You don’t have to “keep your horses attention” or “be more interesting” or “get your horse to focus on you instead of the grass” to have a horse who won’t dive or pull on the rope or reins to snatch for grass. You don’t even need to train them not to eat grass while wearing a saddle or halter – but that’s what most people try.
Horses are hard-wired to graze up to 20 hours a day. Their mental and physical well-being and health depend upon it!
In my approach, the first thing we need to change is our own MINDSET. Grass is not the enemy. Grass is not even a problem. In fact, grass is good!
Change your Mindset about the ‘Green-Grass Monster’
As I share with you in the video below, grazing and enjoying grass is also an important bonding experience for herd members. So it is actually a good sign if your horse is willing to graze calmly with you nearby or when you are on their back.
So if you have a bad feeling about grass, or create artificial “rules” for your horse, (like never grazing with a bridle on, or always paying attention with their head up and ears focused on you), then you are going to be in a constant battle with nature – leading to frustration for both you and your horse.
Of course, some horses have unnatural grazing behaviors because they have been confined or gone too long between meals. Some horses may have had past experiences of not having enough to eat, or with training methods that create anxiety or disconnection around grass and grazing.
Regardless of WHY your horse is diving, pulling or getting distracted by grass, my approach can help. But first, let’s talk a little bit about the most common strategies employed around the world…
How most trainers get horses to stop snatching grass
In my experience, there are three main strategies that trainers and horsemanship guru’s teach to address the “green-grass monster.”
The first is to move the horses feet every time he or she tries to eat or drops their head toward the grass. This can be in the form of a hindquarter yield, a side-ways movement, longing or asking the horse to move forward, or any variety of movements a trainer may ask for or make the horse do.
The second is to hold on to the halter, lead rope or reins firmly, so that the horse “runs into” the noseband or bit every time they dive for grass. This is also the effect using grass-reins or a halter and lead tied short to a saddle horn have on a horse when they drop their nose to the grass.
The other strategy I’m seeing more and more is for folks to use clicker-training to get their horses to pick their heads up. This can be very effective at teaching a cue for head-up or head-down, but it’s based on rewarding a behavior, rather than teaching an understanding.
The Grazing ‘Cue’
Some trainers also teach a cue for when it is ok to graze, and only let the horse graze when instructed to do so, with the cue.
I agree it can be useful to teach a cue for “graze now” – but all this letting the horse run into the halter by holding on, or asking the horse to move their feet to control when they can and can’t graze can be problematic, for several reasons.
Here’s why I DON’T train horses not to go for grass:
It’s a lot of micro-managing!
The usual training approach requires you to be paying very close attention to where your horses head is so you can be three to correct or interrupt the head dropping. This means you have little attention or energy left over to do anything else on what is supposed to be your ‘fun’ walk! Yes, over time it should get less, but it will only work for some horses – and let’s be honest guys, a pull is a pull is a pull, whether the horse initiates it or we do.
What I mean by that is, physiologically, that tension on the lead rope has the same tension-causing and detrimental/damaging affect on the horses poll and the humans shoulder, no matter how it got there. And the more we pull or are pulled on, the more likely horses are to need something like Equine Hanna Somatics to help their poll and neck muscles get unstuck.
It may not work…
A horse who has discovered that s/he is stronger than you will just plow thru your grip, no matter how thin your nose band or even if you are using something stronger like a chain or bit… this is the same thing that happens when a horse learns that they can turn and bolt, pulling the rope out of your hands. By using headstall pressure to prevent or interrupt the grazing, we are often accidentally teaching the horse to pull or brace against our pressure, and showing them just how weak we are in comparison to them and their drive to graze.
Arguing about grass is bad for your relationship!
It may have a detrimental effect on your relationship, because it is totally unnatural from the horses perspective. Yes, horses will push one another off food or other resources, and yes, there is a hierarchical structure to the herd that we are learning more and more about with very interesting research the last several years (it’s waaaaay more complex than a ‘pecking-order’).
But one horse would never stop another from grazing if there was plenty of grass to go around – that just isn’t in a horse’s vocabulary. So if we do this, it puts us farther from the role of herd-leader or trusted friend because we are acting un-horse-like.
Don’t dwell on the grass
And finally – being constantly ready to correct your horse from snatching grass keeps you picturing and dwelling on your horse snatching grass – and if horses are able to pick up on our thoughts and energy, this may actually be reinforcing the behavior by projecting it to your horse in your intention with your whole body-mind.
So, what can you do instead?
Make a No-Pulling Agreement with your horse
I suggest you adhere religiously to the No-Pulling rule, and give the horse the responsibility to manage themselves within some clear boundaries and expectations. I have a whole chapter dedicated to not-pulling in my ebook: How to Invite an Interspecies Dialogue – The Five Agreements of A Somatic Approach to Horsemanship.
The ingredients for a horse who won’t pull or dive for grass
You need to start with a clear mutual understanding of personal space boundaries, and when the horse is invited to come in close vs. stay out at a polite distance.
Teach your horse a simple hind-quarter yield from the ground, on both sides.
Make sure your horse is confident with you approaching him or her with your tools and a lot of energy to either drive them (aka ask them to move) or love on them (they must be able to recognize your intention and stand their ground while you approach to pet them with your flag or other tools).
With these ingredients in place, you can quickly get your horse to stop grazing whenever they feel like it, and get in the habit of checking with you first, to see if you are expecting something of them or if they have a free moment to grab a bite.
How to put the ingredients together
When you go out for your walk, or even just walking from pasture to barn or barn to arena across grass, give your horse the total responsibility to maintain awareness of personal space and of the rope not getting tight. This is hard to do, I know, because we are so in the habit of managing our horses behavior, and offering corrections all the time.
Let the horse have enough rope to easily reach the grass, and hold it a bit loosely so that if your horse stops short or dives, your shoulder won’t get yanked and injured. When you feel the rope get tight, pretend your arm is made of bungee cord, or stretchy material, and allow the stretch to rebound you back toward your horse.
This works by moving you toward the horse, which should cause the horse to move out of your way. If your horse isn’t moving, you may need to use your energy and your tools to make your ‘pounce’ toward your horse more obvious. No need to spank the horse, but if you are close enough to make contact, that is fine too. The trick is timing this so that the horse learns they are causing you to bounce toward them by pulling on you.
This will only work if you can maintain a neutral emotional state, and not be too attached to the outcome. It’s not a send. It’s not personal. There is no ‘right answer’ other than they should get out of your way quickly, based on their previous understanding and your practice of teaching your horse to respect your personal space boundaries. A polite horse knows that when you move toward the horse, s/he should get out of your way just like they do for the lead mare of the herd, unless you make it clear you are approaching for a snuggle or to share close space.
Staying in a non-reactive and calm mental and emotional state is also important to avoid letting the horse control the situation by ‘pushing your buttons.’ Horses know, or learn quickly, that they can cause a reaction from us when they tug on the rope. Most of the time we react with a physical correction and an emotional spike of frustration or anger. This reduces our ability to act and think like a leader or a horse, and increases the likelihood of your horse repeating the tug.
The end result of this exercise is that your horse will watch and ‘feel for you’ very closely to see what you are expecting them to do.
My horses know I will never tell them not to graze…
…but they also know that I DO expect them to be listening and responding to my requests. They know that if they don’t pay attention, like grazing instead of watching me, they may miss something important.
Don’t waste energy ‘making’ horses pay attention to you – just ‘do you.’
When they miss something, like me changing speed or direction, or going from a halt to a walk, the result is that they will let the rope pull on me… Using this exercise, my horses have learned that it is their job to keep the rope soft and slack, to avoid yanking me off balance and causing me to fall, bounce or pounce back towards them.
The smart ones will come up with some very creative and entertaining ways to graze a little or to play while still working within my expectations. For example, my horse Doc will walk by my side most of the time, matching his speed to mine. But if he wants to snack, he will trot ahead to the end of the lead rope if I let him, drop his head to grab a few bites while the rope is slack as I catch up and pass him, and then pop his head back up and trot to catch up to me again before he runs out of rope.
To prevent him from doing this, I simply don’t give him enough extra rope to play the game. He has learned to feel carefully for the changes in rope tension that tell him how much slack he has to work with. This leaves me free to walk where I want, when I want, at the speed I want, without having to worry about what my horse is doing. In a way, it’s asking them to do a little of their own micro-managing, but it’s self-management!
What about horses prone to laminitis or ‘grass founder’?
If your horse has a health issue that is aggravated by eating any grass at all, you will have to modify this exercise to teach it. You can use low-sugar hay spread around an arena or dry lot to simulate walking thru grass to teach your horse the rules of the exercise. Alternatively, you could put a grazing muzzle on your horse before going out on the grass to try this exercise. Then, when you are out in the real world walking over toxic green sugary grass – simply keep a moderately short lead line on your horse, and walk in a very specific manner so your horse has to pay attention.
Some ideas to try are: walk super slowly; change your speed every several steps; ask your horse to go backwards for a while; practice in-hand lateral work like side-stepping, shoulder-in or changing neck flexion while you walk. At a halt, you can still be asking your horse to pay attention by asking for subtle weight shifts, or to take one small step forward, then backward, etc. After a while, your horse will be so in the habit of watching for subtle cues that s/he will be able to stand or simple walk for longer and longer between changes or thinking of grass or pulling on you.