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.
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.
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!
My book is now available on Amazon.com! “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”. Click here to order.
Interested in organizing a Confident Horsemanship clinic at your location? Click here for more information.
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).
Confident Horsemanship with Anne Gage – Putting you and your horse in good hands.