Grass Grabbing Goons
When riding out, we prefer our horses put their grazing tendencies on hold, but they often have the opposite goal in mind. No matter what you do, you can’t stop your horse from grazing his way through a trail ride. You’re fed up with his endless snatching at grass and pulling you out of the saddle. Even with a muzzle on, he still reaches for food, so there’s money down the drain, to boot. Why won’t he listen?
Horses do what they are allowed to do.
The upside is that only a horse who is calm and relaxed will lower his head to eat, so this grabbing grass while out on the trail tells you that he’s feeling safe. Good job on your part! But that doesn’t fix the issue, does it?
As is so often the case when dealing with riding problems, we must work on training the horse, while also retraining the rider (you) to not allow any behavior you don’t want from him. You’ll be happy to know that It’s pretty easy actually. (Yeah, yeah, sure!) Just take a more proactive role and stay mentally present and 'aware' so that you can stop the behavior before it escalates to the undesired result you currently have. Your role is critical. You must teach him what you want in a way that he'll understand and accept.
Horses ask two or three times before actually snatching at grass. Sometimes the 'ask' is condensed to a microsecond because he's learned that he doesn't need to ask, he can just reach for, and get the food; so your keen awareness is essential. The horse will look at the tender morsels he wants--with his ears, his eyes and his nose. The most common his ask occurs in is usually, 1) ears, 2) eyes, and 3) nose. However, ears and eyes may be switched with some animals.
If you can train yourself to watch for the first signal and stop it then, you will easily curb the undesired behavior. Pay very close attention and keep the silent conversation with you and your horse a priority--don't ride and chatter with a friend until you are able to keep your and your horse's focus on the ride and not the food.
But what does the fix look like? Well, here’s where it can get interesting for you: You have a few methods of correcting his “Ask.” You have many varying methods of training to choose from; positive and negative reinforcement being your two main choices, although there are a whole bunch of technical terms and caveats we could discuss. We’ll just keep this simple for the sake of this article.
The Trick: One 'trick' is to ride your horse every single step of the way—notice how I didn’t point out that you should be doing that already! Give him a job and keep at least one ear tipped back to you in the familiar position that tells you he is waiting for your next cue. Work on some lateral moves as you trail ride while working on a half-pass or a zig-zag without the lateral motion. Vary your gait from walk to trot to walk at intermittent intervals. If all you do is plod along at a walk while half asleep or half aware while talking or daydreaming, remember that gives him time to do the same (and time to think about how to get his next bite of grass). Keep the ride interesting and his mind working so that he is not thinking of eating.
The Negaitive: To train using the more common negative-reinforcement method, you simply reprimand him for trying to eat, for even thinking about eating, or for actually eating. That last one isn’t fair to him though. He asked, you just didn’t hear him. Remember for training to be effective and fair, you must listen as well as tell, so as soon as he “asks,” snap a rein, or give him a sharp jab with your heel. Growl at him, smack him with the end of your rein…you get the idea.
The Positive: Positive-reinforcement methods mean that you reward for NOT grabbing for food, and to praise him often when he does right. An easy way to make a game of it and for him to have fun, is to teach him to look for a treat you’ve previously hidden on the trail—maybe in a bucket, and then increase the distance that bucket is hidden until he is looking for it, knowing he’ll get a morsel of something special for getting to it. (HINT: This is also a fabulous way to help a buddy-sour horse want to go out alone.)
Sometimes people struggle to maintain the proactive rider attitude and complain that no matter what, their horse grabs for anything green and they can’t stop him. Now, I know that if they truly are in tune with their horse, they know what he’ll do before he can do it, but not all people are able. If it's so bad that you find he always wins, a quick-fix-cheating method coupled with your attentiveness will make all the difference and it’s free.
The Cheat: Simply take some baling twine and tie it to your bit and back to your saddle--either to the horn or to the D-rings (especially if and English saddle). Make the length just so he is able to turn freely, but not reach down far enough to graze or snatch at grass. This allows him to correct himself by hitting the end of the line before he gets the reward of food. Once you notice he has stopped trying to eat, you would take the reins again--maybe go ahead and leave the strings on at first. This also works with kids that aren't strong enough to hold the horse. Or, you can buy a gizmo that does this very thing if you prefer not to have orange strings alongside your reins.
***NOTE: This method is temporary and can be dangerous if riding in heavy brush or steep trails. The horse MUST be able to use his head and neck for balance. Remove the device before traversing such areas.***
You can teach him to stop eating as well, with a cue to stop grazing. You let him eat, then tell him when to quit. This one doesn’t work as well for people who are having this issue because you must cue via some sort of reprimand—a tap or a kick—then amp up by giving him a harder tap or nudge with your heel, then escalating until it’s finally irritating enough that he stops grazing. It’s also a way to set up for an argument with your horse, in my experience. You say stop eating, he says no, you say yes louder, he gets mad and kicks out or bucks.
I prefer to teach a cue to “go ahead and graze” and I ride without a bit for this reason. If I’ve not given the cue to commence to grazing, my horses do not grab for grass. It’s that simple.
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