to training on its own time, and not ours. It’s important to know that it will be a process, and a little progress is still progress. Remember, we are assuming the role of our horse’s teacher and leader, so stay patient, and don’t get frustrated or upset. Additionally, make sure you have done your homework and that your horse knows what the cues are when you are working them. Make being with you away from their buddy an easier option for your horse by creating a situation where it is work to be buddy sour. Don’t forget to reward your horse every time he starts to think differently and also that no problem can be fixed overnight. Be ready to work at it. Until next time, sit up, smile and enjoy your ride.

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