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You try to go out for an enjoyable trail ride, but what you imagined as a peaceful ride over hill and dale turns into a battle of wills as your horse refuses to go forward, struggles to turn and head for home, and calls incessantly for his friends left at home.

Or perhaps the horse you take out is fine, but as you ride you worry about the one left at home… is he ok? Will he try to jump out again?

Dealing with barn and buddy sour behavior can be one of the most frustrating and patience testing situations that we face as riders. Unfortunately, it may also be the most common and the most difficult to solve.

Barn and Buddy Sour… aka Separation Anxiety

First, to clearly define what we are discussing, barn sour refers to a horse that wants to stay at the barn or that wants to rush back. Buddy sour refers to a horse who has become very attached to another horse.

Both are forms of separation anxiety.

What is important to remember that no matter how frustrating this behavior is it’s not defiance or disrespect, it’s anxiety and fear.

(There are cases where a horse may learn that he can simply refuse to leave the area of the barn or his companions in order to avoid work or other situations he considers unpleasant, but the majority of these “sour” behaviors are true anxiety.)

When a horse is removed from companions and/or the environment he feels safe in, he can experience anything from a slight increase in anxiety and displaying nervous behavior such as fidgeting, calling out, or head tossing, to a full panic, where he may bolt, crash through fences, or other potentially self-harming behaviors.

It is natural for a horse to be fearful of separation from his companions. The horse is both a prey and a herd species. There is safety in numbers if predators attack.

Also, the horse is a very social animal and part of his emotional stability comes from connecting and interacting with others, preferably of his own species.

Management Factors

There are some situations that make separation anxiety more likely to develop.

In a more natural herd situation, the horse may choose a best friend, but will have social interactions with many different horses.

With the limitations of domestic life, we often have to keep only a few horses together and as a result, intense pair bonding can occur.

This pair bonding tends to make separation anxiety worse, as the horse relies solely on his friend for companionship and stability.


Also, the less variability that a horse has in his routine, meaning the more he stays in the same field with the same horses the more anxious he will often become when asked to leave.

Are some horses more prone to separation anxiety?

It would be a very interesting study to determine what determines personality, fear, and and confidence levels in horses. I’m sure the influences of genetics and early life experience could be debated just as they are in human emotional development, but it is obvious that some horses are simply more emotionally stable than others.

For many horses separation is often easier if they are being engaged in other ways. For example, while this isn’t always the case, it is often the horse left behind rather than the one leaving who experiences more anxiety.

What Can We Do?

The obvious next question is can we help a horse overcome separation anxiety?

I believe that yes we can, and there are two main paths to achieving this.

The first is to improve our relationship with the horse, and the second is to begin exposing them to more time out of their safety zone, away from the barn or their companions.

There is never one path to creating better relationships, but three keys are to create good associations during our time with our horses, be consistent in our requests, and be assertive enough to create boundaries where needed.

Even though we can’t take the place of an equine companion that our horse spends the other 23 hours a day with, we can become a trusted source of comfort and connection.

Some may consider this becoming a leader for the horse, but be careful not to assume that your horse will happy to follow you anywhere and do anything if you are just a strong enough leader. Contrary to what is often thought, horses do not simply follow the “leader” of their herd. Instead their social structure is much more dynamic.

Developing a rapport with the horse through having basic requests that the horse clearly understands is important. For example, walk forward, stop, back up can be simple responses we can ask for on the ground or in the saddle.

To quote John Lyons, in an article he wrote about barn and buddy sour behavior, focusing on basic responses is “anticipating the tools you’ll need” during bouts of separation anxiety.

It is important to honestly evaluate if you can handle the behavior your horse displays during separation anxiety.

Whether mounted or on the ground, you do need the physical skills to manage your horse’s movements in order to keep yourself safe and you need to be able to remain calm during your horse’s episodes.

If you are unsure of your own skills you may choose to either work in closer proximity to your horse’s “safety zone”, whether that is close to the barn or his companion, so that your horse’s separation anxiety behaviors remain low – at a level where you are comfortable working through them – or you may choose to have someone more experienced work with your horse during these times of increased anxiety while you build your own skills and experience in calmer times.

How to Begin

As with many other anxieties, separation anxiety is best worked through with slow, repeated exposure. Meaning your horse needs to spend more time away from his companions or safety zone to become comfortable leaving or having them leave.

In desensitization, there are three principles to consider when introducing something new and scary. These are distance, duration, and intensity. Try to increase only one at a time, not all three. The goal is to challenge your horse in order to face and work through some anxiety while not going “over threshold”, creating panic.

Begin by working with your horse in an area where he is only mildly uncomfortable. Perhaps 30 or 40 feet from the barn or his companion. Practice your basic responses: walking, stopping, and circling.

It is important to pay careful attention to your horse’s responses and emotional states. As he becomes calm in one area you can move further away. If he becomes too excited, you can come back closer to the safety zone. The goal, however, is to pay close enough attention to your horse’s emotional thresholds that you don’t go too far too fast. If you lose control or the situation becomes too unsafe and you need to return to the barn you can accidentally reinforce the anxious behavior by returning.

It’s not a fast or easy process. You will likely need to be assertive and use more pressure in your requests for the basic responses than you would under normal calm circumstances. Keep in mind that during times of anxiety, it is often not soothing that makes the horse feel better, but rather calm, consistent direction.

If your concern is for the horse left behind in the barn, you don’t have the time to consistently work with your horse, or if you don’t feel safe handling your horse away from his safety zone, you can sometimes change the horse’s management.

Periodically moving one horse away into a separate field or stall can be an option, as can introducing an additional companion for the horse left behind.

Watch all the horses involved for signs of stress and do everything you can to ensure safety – closing open stall fronts for example, or only using fields with extra high fencing for the excitable horses for example.

The behavior of domesticated horses will be related to their environment.

Working through separation anxiety requires patience, understanding, and consistency. Work to improve not only your relationship with your horse but your ability to handle him, being clear and assertive in difficult situations, as well as increasing his exposure to time away or apart.

Now I’d love to hear from you… have you had a barn or buddy sour horse? How did you help them?

See you in the comments,



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38 Responses

  1. hi Kelly thank you so much for this blog I have two horses that have become bonfire in buddy sour and now I know what to do to try to help them work through that they were never like that before but like you said the last time we spent with them the more power they got so thank you again I really appreciate your blogs and in videos renee

    1. My mare and my sisters mare were buddy sour. Just them being on different sides of the fence or gate put them in a tizzy. I kept them within each other’s site and inched my mare away over a duration of weeks. Fortunately there were others horses in the pasture with my sisters mare. And it worked!

  2. I ride a buddy sour horse – he is low on the social ladder in the herd of 3. The easiest way I have found to help him gain confidence in going out alone is I take him once the other horses have already left and I take slices of apples for mid-ride rewards. If the other 2 horses are still on the property I go up and down the road in front of the property so he can see them and see they haven’t left. He actually likes personal attention so giving him “good boy”s and other rewards while not going too far away seems to keep him pretty happy.

  3. Thanks very much for this – very informative. My horse is 12yrs old Irish sport horse and can get very stressful and anxious when she is last to be brought in from her paddock so I tend to make sure she isn’t last. She can be nappy when taken away on her own to ride by neighing, refusing to go forward and jigging on the spot. She is fine riding out with another horse or if someone walking along side. She is extremely friendly horse very affectionate and soft natured. I do groundwork with her and she follows me around freely stoping and backing up without me holding the head collar but would be nice to get over this anxiety she has when she is riding out alone. I don’t know her history – I have had her 10 months now and she is better than when I first got her she doesn’t neigh when I ride her in the arena on her own which she did all the time at first she seems more relaxed. I will try what you suggest doing things slowly but any other suggestions is much appreciated – thank you.

    1. Hi Carole, I think it sounds like you are on the right path and making improvements! Unfortunately it’s often a slow process

  4. you described my situation exactly. it isn’t my horse, it is the one left behind. the arena is very close to the paddock so once echo is out of site the other horse (gelding) starts calling frantically. he does have another horse in with him but unfortunately if echo isn’t there the one that is calling is bullied by the other gelding. when the calling keeps up, as echo has become the lead horse, she eventually works herself up into a real frenzy.we cant separate as the 3 are the only ones outdoor 24/7 the rest in other paddocks are brought in at night. so, I have reached the point of staying back until echo has calmed down. this seems to be working as she is getting better and the calling from the other horse is also calming down. I am hoping by the end of dec. things will be at a point where all are relatively calm. I have increased the separation gradually and that as well seems to help. is there anything else I can do, would appreciate your feed back.

  5. You can make it more expensive for the horse to rush to his buddy by making him work hard (move his feet) after running to where he wanted to be, and offering relaxation, comfort, and praise away from that point. So you let him rush to his buddy (who is inside the pasture on the other side of the fence, say), but he pays for that with 2 minutes of tight circling, backing up, and other non-fun activities. Then you take him away from his buddy and let him catch his breath, give him a pat, etc. He can then decide whether he wants to rush back to his buddy (to do a few more circles) or hang out with you for a relaxing ride. Naturally, that assumes that the horse has already developed some trust in you to keep him safe “out there”.

    1. This is what I’ve always done, even have my husband meet me out on the trail with some feed or treats. When I get her back she gets tied up away from other horses and/or made to work more. I have one mare I literally had to put in a pasture all to herself so not to be around and rarely even see the other horses, she is much better now. I now have one that was never buddy sour until now, but I haven’t been riding because of health issues for a year so she has gotten really bad, stopping, backing, grinding on the bit, complete temper tantrums and she is normally a sweet sweet horse. So yesterday I rode “Madison” out on the trail a little longer than the other day and she showed her butt. Luckily I didn’t come off (no muscle now) my husband just plowed up a small field next to where her buddies are which were tied at other end of their pasture so not at the fence. I worked her in the soft dirt, then took her where she couldn’t see the other horses and tied her to the horse trailer for about 45 minutes until she calmed down. I am lucky as I have multiple pastures so I put her in one by herself close to the others but she can’t be next to them. Hopefully this will help.

  6. Unfortunately a lot of separation anxiety is a result of poor weaning practices. The baby taken from mum and locked up on its own goes through a lot of trauma which is replayed right through life especially when their adult buddy goes out for a ride. There are lots of different methods of weaning…next time you buy a horse..check out how they were weaned. Confident happy youngsters are weaned gradually. mum in a yard and youngster outside the yard…so they can still be together…the youngster can wander off to feed and graze with a buddy when they are ready to… It takes about 2 weeks…. It is extra work but it pays off over the course of the horses life. Often too much work for big studs…check out John Chatterton’s method.. …he has a foal weaning dvd and a bit in his book…it makes a lot of sense. (and no I am not trying to sell anything!)

    1. Interesting Sharon, I had heard speculation that separation anxiety was related to weaning but didn’t have enough actual stories to know if it was true. I think that is one of the difficult issues about how horses are raised and often sold multiple times, we don’t get much history on their younger years.

  7. I have a mare that is buddy sour at shows. She is fine at home being taken away from her buddy and he is out of sight but she is really difficult at shows. She seemed to be getting worse during the show season rather than better so we took her to some shows by herself and she was amazing. She was fine at the big barn we bough her from but in our small barn environment she has developed a love crush. Any ideas on what we can do? We show both horses so we have to get her over this. (Regumate did not help)

    1. Hi Becky, how often do you go to shows? Would you be able to go away from the farm more often to work them both together and apart?

      1. We do about 6-8 shows a year. That is our plan to do next year when there are two of us again. I got injured rehabbing another horse so had to sit out most of the summer.

  8. My girl, Wildfire, has a bit of a different challenge for us. She has been known to leave her best pasture buddies behind and crawl under the fence to join other horses (not her best buds) who have left on a trail ride. She loves to go out for an adventure on the trails! She has also been known to take her buddies with her and leave the safety of the herd to go on an adventure. She is quite the clever escapee!

  9. A couple of weeks ago, I was working on some exercises with Gracie in an arena that she was not familiar with. We had her buddy in the arena with her and she was not doing the exercise correctly because of her of buddy being there, so we took her buddy out. She kept trying to go to the gate and” carrying on” trying to get to her buddy. So, I made her work really hard at the places where she would “carry on” and then release that pressure and let her rest away from that area and any time she wasn’t acting up. I did this about 5 times and then she settled down and actually avoided the gate. We were able then to complete our exercise with little fuss. I have been putting a foundation on her (ground work and saddle work , as well) since July. We started with round penning. This has helped to establish a bond and respect for each other, which helped in this situation.

  10. The horse I lease, Chase, has no problem leaving his 2 buddies but sometimes resists going out on a trail ride. The other day, I went out with a friend on a trail ride (we have trails that start at the back of the property, late in the day. It was near dinnertime for the horses and Chase was super overhyped about leaving and when we hit a field to do a little trotting and cantering, he took off at full speed, galloping! I could turn him but not slow him down and if we turned back towards the path that we came from he got even stronger and faster. I finally did a one-rein stop which worked, of course. I told my friend that we would meet her out on the trail on the other side of the field away from the direction of the barn. He settled a bit when we continued on crossing another field but staying at the walk around the edges and then back into the woods. As the trail turned towards home, he began getting excited again. He really wanted his dinner!! I left her at the field because she wanted to do more trotting and cantering with horse. I actually got off Chase so that I wouldn’t be battling with him from the saddle. Neither way was good until I finally got back my cool and began stopping and backing him a little and waiting before walking every time he pulled ahead of me. He calmed down and we were able to walk into our field behind our barn in a relaxed manner. Whew! I’ve taken him out alone on the trails earlier in the day and had no problems so in this case I’m pretty sure it was the time of day.

  11. I’m lucky I exercise an australian stock horse warmblood cross & nothing phases him. He’s smart & chilled out. I should take him on a trail ride but I suspect he’ll still be his usual self. The only time he gets stroppy if he smells I have been eating his liqourice & he wants some. He won’t stop pestering me until I get him some. He does cause me a tad of anxiety in the arena after cantering he can get a bit hot & start to run in the trot. Once he gets warmed up hes pretty fast in the canter when I want him to be collected and slow. I am working through the issue and well figure out a solution. Its a great spring day in melbourne, Australia.

  12. Hi Callie, thanks so much for addressing this. Joey, one of our two horses whom we rescued two years ago, gets so anxious when we take my mare out of the paddock right next to him, that he works himself into a frenzy. Even though she remains well within his view, he gallops and hollers like the world is coming to an end. One time it was so bad he almost crashed into the gate. He definitely is the type who panicks to the point of self-harm. I have not ridden him since he has a fear of that too and bucks, but I imagine it could be really dangerous riding him on the trails. I have had to turn down offers from friends to pick my mare and I up for a ride, for fear that he would colic. So when the farrier comes out, I have to make sure Joey goes first, otherwise he’ll be a basket case and not stand still if my mare got to come out first. They told me at the kill pen that he was really attached to a mare there, and leaving her behind might have affected him. But what you said is true in his case: when he is the one going away he usually does not have an issue. It’s only when he gets left. As Sharon said about the weaning, that may factor in as well, although I don’t have much of his history. The one thing that I have tried is to walk my mare around fairly close to his paddock. If he hollers, I start walking her away from him; when he quits, we turn around and walk towards him. Problem is, right when we turn around because I think he’s calmed down, he starts up again. Another problem is the lack of time for me to do this consistently to see if it would really work.

    1. Just noticed your post. My gelding is doing great now. Answer: I had to move him to another facility. I realize that may not be an option for you. There’s no doubt in our minds it was the mare he was attached to. I tried everything but move him but eventually I had to because it was for his own good. He has a mare now in front of him but he is fine. No pacing, sweating, hyperventilating for hours on end. This mare is not interested in him. Found out just 1 week ago that the place I took my horse from had issues every time a gelding was put there next to that mare. Of course we werent tols that becauae borh the property owner and the trainer were naking money off of me. They said it was my horse. Something was wrong with him. NOT. No, he was obsessed with the mare and we saw it when the mare went into heat. He has adapted beautifully at his new place. It’s the circumstances and the environment. Nothing more. Nothing less. Humans are the same way.

  13. All of my horses go out to pasture through the day and at night. What do you think about me stalling my buddy sour mare over night? She is very smart and I am working on forming a stronger bond with her but when I get to far past the barn she gets dangerous and frantic. Do you think stalling her through the night will be a good aid to breaking this bad behavior?

    1. There is obviously an anxiety issue. And horses are herd bound animals. I would think to suddenly isolate her from her herd for many hours would cause her increased anxiety and cause more issues. You may not even be able to get her near the barn after that! It’s a very slow gradual process to decrease her anxiety. Maybe start by taking her just shy of where she gets anxious, let her graze, mull around. Do it on a lead and also under saddle, mix it up. Do this several times rewarding her for being calm. After she does this easily, go just a tiny be farther- tiny! If possible do this with other horses as well while she is watching from a safe zone so she can see that it is “okay.” Be very patient and expect this to take awhile. Rushing her will only increase her anxiety and reverse the progress you’ve made. She will also pick up when you’re frustrated, so only do it on days you can stay calm and patient with her.

  14. Hi Callie,

    Thanks for sharing your expertise. I have 4 horses and all of them started out with some anxiety about leaving the others. I have experimented and have found that when I take a walk, I just take one of them along. At first it is a little struggle and I don’t go far but gradually I can go for a long walk and they remain comfortable with me. Even the ones that I normally don’t ride as much or the very young ones benefit from this….including me as I get my exercise, also. A great perk!! Plus it is fun just spending time with a horse and not asking very much from him/her.

  15. I am at my wit’s end! I rescued an ex show horse, retired from the Saddlebred circuit 5 mos ago. Gelding. He’s sound and strong. No papers. No age. Over 20 for sure. He is at a barn, private back yard with 14 other horses. He is obsessed with a mare next to him. He works himself into a horrible panic when she is ridden, turned out, or someone is in her stall. Trying to find another place for him. It’s the mare.The mare. The mare. Obsessed with only her. Yesterday I thought he was going to die. Breathing so heavy nostrils flaring in and out. State of panic worked up pacing frantically. All the mare was doing was standing in her stall. There were 2 other geldings turned out around her. What can I do before I have a dead horse on my hands? Thanks.

  16. Poor horse … we have one that did similar behaviour. A visiting coach suggested rubbing a few drops of lemon juice on her muzzle.. best to do I prior to them being in a frenzied state I found but it did slow down the behaviour. Good luck.

  17. I used real lemon…squeezed it into a cup, took the cup out with me (plastic) and then dipped my fingers in it…just dabbed it almost where her lips met …below the nostrils…wont cost much to try it 🙂
    I kept applying it every hour as she was really nuts about the horse next to her…running the fence not taking any notice of anything or anyone else…worked herself into a lather! no harm trying anyway 🙂 Our visiting coach said it works much better if you can catch the behaviour as it begins..

    1. God, thank you. What eventually happened to the gelding? I’m looking 4 a new place as we speak. It’s this mare he’s obsessed with. No other horse. Getting worse every day. Moving him is the only remedy.

      1. Are you sure moving him will help? Are you able to ride him away from the barn, or better yet, trailer him away from the barn and then ride him calmly elsewhere? If you’re not sure, you may want to try this first. He may work himself into a frenzy at being moved away from her, but can he calm himself down once away from her? If not you could have an even bigger problem on your hands.

        1. With my horse I’m finding that once away from home he is fine but trying to ride him away rather than lead him away is causing issues… Maybe I’m just not a strong enough leader to contain his anxiety on board

  18. Love this article because you mention the term “separation anxiety.” I also think of it sometimes as “abandonment anxiety.”

    I’m riding my second horse with this anxiety [problems with leaving the barn rather than the one staying behind] and what’s interesting to me is that the concept of “home” seems to have been transferred onto the group of buildings, as opposed to the group of horses.

    For either of these two, being together with other horses on the ride (even if it’s the majority of horses from the herd!) does nothing at all to lessen the anxiety, or the need to get back in sight of the barn. I think it’s because they consider the group of barn buildings to be where the conceptual “herd” is, and they need to remain in sight of it (of course!) to know when there’s danger.

    Or maybe it’s as you suggest: they feel safe around those buildings because they’ve spent too much time there, haven’t been asked to come out or move around enough.

    What they both seemed to fear is that the barn (i.e., “herd”) would be gone when they got back. They’re now abandoned to the danger, with nowhere to turn. The first guy had literally experienced this on several occasions: returned to find the horses on any of the sides of his lot to be gone and none in sight. On one occasion when I looked with him out over his landscape (he can see the barn buildings from one high corner) there was not a horse or human in sight, and even I felt abandoned. (Maybe everyone had trailered out for an event, leaving us behind?! In fact there was a misfortunate farm layout — dips and hills made hiding places for the horses with pasture, or the few he might normally see had gone out). He neighed and neighed with not a single response. It was obviously his worst fear realized. Had I owned him I would have lobbied for a better environment.

    The suggestions you give are excellent and are what I’m working on with the current mare. She can get so soft and lovely once she’s clear about the signals. If a corner is turned and barn obstructed by trees, the tension returns. So clearly a subconscious reaction, which is what makes it so interesting. Still working on patient and consistent expansion of time outside her safety zone, especially with the encouragement of your article.


  19. I wish I would have read this article a little sooner than now. We rescued an 11 year old mare who was in a stall in the desert for at least six months. We moved her to a lower level where it’s going to be a tad hotter for her. We have been doing ground work, walking, stopping, personal space, lunging. She knows what she is doing. We just have to get her desensitized. Today like any day we went to the stall, gave her a good brushing and a little pampering. Put her through the basics for consistency. Then decided….let’s tske her for a walk, not a ride, down the road (loose sand, dirt, shrubs, pebbly, non-paved country road. About 30 feet away from the herd, she started getting ansy. We figured she was just barn sour and we would take her for about a half mile walk. Wrong. All that training we did in the arena and round pen went out the window. She didn’t follow commands, constantly turning around to go back. But we wanted to go a bit further and decide to do a bit of distance each time. But I’ll tell you. She was quick to turn back at the point we decided on (my wife and I) and got into a fast walk and spent most of my time at her tail end instead of the head end with the lead rope almost fully out. I tried to get up to her and give her the back command, even giving her a shove and she wasn’t buying it. When we finally got back around the ranch owners house, she started to settle but was quick paced to get back to her stall. So in the run, we did our basics again, start, stop, stay, come. Once in the stall she was her ole self. She backed up, turned in circles, and lucky we are to have a gate into the arena as well. I opened it up, making her step back each time I opened the gate inch by inch. Then we took her out and did our basics like what happened on the road didn’t happen! She is certainly barn sour and needs worked. We took her in knowing it would be a while until we saddled her up (and we have been gingerly doing that with the blanket and saddle so she gets used to it and behold, she does). We are not riding her yet as we are following our trainers step by step to get her rideable. So the anxiety is real, for the horse and me! I feel bad now that I was hard on her for not listening or following simple, basic commands. I think we will stick with the road that runs up to the stalls so she gets a feel for distance and familiarity, then work the road side of the arena and then the other side of the arena back to her stall. Hoping this will get her used to distance while decreasing anxiety for now. But it’s a work of love. So patience is far greater for a human and a horse, both hard headed but hopefully after the same goal. Thanks Callie.

  20. Thank you so much for this! We have a severely buddy sour horse, and during his episode, I get really afraid that he will hurt himself or me. he turns into a different horse! every time he can’t see other horses or his friend leaves, he goes absolutely insane. the other day i htought he was gong to break his stall’s fence!!! now that i know how to handle it, i hope it will improve. Thanks!

    1. Hopefully these tips will be helpful to both you and him!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  21. Hi. Thank you for all your insight on buddy sour horses. I have a frustrating situation to say the least. I rescued my mare from a kill lot about 3 years ago. The only thing that I knew about her is at one point she was a brood mare. She was a wonderful rehab project. She was an in your pocket mare, willing and a big heart. NO signs of being mare-ish, or being buddy sour. We moved to a new facility almost a year ago. She had no issues integrating into the mare herd at the new place. Probably i’d say mid to high ranking in the pack. Overtime, I noticed a mare that is obviously ill start to become attached to her. Apparently, this other mare was attached to another mare before we moved in. This “attachment” has led to the point that my mare has become the buddy sour one. She is so sour that sometimes she runs away in the pasture or will just absolutely not move in the pasture once haltered. If she is in her stall she is in full panic mode calling for this other mare. I’ve seen some buddy sour horses in my time but nothing like this. I have absolutely no ability to even just bond with my horse, groom, and forget riding :/

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