Q: MY 12-YEAR-OLD APPALOOSA gelding has a bad case of the "munchies" on the trail. I've tried reprimanding him with a harsh word, a tug on the bit, a slap of the reins, and even a well-placed spur. He just gets angry, and soon our once-pleasant ride has turned into a battle of wills. How can I stop Blue from eating foliage, so our rides are more enjoyable?
A: A HORSE THAT TAKES A NIBBLE ALONG THE TRAIL IS annoying. After the nibble, he wants the full-deal meal- and as you've discovered, the ensuing difference of opinion can take the pleasure out of your ride. This behavior isn't about a hungry horse who needs to eat. It's about who has the alpha (dominant) position in your and your horse's relationship. Right now, the leader/follower role is being contested. You need to get back in the driver's seat by changing his focus and reordering the who's-in-charge hierarchy. I'll teach you how to do so with an arena exercise and on-the-trail tips designed to gain and refocus his attention.
First, teach your horse to bend laterally, so he learns to yield to rein pressure. Work in a round pen or an arena, using the mildest snaffle bit you own. (Your horse should be soft, supple, and responsive to all your requests, and your hands light and steady, before you even consider a harsher bit. You're not trying to punish him, you're trying to communicate.) Here's how.
- Mount up, and sit quietly, with a rein in each hand. Use a constant, gentle squeeze on your right rein to bring your horse's head toward your right knee. (Be careful never to jerk on your horse's mouth.) Release the rein pressure the instant he yields to it. Release-and the corresponding relief from pressure-rewards his responsive behavior. But rub his neck, too, to reinforce his correct response. Then use your left rein in the same fashion to draw his head to your left knee.
- If your horse seems stiff, reward even the slightest turn with immediate release, then increase his bend gradually over time. (Note: Your horse uses his neck for balance countless times each day. As he becomes more elastic, his performance in every activity will be enhanced. And one day his nose will touch your stirrup.)
- When your horse bends easily to each side while standing, practice the same exercise at the walk. When he bends his neck, instantly release the rein pressure, while continuing your forward motion. Again, he should associate this pleasurable rein release with his yielding to pressure.
- Next, practice at the jog. By now, your horse should be considerably more pliant than when you began these exercises, flexing at the poll (tucking his nose slightly toward his chest) as his head turns.
- When you're confident with this exercise at the walk and jog in the arena, it's time for a schooling ride on the trail. Before you head out, though, ride the trail in your mind. Visualize keeping your horse from taking a munchie break. By mentally handling this problem beforehand, you'll find it easier to do so when you ride. You'll also alter your body language in a way that tells him you're in charge.
- Now mount up and stay focused. Keep your eyes looking down the trail. From experience, you know the areas where your horse is most likely to dive for goodies. Begin your pressure-and-release exercise well before he has the chance. If you approach a trouble spot on the left, turn his head to your right knee and release, while continuing your forward motion. Continue to turn and release until you're past the temptation. Once past, neck rubs and soothing comments will help to reinforce his responsive, non-eating behavior.
- Repeat this exercise along the trail, on as many rides as it takes to change your horse's attitude. When he has, give yourself a pat-you're now calling the shots!
In the early 1990s, Linda Branch took her Welsh Pony, Pinedale Van Halen, to four national championships in arena events, plus a reserve national championship in endurance competition. Today, she's an active North American Trail Ride Conference competitor, garnering regional honors in the novice division. Last July, Linda completed her first Tevis 100 Mile Ride aboard the veteran endurance horse Ki Starr, owned by Henry and Helen Logan. In addition, her two versatile Quarter Horses take her from the trail to the dressage arena. She resides in Santa Barbara, California.
This article first appeared in the November, 2000 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.