Burnout Of Working Equines

20+ Thoughts About Burnout & Sour Of Working Equines

Sour, burnout, and other conditions (i.e. depressed, unhappy, behavioral vices, stressed) are concerns amongst Equine-Assisted fields (including Therapeutic Riding).  Many organizations, conferences, forums, articles, and workshops address concerns.  Despite efforts and suggestions, these are still concerns.

The following are personal thoughts relating to addressing the topics, understanding what’s occurring, and contributing positively towards greater well being of working equines.  Without clear definitions, I use “burnout” and “sour” interchangeably.  I personally interpret them to be similar, with similar causes, effects, and ideas to reduce.  You’re welcome to define these conditions however you choose.  All, none, or any number of these thoughts may be applicable; use what you can.

1.    Define sour or burnout.  Take pictures, note when and where symptoms show up, and make sure staff and volunteers understand what you’re trying to treat, reduce, and prevent.

2.    We interpret sour, burnout, depressed, happy, unhappy, like, dislike, and content through our personal interpretations, experiences, understandings, and projections.   All, none, or some of these interpretations could be accurate for the horse.

3.    Do more good than harm.  For example, if physical discomfort is suspected, trail riding could be harmful.

4.    Stimuli to the external and internal environments of the horse triggers motivator(s).  Behaviors result.  If a certain behavior indicates burnout or sour, explore stimuli and motivators for more favorable behaviors.  

5.    Surviving or Thriving?  Husbandry works towards one or the other.

6.    Inadequate levels of fitness may have an influence when “flight” is a primary defense mechanism of the equine.

7.    Evaluate the horses’ engagement with their environments and potential effects on their physical bodies.  Do equines move around or over objects, pick up their feet, and navigate terrain regularly?  Are muscle systems balanced? Over or under used?

8.    Consider that bomb-proof horses could be time-bombs.

9.    Grant equines the benefit of the doubt: assume “normal” behaviors are on the sour / burnout spectrum.  (see #11)

10.   Hardwired behavioral patterns may be difficult to change.  I guess that’s true for any animal species (including humans).

11.   Consider more options than time-off.  Time-off may help, yet triggers for burnout and sour conditions need addressed.

12.   Developed for other species, applicable to equines…  Behavioral Enrichment and Environmental Enrichment were developed to prevent, reduce, and extinguish atypical behaviors for animals in captivity (i.e. in zoos, aquariums, research).  Atypical behaviors are behaviors exaggerated or not-typical per species developed to cope with stressors and environments.  Many indicators of burnout and sour are atypical for the equine species (regardless if “normal” per equine). Concepts and techniques of Enrichment can apply to equines.


13.   Many participants of programs recognize indicators of sour and burnout in equines, perhaps before staff and volunteers. Note comments and (better yet!) involve them in Enrichment!  The process of Enrichment for your equines facilitates learning and practice in self-enrichment for participants.

14.   Employing more equines to fill programming requirements is expensive emotionally, financially, energetically, and resourcefully.

15.   Condition of equines affect staff and volunteers; the opposite too.

16.   Share accountability for sour and burnout.  Causes of sour and burnout are complex and inclusive of many factors: prior histories, learned behaviors, routine care practices, limited space and resources available, changes in caretakers, constant exposure to unfamiliar people, physical aches and pains, unfit coping skills, consistent cognitive under-stimulation of equines, etc…  Prevention and reduction of conditions can also be complex and inclusive of many factors (and individuals); share, also, accountability for prevention and reduction of sour or burnout.

17.   Hold YOUR horses!  No, really, YOUR internal horse; let the others be.  Contain urges to micro-manage solutions.  Instead, try facilitating staff, volunteers, and equines towards solutions.  Micro-management may have contributed to sour conditions in the first place.

18.   Sour-ness and burnout hijack authentic feedback.  Based on the prevalence of concern about sour and burnout throughout the equine-assisted fields, I fear experiences of participants lack the biological essence of Equus.

19.    Can equines “train” to build endurance, stamina, and resilience of programming stressors (much like the workouts of cross country runners)?

20.     “Yea, but this is a domestic horse” — a frequent justification to NOT engage equines in domestication in more natural behaviors.  Frankly, I believe it directly correlates to the prevalence of burnout.

21.     Assess, assess, assess.  Initial assessments of equine candidates occur pre-sour, pre-burnout, and when novelty of programming and place still exist.  Implement other assessments regularly.

22.     Re-calculate costs.  Enrichment toys, tools, and methods like portable electric fencing, slow-feed hay nets, Itchin’ Posts, rotating pastures, and Boomer Balls can be costly and labor intensive.  Remember, the context costs (see #14) of burnout can be more costly and labor intensive.

23.     Create choices for equines.  Asking equines to think and choose engages them cognitively more often and for longer periods of time.

24.     Burnout and sourness are indicators of welfare issues.  Resources regarding welfare are accessible … upon looking.

25.     “Forget about good.”  # 2 in Bruce Mau’s An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.  “Good is what we all agree on… Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that may or may not yield to our research.  As long as you stick to good, you’ll never have real growth.”  I often wonder about the unlit recesses of working equines.  Do reduction, prevention, and extinguishing of sour and burnout require exploration of equine husbandry beyond good and agreed on?

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About the author

Jayna Wekenman

Growing Possibilities in Experiential Ed & Agriculture pretty much sums up my projects (hence Growing PEAs). www.facebook.com/GrowingPEAs I have been active in promoting Environmental & Behavioral Enrichment for equines and exploring ways in which implementing these concepts transfers into experiential learning and personal wellness for humans. Through design, build, and collaboration, I hope to offer more implementation for Enrichment. On a separate note, my next project (Aug. 2014 - Oct. 2015) involves working burros contributing to people, communities, and private entities. This project is designed to boost adoptions and Enrichment of BLM burros, promote skills development of inmate trainers and explore social, physical, and financial benefits of burro involvement. I have my MA in Education: Equine Assisted Experiential Learning from Prescott College (Prescott, AZ) and my BS in Recreation Leadership & Management: Outdoor Adventure Education from Ferris State University (Big Rapids, MI).


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