Horse Training: Stopping Your Horse from Grabbing Grass

I recently read an article by Julie Goodnight in The Trail Rider magazine in which she gives advice on how to stop a horse from grabbing grass while being ridden.

I took exception to this article right from the 2nd sentence in her reply:

“Snacking on the trail is a rude behavior and may be a sign that he doesn’t accept your authority.”

Far from being rude, “snacking” is a perfectly natural behaviour for a grazing animal.  An animal who is designed to travel long distances to find food and then to eat food whenever he finds it available.   It has very little (if anything at all) to do with the horse accepting “your authority”.

“While some riders allow the behavior and think of it as a horse’s natural instinct to graze constantly, it’s important to think about how horses act when part of a herd—and how they associate food with dominance.” (Julie Goodnight)

In their natural state, horses are grazers.  They DO have a natural instinct to graze constantly.  They DO NOT have a natural instinct to be aggressive and dominant about food – unless food is in short supply.  In the wild, horses travel many miles every day to graze.  They don’t live on lush pastures.  In fact, many wild horses live in areas with very sparse vegetation.  As prey animals, they know that their safety depends upon working collaboratively with their herd mates and that fighting over food is a waste of valuable energy.

“In the herd, horses establish the herd hierarchy by determining who controls food and water. Dominant horses always eat first and will run the subordinate horses away from the food supply until they’ve had their fill.” (Julie Goodnight)

Horses don't waste energy fighting over food when resources are plentiful.

Horses don’t waste energy fighting over food when resources are plentiful.

This behaviour may be seen in domestic herds, but it is created by over crowding and a lack of resources.  When food and water are always available, and the herd hierarchy is well established, this behaviour is not part of the normal herd dynamic.  Bring a special treat into the herd and you will see some pushing and even aggressive behaviour.  But, treats are – well – ‘treats’ because they are not always available.

So, I am disappointed and disturbed by Julie Goodnight’s suggestion that this behaviour is rude, a challenge to the rider’s authority and must be corrected.   Her method of “correction” requires the “domination” of the horse by the rider by whatever amount of pressure is necessary to get the horse to “re-think” his behaviour.

That way of thinking – dominance vs submission – is pretty popular even in so called ‘natural horsemanship’.

I think we can do and be better than that.

For the horse, his behaviour of eating grass that is there on the ground all around him makes sense.   The horse is NOT trying to frustrate and dominate the human who is riding him.  Just the opposite, the horse is an honest, straightforward, and social creature whose nature has been unchanged for tens of thousands of years.

We humans tend to take things personally and interpret the horse’s behaviour from our own self-centered needs and wants to have things done our way – what I want, how I want, when I want.  The horse grabbing grass while being ridden is an inconvenience and a disruption for the rider and so she sees the behaviour as unwanted or ‘bad’ and somethng that must be corrected.

Correcting the horse involves “consequences” (i.e. punishment) of some sort.  For example, the technique suggested by Julie Goodnight in the article:

“No matter what type of pressure you use, the consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to overpower your gelding’s urge to eat.”

What happens when we change our perspective so that we see the behaviour as something perfectly natural and normal for the horse?

We train more intelligently and without abuse – that’s what happens.

Here is what I would do to change this behaviour.

First, the rider must be paying attention to the horse and what is in the environment.  When your focus is on your horse, you can feel subtle changes in his movement that signal where his focus is and what he is thinking about doing.  The sooner you notice the horse preparing to reach down for a bite of grass, the more pro-active you can be to prevent him from doing it.

Then, the rider must be ready to prevent the behaviour.  To be effective, the rider must be balanced and supple in the saddle and ride with contact on your reins.  As soon as you feel your horse pull his head down, close your fingers on your reins (to block) pressing your knuckles into his neck if necessary so you don’t get pulled out of your saddle.  At the same time, send him forward from your seat and leg.  A horse who is moving forward from his hindquarters cannot lower his head as easily.

The more consistent you are with your aids, the sooner the horse will give up the behaviour.  If you are re-training a horse who has been allowed to eat while being ridden, be prepared for the horse to look to pull down harder and refuse to move forward.  He will most likely object to this change from being allowed to not being allowed to eat.  It always takes more time to un-train an existing behaviour.  Just think of how difficult it is for any of us to change a habit.

If you enjoy it when your horse has a ‘chew’ while your out for your ride, then teach him a cue that says ‘ok you can eat now’.  I do this by asking my horse to halt and stand quietly for a moment.  Then, I release the reins and gently tap or stroke her shoulder.  When it’s time to move on, I ask her to move forward from my seat and leg taking up my reins again as she lifts her head.

This way, we both enjoy the ride.

YOUR TURN

What are your specific challenges with your horse?  What training methods have you used?  Please  leave a comment or share your thoughts below or through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Share this post to spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Enjoy your journey! 

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You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you notify me and include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

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21 thoughts on “Horse Training: Stopping Your Horse from Grabbing Grass

  1. I’m with you on this Anne as I don’t think horses are being rude for snacking and I also don’t believe they have a natural instinct to be aggressive and dominant about food unless like you stated food is in short supply. There is no reason to dominate the horse with whatever amount of pressure is necessary. When I hear people say use the pressure you need to get the job done I always wonder what if you took it to a level ten (ten being the highest level) and there was no change what would people do then?

    I like what you posted about the rider must be paying attention. Awareness when we are around our horses is so important as good leaders we’ve got to notice the small things so we can redirect the horse in the direction we want. Great post!

  2. I stop my boy and then say “okay” and he knows it’s alright for him to munch. I don’t mind him eating when we’re out together, as long as I’ve said okay, as it relaxes him. I do think you have to watch that you don’t overdo it though, since they can get a bit pushy about it otherwise.

  3. Anne, I love your article. This is excellent advice about cueing your horse to graze/not graze on the trail. It is respectful of both his need to graze, and yours to move on. I was taught in my youth to do the yanking to pull their heads up, then realized this wasn’t necessary if I simply showed respect for their primal needs.

    I’ve been doing a lot of hand walking and grazing a pony with laminitis.

    He can be very pushy about his grazing, which I tell him I understood when he must be in a dry paddock most of the time. I give him ten minute and five minute warnings when we are out, so he can prepare himself to be led away from his beloved grass.

  4. I actually view the occasional munching as a sign that my horse is relaxed enough to think about food – not in flight mode, as he has so often been. And, I totally agree with you in terms of awareness. If you don’t want this behavior to occur, you best pro actively prevent it from happening.. rather than correct it and hand out ‘consequences’. Great post – Thank you!

  5. “When food and water are always available, and the herd hierarchy is well established, this behaviour is not part of the normal herd dynamic. Bring a special treat into the herd and you will see some pushing and even aggressive behaviour. But, treats are – well – ‘treats’ because they are not always available.”

    I think this portion of your post should have been bolded. You are absolutely correct. Working with a horse rather than forcing him to deny his normal instinct to snack while under saddle is the best thing. I like Jayne’s method-saying “OK”.
    I wonder if Goodnight wasn’t referring to horses that will literally stop and graze rather than move out under saddle. That’s what you see when a complete novice goes out on a trail on a horse that knows the rider is a novice. Of course he’s going to take advantage of the situation.

    But when she says “No matter what type of pressure you use, the consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to overpower your gelding’s urge to eat.” , I begin to question whether she understands horses as well as she claims. I don’t like harshness in any sort of situation with a horse, other than when a horse is obviously trying to hurt you. Is she advocating something like, oh, a hot shot under the tail if he so much as rips off the top of a tall grass head?

    Horses are stomachs with feet. Their metabolisms, their gut, indeed their entire outlook on life involves a few simple actions-step, eat,step, eat, step, eat. Some folks think I’m nuts when I gently advise taking the grain out of their neurotic horse’s mangers and giving it as much hay as they want. I’ve heard the reactions: “But this is a ‘BALANCED” ration.” Does he need it? Or is feeding a pelleted ration ultimately cheaper and easier for the owner?
    “Too much hay will give them a hay belly”…really? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a ‘hay belly’. Yet not enough ‘chewing time’, too highly concentrated (and therefore not enough) grain/pellets make your horse unhappy, if not give it ulcers.
    Great post!!

    • Hey Subodai2013! Love your reply 🙂 you mentioned novice riders and the horse taking advantage…. Well I’m a novice, and I’ve got a hackney X cob great in always if a little slow to start, but once we half way around our hack route she throws her head down to graze and I really struggle and fight with her to move on.. I keep contact with my reins and I’m aware of when she is going to do it, but its still a fight. I hate pulling (and everyone I’ve spoke to says yank her on) but I’m worried the damage it may cause as she does not give up, until I sometimes have to get off and walk her on from the ground (she is no problem on the ground). She is driven by food and I normal feed her in the morning to ride a in the afternoon, and she not so bad..but with weather being so bad, early mornings are the only time to get her out, so she doesn’t get her net until we are back.

      She is a fantastic pony, love her to bits…but any help with refusing to walk on grass is around would be great!!

      Thanks in advance!

      Megan

  6. I was taught that a horse should not be allowed to eat while working, or while he has a bit in his mouth. The grass can get all wrapped around the bit and then he has to spend a long time fussing with it. As for myself, I have found that when a horse is allowed to eat on the trail, he doesn’t listen to me but is more interested in where he can grab his next bite.
    I don’t think of it as a dominance thing, but it’s not appropriate behavior. So I just don’t let him, and now he doesn’t even try anymore. If we stop for a long rest, then he’s allowed to graze, so I dismount and remove his bit. It works for both of us.

    • I think the discussion here is how “I just don’t let him” is applied. I like the “block” method verses the yank, I think that most yanking is never necessary but a block with a gentler slight, but firm pull and nudge forward worked the best for me. I love the (graze) signal and so does my horse. Many of the people I ride with say they never let their horse eat while on the trail or their in the saddle because the horse is supposed to be doing a job. I’m just not that strict, besides I eat a potato chip etc.. here and there between meals :D, don’t you?

  7. I always have “snack breaks” while out on the trail. I invite my horse to eat with a verbal cue and when it is time to leave, I also have a cue (whistle) for him to stop. It’s lovely to have multiple breaks on a trail where your equine friend can graze and I can chin-wag to my human companions! I also feel that if my horse “snatches” leaves/branches, tall grass (within his reach) that does not interrupt the ride, then I accept that as well. We enjoy the ride, why should our equine companions not enjoy it too?

  8. I think in every situation,it should always be a win win for both parties or partners, your horse is your partner on the trail ride or working cows in the arena etc. i use the Nurtural bitless bridle and my horse has never acted rude when she sneaks a bite to eat on the trail, she grabs a bite and goes right along on the ride, and i don’t have to worry about it getting twisted around the bit. Now its a different story if that is all they want to do while your riding is graze, i did have her without notice roll in some sand on a ride , so she does get a little nudge if that head goes down around some sand, All in all Sara and i both snack and drink on the trail

  9. Really great article! This is one of the many questions i’ve always asked myself, what do i do to make my horse stop eating grass while trail riding, well you definitely answered my question, thank you!

  10. Hi. I share my pony with a friend who recently got him from a family with two little children. They didn’t ride him properly for two to three years, only riding him round the farm on the leading rein. I can imagine how boring this was for him, he has no one to share a field with and no toys to exercise him, so when we got him, he was fat and in bad shape. He used to be the perfect pony-club pony, jumping so high for his old owners and entering competitions. It took him a while to get used to being ridden again but he finally seemed to be getting better, he wanted to canter and when we made him go fast, he wanted to go faster. Then, he started going bad. I would take him out for hacks and he would, after a certain point, stop and refuse to move on. Beeka, my pony, hates tractors, rain, wind, heat and whips, especially whips. This means that I never bring along my crop to ride him, but even lightly tapping him on the butt gets him rearing. Then he would try to eat anything. My main hack conceits of lots of grass tracks, but I can no longer do anything fast on those hacks because he will suddenly dip his head down and try to eat. This means I go flying over his head. Another thing he does while eating is bite me or my mum. We might try to get him to move on, pulling on the reins, anything, then he would precede with biting us. This was usually followed by a soft slap (and I mean soft) on his neck. He might try to rear then.
    Today we were riding him and we barely got 100 meters before he reared me. I couldn’t even make him do a fast walk. Thankfully, I stayed on but when a tractor came, I knew better then to stay on him. I went over to talk to the tractor driver (he had gotten out of his tractor) briefly while leaving Beeka to graze on the grass he so willing wanted to eat, but instead he cantered away, showing me he can do it if he wants. We tried thrice more to get past 100 meters, no tractors in sight, but each time he reared me, going higher every time. We then decided to call it a day and un-tacked him. Taking him back to the field was not any easier. We usually let him eat grass on the way to his field, but he had been so bad, it was dangerous to be on him, so I didn’t. This was then followed by him trying to bite me so he could eat the grass. He was really starting to scare me. When we left him, he whinnied at us, expecting his last carrot, even though he did no work. We drove off with him looking at the back of our car. I feel really bad for him.
    Please can you give me some tips on how to train him. I don’t want to give up on him. I want to make him the perfect pony-club pony again. My friend is already looking for another pony. Any advice? Instead of going on hacks now, I go to the school. At least I can get him to canter there.

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