Every rider knows that there are few pleasures equal to abandoning the monotony of the riding ring and wandering out amongst nature on a sunny day to enjoy a leisurely trail ride. However, the notion of a relaxing ride spent moseying through the fields and forests loses some of its appeal when you own a horse who repeatedly yanks you out of the saddle as he dives for a mouthful of grass or grabs every hanging branch that you pass.
If what looks like a scenic trail to you screams all-you-can-eat buffet to your horse, then you need help. Grass grabbing is dangerous behavior because it means you've lost your horse's attention and focus. He's decided to focus instead on the grass, meaning his mind is anywhere else but on what his feet are doing. This lack of attention means your horse could put himself into a dangerous situation-such as stepping in a hole or walking into fencing-without realizing it. He then puts you and other horses and riders around you at risk, as well.
If you've been dealing with this grass grabber for long enough and want some solutions to retrain this behavior, then help is here. Kathy Huggins, a Lyons certified trainer with over 30 years of experience, has several training suggestions to offer that will help you modify this behavior.
According to Kathy, the key to retraining your grass grabbing horse lies in determination and repetition. "If you want to fix the issue, then you have to do whatever you do consistently and many, many times," she says. This applies to any training you do with your horse, of course, but it is especially important when working with a grass grabber because not only are you retraining behavior, but you're almost reprogramming eating patterns, as well.
The first tool that Kathy suggests you employ to discourage this unpleasant and potentially dangerous habit is to ask for a faster pace every time your horse begins to put his head down for a snack. Timing in this exercise is crucial. You must ask your horse to move forward at a trot (or even faster, at a canter, if the terrain is safe enough) the moment you feel him thinking about grabbing a mouthful.
"Let your horse know that you're ready to say, 'You're going to have to speed up if you even think about making a half-hearted attempt to go for that grass,'" says Kathy.
If you follow through every time your mount pulls on the reins, then most horses will become discouraged when they realize that their attempts at grazing are met with a demand for more work.
A similar concept to the "speed up" method uses the "give to the bit" principle. In this exercise, Kathy suggests you ask your horse to move his nose in the opposite direction of whatever green temptation lays on the trail. For instance, if grass is on the left, pick up the right rein to cue your horse to move his nose to the right, and vice versa.
"If you're going down the trail and there's a bush or tree that your horse wants to filch a leaf from, just ask him to move his nose to the opposite side," Kathy advises. If your horse ignores your cue and dives for the bush anyway, ask him to move his entire body over instead. "I'll make him move his hip over, or maybe move his shoulder. I'm not going to release that rein yet because he didn't do what I wanted him to do with his nose, so I'm saying 'If you don't listen to that right rein, it's going to ask more of you.'"
In addition to these techniques, Kathy also notes that it's possible to teach your horse to raise his head on cue, which she does using the same principles as the "head down" cue.
"I found out how handy this cue can be when I was going through a lush field of grass," Kathy explains. She employs this strategy herself when riding her own highly food-motivated horse. "You just keep telling your horse to put his head up, and pretty soon you're through the grass and he hasn't eaten a thing."
The Surprise Attack
So what should you do if your horse catches you off guard and gets his head down to graze? Don't get caught up with him in a game of tug-of-war-instead, pull up on one rein only, which forces your horse to turn his neck and makes it more of an effort to fight you.
If he still tries to out-pull you, then put one rein in your fist and push down firmly against the front of your saddle. Loosen your grip enough to pull the rein through in small increments with your other hand before you tighten your fist again. Keep shortening the rein if you need to. "If you do this correctly," says Kathy, "it feels to the horse like he's tied to a tree."
Kathy emphasizes that your "go forward" cue should be ingrained enough that your horse will obey it even if he's eating. If you find that you have to kick your mount repeatedly to make him listen, then it's time to brush up on some basic commands, such as "go forward" and "give to the bit."
Perhaps the simplest thing that you can do to curb your horse's enthusiasm for grass is to give him a bit of hay before you head out. If you make certain that your horse has eaten a little something an hour or two prior to trail riding, it will make it easier for him to exercise the will-power necessary to resist the greenery outside the boundaries of the arena.
Reducing stress on your horse will also reduce stress on yourself, so in addition to ensuring that your horse isn't famished before a ride, it can be helpful to avoid unnecessary confrontations. "It's a whole lot easier on you and the horse to not have to argue over something," Kathy states. For instance, don't make your horse stand still over grass if there's a patch of dirt available to stop on. That doesn't mean you shouldn't ride where and when you want-it simply means that some forethought and strategizing on your behalf can make the experience more pleasurable for all parties involved.
"Being consistent is the hardest part," says Kathy, "but if you're not consistent, it won't work." So don't hesitate to venture out onto the trail this summer because with patience and training, you may find that you already have the perfect trail partner in your perfect horse