Thursday, August 27, 2009

Eating grass

We all have dealt with it, or still deal with it. So, how do we stop it?

I felt Parelli's take on the situation was great, so I am posting it here (in green):

I often hear people say, "I never let my horse eat grass when I'm riding", and guess what...their horse is one of the worst! He takes every opportunity to lunge at the grass, even unseating the rider to get at it. If we think about it from his point of view, he's surrounded by delicious grass and then gets punished for wanting to eat it. This is just like taking a small child into a candy store and expecting him to have enough self-control to ignore all that candy. It's a pretty tough thing to ask, right? By being more considerate, we could give him some time to eat before asking for his full attention, then allow him to eat it now and then, but only when you invite it. Be sure to give permission rather than just letting him plunge his head down. Invite him by using the Porcupine Game... simply lower his head to the ground when you want him to graze. It's a great way to improve Game #2!

I am of the opinion that respect has a great deal to do with a horse plunging its head down to eat without permission. Remember that whatever you have on the ground is always halved in the saddle, so if you have say ok respect on the ground, you will have little to no respect under-saddle. If you've got an absolutely fantastic level of respect on the ground, that will carry into the saddle. The more often you have that fantastic level of respect on the ground and the more you work to further build it, the more respect you will have under-saddle. On that note, respect is not forced, it is earned. You earn it by representing a firm and assertive leader, but never an aggressive one (if you feel angry, get off and walk away). You get it by way of body language and backing up said body language, but you do not get it by simply using the end of a crop or leadrope. If you create a resentful horse, that resentful attitude will follow you in amongst that grass - the horse won't care that you asked it not to, it's going to eat when it wants, what it wants, and however much it wants! Respect is earned also by being persistent and fair.

Another factor that plays a role in whether or not a horse will be constantly insisting on eating grass is rules and boundaries. If he sometimes gets away with snatching a mouthful here or there, with no rhyme or reason, he'll think he can get away with it other times. Why not?

First off, I always ask people who don't want their horses to eat grass: why not? Sometimes it's that they don't want to have to wash off the bit, sometimes it's that they think the horse will somehow get its legs tangled in the reins (not if you're watching!), and other times they think it will create a disrespectful and rude horse. What I always remind them though, is that this is a partnership.

part·ner·ship (pärtnr-shp)
1. The state of being a partner.
2. a. A legal contract entered into by two or more persons in which each agrees to furnish a part of the capital and labor for a business enterprise, and by which each shares a fixed proportion of profits and losses.
b. The persons bound by such a contract.
3. A relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility, as for the achievement of a specified goal: Neighborhood groups formed a partnership to fight crime.

Mutual cooperation. To me, I read that as both parties cooperating, and combining the interests of both parties. When working with our horses, that means considering what they want to do as well - after all, they're already doing what you want to do!

This is how things work with our horses:
A horse I do not deem to have a very high level of respect for me yet, is usually not allowed to graze (they're often the type of horse that does not get treats, either, until their overall p.o.v. shifts). Once I have earned a fairly high level of respect from them, they can graze to their little heart's content, provided they abide by my rules:

1. If you feel the need to grab that long, tantalizing strand of grass whilst walking, be my guest, but you are not slowing down to get it. This includes in-hand as well as under-saddle. On the ground, my horses have 12' of rope to play with. If they want to eat, they soon figure out to jog a couple steps ahead, grab a bite or two (by that time I have walked past and they are at the end of the 12' rope), then jog back next to me or ahead of me again, without ever hitting the end of the rope and without ever getting in the way of my path. Under-saddle, it means they are not yanking the reins out of my hand to grab a bite - they work with what they have, and the continue at the pace we were. On the ground, they hit the end of the rope and/or lose their grazing privileges if they do not keep up. Under-saddle, they meet a light squeeze and then (if necessary) a spank if they slow overly or if they stop without permission.

2. If I answer "no" to your question of "may I eat grass now?" (ie. if you bump my hands lightly and I don't give you your head), the answer remains "no" until I dictate otherwise. Don't keep asking, or I will have you working hard so that your focus is on the work at hand in lieu of the grass.

3. If I allow you to eat while stopped (this is where I like Pat's method of telling the horse it is now ok to eat grass, via applying pressure to ask them to lower their head), you may continue to do so until I pick up my reins and energy and squeeze you lightly forward.

The best thing I ever learned about getting a horse to quit eating grass was from John Lyons. He said to spank your horse rather than kick it or pull on the reins. Horses don't like to be kicked (I mean, would you?), and who has reefing on the reins ever worked for anyway?? So from then on, when a horse went to dive their nose down into grass, I simply gently spanked them with my rein ends (rhythmically, swinging my reins from one side of the haunches and across my body to the other side). Never had a problem after that.

Earning a high level of respect from your horse is key though, as is working in partnership with them. If you are working in partnership with them, they might gently ask, every once in awhile, if they can eat grass, but they will do so politely and not every stride. Also, if you are working in partnership with them, you are allowing them to eat grass here and there (take your time coming in from their paddock to work, let them eat while opening a gate, etc), out of consideration for their wants and needs, and so your horse will respect you for that as well. Horses respect a leader who is fair, whose rules they can easily understand. The above three rules are pretty easy for a horse to understand, I find. The other key though is prior and proper preparation (respect, etc), as it prevents a lot of mayhem in the first place.

Personally, any horse I ride is permitted to eat - over the last 6 years or so that I have really developed my horsemanship, I have never had a problem with a horse being excessively rude while eating. If they are a little more rude than I'd like, I revoke their grazing privileges. Once I feel they are again respectful (either during that same ride/walk or during another session altogether), then I return their privileges. My horses are always chomping away happily while still complying with everything I ask. If they are still doing what you ask, what more could you want? Why not allow them to do a little of what they want, while still doing what you want as well?

1 comment:

quietann said...

I let maresy grab a bite of grass when we're out -- when I tell her it's OK. And that tends to be right after we've passed something a bit scary, or when we've gone as far as we are going to go for the day. I don't mind washing a green bit!

The grass where we are is pretty short so she can't grab it as we pass, but if she tries to stop and grab the reins away and eat, she gets pushed forward, and I will shorten the reins a bit until she gives me her face. (I normally ride her "out" at a rein length/tension halfway between on the buckle and dressage level contact. We don't trust each other *quite* enough yet to go on the buckle.)