Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have a young quarter mare that is constantly reaching for food on the trail. I have gotten after her for this and have never allowed her to eat in the bit. I have smacked her and yelled at her. But she still does it. What do you recommend for this problem?

Betsy

Answer: Betsy,

This is a rude, frustrating and irritating behavior and it may also be a sign that your horse does not accept your authority in other areas as well. Remember, one way that horses establish dominance in the herd is to control the resources of the herd (food and water). The dominant horse always eats first and the dominant horse can always run a subordinate horse off the food. If your horse is dragging you to the grass when you head him, eating while you are riding or ripping the food out of your arms when you feed him, he is controlling the resources therefore, in his mind, he’s dominant. So first, examine your relationship and make sure there are not other areas where your horse is making decisions, calling the shots and controlling you.

To change this bad habit, you have to adhere to an age-old training principle (that applies to all animals—even humans)—find the amount of pressure that motivates your horse to change. Whatever he is doing right now, is what he is most motivated to do (which in your case is eat grass while you ride); if you wish to change his behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure that motivates him.

Depending on how sensitive your horse is, and how motivated he is to eat grass while you ride, it may be a little pressure or a lot. But one thing for sure, it is more pressure than you are using now. Whenever a behavior is not changed by your correction, either the timing of the correction is wrong or you are not using the right amount of pressure. Remember, this can be physical pressure, like the spank of a rein or having to work hard or it could be mental pressure, like issuing constant directives that requires your horse to focus on you.

When you correct a horse for eating grass while riding, jerk up harshly and quickly on ONE rein. Do not pull on two reins—that is like entering a tug-of-war with your horse and you’ll never win that contest. But with one rein, you can put more pressure on his mouth. If possible, put your horse immediately to hard work so that he comes to associate eating with working hard. The consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to over-power his urge to eat.

If you get tired of fighting your horse or you cannot find the adequate pressure to motivate him, you can fix the problem with an “anti-grazing” device. Just tie a cord to your saddle, at the pommel or horse. Then run it through the top of his bridle and down to one side of the bit. Tighten it adequately so that if his head goes down to eat, he hits the end of the cord and creates a pull on his mouth. This automatic correction is both stronger and quicker than a correction you would make. But while this device may help you break his bad habit, it does not address your authority issue with your horse.

Invest time in your young horse ot give her the best manners you can—it’ll increase her value and her rider’s enjoyment for the rest of her life.

Julie

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