To Get the Most from this Lesson:
- Don’t take your horse out when he’s famished, but do arrange to ride when his appetite will tempt him at least a little.
- Select terrain with wide, flat expanses, rather than narrow or confined trails. You’ll need plenty of room to move your horse around when needed.
- Don’t expect to cure your horse of grass-snatching in just one lesson. Ideally, schedule training rides several times a week, for as many weeks as necessary. Remember, training is as important for a trail horse as it is for a show horse. You don’t expect a show horse to automatically know what you want, or to “get it” in just one or two lessons. Take the time necessary to turn your horse into a well-schooled trail companion.
Munching on scenery is the ploy of a food-obsessed horse that doesn’t have enough to think about. The typical muncher is not a big troublemaker, he just loves to eat. Strolling down the trail gives him the opportunity to think about–and act upon–his desire. Horses have one-track minds. If they’re truly focused on what you’re asking of them, they tend not to get into mischief. But too often riders engage in what I call the “recipe trail ride”–ambling down the trail, swapping recipes. When you leave your horse to his own devices like this, you open the door to grass-snatching.
People generally think prevention is the key. They ask, “How can I keep my horse from snatching at grass?” I tell them this is the wrong approach. Instead, they must re-program their horse’s attitude about munching by letting him do it–then making him pay the price. That price is serious exertion–circles, serpentines, sidepasses and other exercises that cause him to move his feet, change direction and work hard.
How does this work? Think of your favorite pizza, or any food you find irresistible. Now, imagine trying to eat it while you’re running at a brisk trot and continuously changing direction. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy that pizza, would you? Well, neither can your horse enjoy his stolen mouthful when you’re making him think and work hard.
With repetition, eventually a light will turn on in his head. “Hmmm…every time I open my mouth, I get awfully busy.” This is not a desirable option, especially for a lazy horse–the stereotypical grass-snatcher. Thus, over time, he learns to forego the bite to avoid the work. It’s mind over munching.
(And, there’s a bonus: As you’re teaching your horse to eschew chomping, you’re also schooling him to be more supple and responsive overall. It’s a win-win proposition.)
1. As you ride in areas where your horse will be tempted to grab a bite, give him every opportunity to take the bait. Remember, you’re not keeping him from munching, you’re letting him do it, but taking the pleasure out of it so he gives it up of his own accord. So, the instant he does wrap his lips around a mouthful…
2. …put him right to work. In this case, I’m asking for a sidepass to my right by tipping my mare’s head to the left with my left rein, and applying left-leg pressure just behind the cinch to ask her to step laterally to the right (note her hind leg stepping under her belly). After you’ve taken a few sidepass steps to the right…
3. …reverse these cues to sidepass your horse to the left. Go back and forth a few times–making him work!–then resume your ride. Sidepassing isn’t as energetic as some of the other exercises we’ll do, but because it involves lateral movement, horses do find it demanding, so it still serves nicely as negative reinforcement for grass-snatching.
4. The next time your horse swipes a bite, try a small (say, seven- to eight-foot-diameter) circle to the left. Do this by sliding your left hand eight to 10 inches down the rein, then taking that hand back toward your hip (or, as I like to say, the place where the seam of your jeans meets your belt), as I am here, in a pull-and-release pressure. Leave slack in your right rein to allow your horse’s head to come around, and apply pressure at the cinch with your left leg, to arc your horse’s body around that leg. Move your horse briskly, and after two or three revolutions…
5. …reverse these cues for a few small circles to the right. Repeat the circles in each direction, then let your horse move off down the trail again, allowing him to relax until he tries to grab another bite.
When he does snatch again, if the terrain allows, move him forward at an extended trot for 50 feet, then bend him onto a circle, then trot on for 50 feet and then circle again, for two or three cycles. This combination of brisk trotting and repeated bending and turning is particularly demanding. You can vary the pattern to make it interesting, too–ride serpentines, zig-zag up and down rises, or even circle around some bushes or trees. Don’t work your horse until he’s dripping sweat–that’s overdoing it. But push him hard enough to establish the connection in his mind between illegal eating and exertion. With time, he’ll give up the one to avoid the other.
This article is excerpted from Clinton Anderson’s Training on the Trail. Visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com or call 1-800-952-5813 to order the book.