Horse-Training Tips for a Sour Horse

Horse-Training Tips for a Sour Horse

Problem-solving techniques can help overcome a horse’s competition sourness.

red roan barrel horse warm up (Credit: Journal)

text size

Competition can place tremendous stress on performance horses and their riders. Nervousness at competition, poor preparedness or conditioning, and poor horsemanship can all cause a horse to go sour. The best way to solve the problem of a sour horse is to prevent it before it starts.

Horsewoman Traci Johnting of Fort Thomas, Kentucky, has worked with barrel horses and riders for more than 25 years. She is a multiple AQHA World Championship Show qualifier and top-10 placer with numerous wins under her belt. Here, she offers advice on how to keep horses tuned and focused so they can perform to the best of their ability.

Keeping Your Horse Interested

  • Go into each training day and competition with a plan. Horses have a 15- to 20-minute learning curve. 
  • At a competition, get on, get warmed up and get to work. Don’t spend hours building the anticipation. This will cause the horse to get nervous and not have a positive experience.
  • Avoid drilling your horses, especially young horses. If training is monotonous and consists of only drills, the horse will become bored, or worse, sour, and will no longer want to do his job. If your horse is smart and intelligent, you can show him something two or three times. It’s better to do a little each day than a lot a couple of days a week.
  • Maintain forward motion when you enter the arena. Traci brings horses to the alley at a trot and finds that when horses stay moving, they no longer have issues with gates or the arena. The main goal is to get a horse to relax. Especially with barrel horses that associate the gate or alley with performance, avoid the gate until you are ready to compete. 

Rehabbing a Sour Horse

For horses that have become sour, rehabbing them is the best solution to get your horse back on track.

  • First, work variety into your training. Take your horse to the trail to keep him in condition, ride with a friend or just take some time away from the event that the horse participates in.
  • Bend and flex down the trail or through trees to keep him soft and ready for competition when you get back to that point. When you go back to competition, change the scenery, so he doesn’t associate the time and place with the event.
  • Practice drills out of order or with variance. With barrel horses, don’t practice going around the barrels over and over. Try varied gaits and patterns. Make all left turns, or right turns, practice the approach. You’ll find that horses will still get tuned up while maintaining calmness.

Keeping a Horse Sound and Sane

Nine times out of 10, if a horse isn’t working, there is a soundness issue involved. Just like you, our horses do not perform as well when they are in pain.

  • Take the time to diagnose correctly. If your horse becomes sour seemingly out of nowhere, a health issue might be involved. Your horse could have ulcers, equine protozoal myeloencephalitis or you don’t always know what. 
  • Determine if the issue is a simple fix. The horse may need joint medications or need to have his feet or teeth done. Look at saddle fit and work on rider errors. Often, these are the culprits and are much easier to fix than restarting a horse from the beginning.

If our horses are to perform at a level that we want them to compete at, we have to take better care of them and pay attention to what they are trying to tell us. Horses can’t talk to us, but by paying attention, you know when something is not right.


Sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim

Horses are living, breathing works of art and caring for them requires an entire team – veterinarians, farriers, trainers, riders and grooms. Boehringer Ingelheim is proud to help provide tools to help the team keep them performing at their peak.