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Many trainers and owners oppose hand grazing because they believe that the horse is in control and can learn behaviors that might distract their focus during work. Horses confined to stalls at the track or due to injuries have always been the exception as hand grazing helps maintain their mental wellness and do the most important thing in a horse’s life - graze. The equine brain is attuned to eat grass. Although part of the complexity of brain science, an instinct to graze is a natural, true part of simple equine daily life. 

At this time of year in the Garden State, the grass in the horses’ paddocks has begun to grow, but the grass outside their paddocks, where clover thrives to the great content of early pollinators, flourishes in a show of abundant spring greenery. Clover grows well at my farm as I always buy pasture seed with clover. Every horse wants to get at the best grass after a winter of compromise. 

Jack is a 21 year old Standardbred (aka Standie to those who love the breed). I rescued him last summer to serve as a companion horse to my young Thoroughbred who, at six, still needed to learn some of the basics from a babysitter. Jack is unrideable, but sweet, docile, and as the farrier says “does not have a mean bone in his body.” This is a high compliment from a blacksmith who has seen the best and worst behaviors many times.

Jack and I do some natural horsemanship to keep him interested in relationship building, a sense of purpose and worth that the easy games provide, but that is all we can do. 

I started hand grazing Jack last August when he arrived. At first, he did not know what to do as he started his life as a pacer in the Standardbred racing industry, and then went to work in the rural communities. Finally, he ended up in a rescue organization for the breed where I found him. He soon caught on to the pleasure of grazing in the company of his human and now looks forward to our hand grazing time together to relax, eat grass, and spend time with me. While I never let him drag me around a field, I do give him some choices to make on his own to build confidence and joy without compromising safety. Watching a happy, relaxed horse graze reminds me of the inimitable ways nature heals and restores. 

When we reach a patch of choice clover, Jack lowers his velvety nose into the appealing grasses that completely engulf his muzzle. As he loads clover, grass, and sunny dandelions into his mouth to use his strong teeth to masticate, I watch his jaws move rhythmically and instinctively. Like the waves washing up on the sand, the familiar recurrence mesmerizes and ushers calm thoughts. I marvel and delight in the peace of such a simple, natural activity as a grazing horse. I find that there is an infinite sense of belonging that comes from sharing the simplest daily routines with horses...

Katharine MacCornack
Published on 2020-06-08