It's more than embarrassing when your horse refuses to enter the show ring in front of a crowd -- it can even turn into a dangerous situation. If you're ignoring his signals, he might buck, rear or spin into another horse at the gate. Or he might make an unexpected move during competition that results in a serious accident. It's a panic act when he's focused solely on staying out of the ring.
"Sour" is a descriptor for a wide range of horse problems -- buddy sour, barn sour, gate sour, ring sour. In essence, the word sour describes a horse's negative mental reaction to a circumstance. A ring sour horse is one that either refuses to enter or shows great distaste for entering the show ring. Such a horse is often referred to as arena sour. He will misbehave as he approaches the gate or entrance as his way of telling the rider that he does not want to go into the ring.
Expert trainers Clinton Anderson and John Lyons believe that the constant pressure, stress and hard work that takes place only inside the show ring or arena makes a horse ring sour. For many horses, the inside of the arena is the only place where they have to work hard and perform under pressure, while outside of the arena they get to eat, rest and play. It doesn't take long for a horse to realize that it's much more enjoyable to stay outside of the ring, and that realization makes him ring sour.
It takes time, patience and consistent practice to help a horse overcome sourness. The key is to make the ring a place your horse finds pleasant. Working your horse hard outside the arena and then letting him rest and relax inside the arena is the first step. Practice inside the arena again only after he realizes it can be a pleasant, relaxing place. Vary between practice and rest inside the ring, and make sure that it isn't the only place where your horse is expected to work. Spend some time riding your horse in other places at a relaxed pace where he can enjoy himself as well, like a long trail ride, so that going for a ride becomes a positive experience for him.
Keep your horse from getting ring sour by following the steps for treating a ring sour horse from the early stages of his training: Make the work inside the arena fresh and challenging for him so that he doesn't get too bored or tired. This is accomplished by changing the routine frequently so he's never sure when he's going to have to work hard inside the arena and when he's not. Alternate between training and fun, and avoid letting your desire to compete outweigh your horse's need to feel comfortable in the ring. In the long run, your horse will compete better as your partner than as an unwilling, ring sour participant.