We all know of that one lesson pony that’s notorious for sticking its head down to get a mouthful of grass during the middle of a ride. Not only is a horse trying to graze while you’re riding super annoying, but it’s also a very bad habit for a horse to have.
So how do you stop a horse from grazing while riding? You can stop your horse from grazing while riding by teaching them that it’s more work to stop and eat than to simply ignore the grass.
But what if it’s impossible to get your horse to do anything once their nose has found the grass? There are steps you can take to work your horse out of this. These steps are considered basic foundations for becoming a better horse person.
Why Horses Form Bad Habits (Like Grazing While Riding)
In everything a horse does, it learns by repetition. That means it learns the good through repetition and it learns the bad through repetition. If your horse has gotten in the bad habit of trying to graze during a ride, that probably means that he’s gotten away with it a few times before.
But don’t feel down on yourself for letting your horse get away with this; this is something that every horse person must experience to understand how horses learn! The great news is that this bad habit can be corrected easily.
Usually, a horse that will put its head down during a ride to graze will also be very pushy on the ground to graze as well. This means that if you’re leading them and they see grass, they may pull you or push you over to the grassy area so they can eat.
If your normal routine always includes letting your horse graze at some point, whether its while you brush them or after a ride, then the horse will expect this every time you take them from their field or their stall.
In order to get your horse to stop expecting this grazing time, you’ll have to change up your routine. Changing up the routine is always good for horses because it keeps them focused on you and what you’re going to ask them to do.
Change up your routine so that it doesn’t include going to the same grassy patch every day at the same time. Once you stop the repetition of allowing your horse to graze, the bad habit will start to diminish.
Why the Horse Won’t Respond When You Ask Them to Stop Grazing
If your horse seems to completely ignore you and your cues when food or grass is around, it’s more than likely because they don’t respect you or see you as the authority.
In the wild, the alpha horse decides who eats and who doesn’t. In the wild, the other horses focus on the alpha and what the alpha does. Having a leader is instinctive to a horse, so in order to get your horse to listen, you must establish a leader authority.
If your horse doesn’t respond to your cues, they are challenging your authority. Horses can tend to be like this quite a bit; they will test any new person they work with to see what they can get away with.
Because of this, it’s important to be both assertive and rewarding with your horse. Let them know that they can’t get away with bad behavior. This can be made clear to them through groundwork.
Groundwork is basically teaching your horse to respect you and your space by controlling their movements with your body motion. This is something every horse and rider should be familiar with as it will definitely better the relationship between the two.
Start With Groundwork In Order to Get Your Horse to Stop Trying to Graze
If your horse is one that attempts to put his head down and eat at any grass patch you come to, whether on the ground or riding, you can correct this by using basic groundwork skills.
You will need a rope halter and a lunging whip. The rope halter is used for training and groundwork because it applies more direct pressure than a normal halter. This way, the horse is more aware of what you’re asking.
A lunging whip is to cue the horse forward, although it should never be used to hit the horse. Rather, you can hit the ground with the whip behind the horse to get them moving forward.
Put the rope halter on your horse and take them out to a level grassy area. Give some slack in the lead rope and let your horse make the choice whether they want to try and graze or if they will just stand beside you.
While you obviously don’t want your horse to make the choice to graze, it’s vital to give them the option. This way, when the horse makes the “mistake” of trying to graze, you can correct it. They will start to learn the difference between the two choices, and which choice is the smarter and better option.
When your horse decides to try and graze, you need to instantly send them out at a trot on the lead in a circle around you. They may not respond right away if they have managed to start grazing so you can smack the ground behind them with the lunging crop to get them going.
Make your horse trot in a circle around you. They’ll probably try to stretch their neck to the grass even when they’re trotting so you can give the lead rope a wiggle. Through the rope halter, they’ll feel the pressure and hopefully lift their head back up. If not, use the lunging whip on the ground behind them.
Trot your horse around you for a few minutes and then ask them to stop. Once again, give your horse some slack on the lead rope and see if they’ll lower their head to eat. If they do, send them back out on the circle.
What you’re trying to accomplish with this is teaching your horse that stopping and eating is going to be much more work than simply standing and not attempting to eat.
Horses are just like humans in the fact that they don’t want to do more work than they have to. You want your horse to associate stopping to graze with work; hence, making them trot every time they try to graze. Through this repetitive exercise, your horse should start to put two-and-two together.
When your horse is to the point where they can stand still on a long lead rope without trying to graze, then they have figured out that trying to graze is just too much work to attempt. They’ve also learned that it’s more important to pay attention to you than to food.
(This exercise can be done with pushy horses trying to get to their food bins. However, please remember that a horse shouldn’t be fed if they are hot and sweaty as it can cause colic.)
Getting Your Horse to Stop Grazing While In the Saddle
Sometimes, it may seem impossible to pull a stubborn horse’s head up from grazing while you’re in the saddle. A quick trick to do this would be to grab one rein and bring it back to your hip, making the horse turn their nose to the side.
While this trick will get your horse’s head up from the ground, it is considered a band-aid fix. In order to break the habit, pulling the head up won’t be enough, rather you will still have to establish that the bad habit means more work.
It’s time to take what you’ve done with your horse on the ground and apply it to when you’re in the saddle. Sometimes, the work done on the ground will be enough to correct the bad behavior in the saddle; However, this isn’t always the case.
Using the same concept of trying to graze equals more work, tack up your horse, mount up, and ride over to a level grassy area. Allow for some slack in your reins to give your horse the opportunity to make the right decision.
If the horse doesn’t make the right decision, then it’s time to make them work. Send them off into a working trot just like you did with the groundwork. Trot for a few minutes before coming back to the halt and letting some slack in the reins once again.
If your horse still goes for the grass, go back into a trot. If not, make sure to praise them so they know that they did well.
Other Reasons Horses Shouldn’t Graze While Being Ridden
There are many other reasons why a horse shouldn’t be allowed to graze while being ridden. They include:
- The horse can stop suddenly to put their head down to eat. The rider isn’t prepared and topples over the horse’s head.
- If a horse is grazing with a bit in its mouth, it won’t be able to chew its food all the way and may choke.
- If a horse’s head is down eating, they may step on their rein. This can cause injuries to the mouth, broken tack, and an out-of-control horse.
Allowing your horse to graze while being ridden can result in potentially dangerous situations for both you and your horse.
Does This Mean I Should Never Let My Horse Graze?
While a horse shouldn’t be allowed to graze while being ridden, this does not mean that you should never allow your horse graze while you’re on the ground. Instead, just be aware of how bad habits form and avoid allowing repetitive behavior.
This means that you can let your horse graze, but only when YOU allow them to, not when they’re being pushy and demanding too. That also means that when you tell them that they’re done, there shouldn’t be any retaliation or dragging to get them away from the grass. If there is, then go back to the groundwork exercise.
Should I Use a Grazing Muzzle on My Horse if They’re Too Pushy?
A grazing muzzle is used for overweight horses that need to eat less. It causes them to take smaller mouthfuls whenever they’re grazing. A grazing muzzle is not a tool that should be used to correct a bad habit.
If your horse is just too pushy when it comes to eating time, the best thing to do is to establish your horse’s respect. This can be done by getting your horse to pay attention to you and not the food. If you’d like to know more about this, click here.
Once your horse respects you and your space, they will be much easier to handle when it comes to feeding time.
What If These Exercises Don’t Work?
If these exercises don’t work, you must assess why they’re not working. While every horse is different and some may learn different ways than others, it’s usually how the rider communicated with the horse that affects the outcome.
When a horse fails in their training, it’s usually because of the lack of consistency and persistence. Like mentioned above, a horse learns through repetition, repetition, repetition. If you go out one day and do the exercise and then go out the next day and let them graze again, you’ve erased everything you had taught them the previous day.
First, you must be consistent with the horse. That means you go to correct the bad behavior anytime it happens and you correct it the same way. You make sure that your horse understands what’s right and what’s wrong.
Secondly, persistence means you see it through until it starts working. This is going to take patience, as some horses are known to push these limits. Persistence will also help to establish you as the authority.
Knowing and practicing these two factors will make a world of difference when it comes to communicating with your horse. Whether it’s getting them to stop eating grass or getting them to go over a scary jump, consistency, and persistence will help further your horse’s training and relationship with you.