Fix A Grass Grabber

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Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to stop your horse from grabbing mouthfuls of grass during trail rides.

Q. My young Quarter Horse gelding is always grabbing a “snack” while I’m riding through tall grass on the trail. I don’t like his eating with a bit in his mouth while we’re walking down the trail. I try to stop him, but nothing works. How can I stop him once and for all?

Colleen Frank
via e-mail

A. You’re right to correct your gelding for snacking during work time. Snacking on the trail is a rude behavior and may be a sign that he doesn’t accept your authority.

While some riders allow the behavior and think of it as a horse’s natural instinct to graze constantly, it’s important to think about how horses act when part of a herdand how they associate food with dominance.

Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.
Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.

The Problem: Dominance
In the herd, horses establish the herd hierarchy by determining who controls food and water. Dominant horses always eat first and will run the subordinate horses away from the food supply until they’ve had their fill.

Horses think they’re dominant any time you allow them to get to food.

With this in mind, imagine what’s really happening when your gelding drags you toward grass as you’re leading him. And think about who’s really in charge if he’s eating as you ride, pulling the reins away from you to graze at ground level.

In your gelding’s mind, he’s in charge! He shows his dominance by controlling the food. He thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.

The Fix: Apply Pressure
To fix this bad habit, you’ll need to change who’s in charge in your herd of two. Examine all aspects of your relationship to see whether you can name other areas where your gelding makes decisions, calls the shots, and controls you.

Does your gelding step off without a cue as soon as you mount up? Does he paw and beg for food or treats when you get back to the barn? You’ll need to address all aspects of your relationship to make sure you’re firmly in charge.

When it comes to grass-grabbing on the trail, adhere to an age-old training principle that applies to all animals even humans: Find the amount of pressure that motivates change.

Whatever your gelding is doing at a specific moment is what he’s most motivated to do; in your case, he’s motivated to eat grass while you ride. To change his behavior, you’ll have to find the amount of pressure that motivates him to rethink this action.

It may be a little pressure or a lot, depending on how sensitive your gelding is and how motivated he is to eat grass on the trail. But one thing is for sure it’s more pressure than you’re using now.

Whenever a behavior isn’t changed by your correction, either the timing of the correction is wrong or you aren’t using the necessary amount of pressure.

Pressure can be physical (such as the spank of a rein or having to work hard immediately following an attempt) or mental (such as issuing constant directives that requires your gelding to focus on you).

What to Do
Here’s how to apply pressure to your gelding to correct his behavior and establish yourself as herd leader.

Use one rein. When you correct your gelding for eating grass while riding, jerk up harshly and quickly on one rein. Any time you pull on both reins, you start a tug-of-war with him and you’ll never win that contest. But with one rein, you have control.

Ask him to work. If you’re riding in a flat, safe location with good footing, ask your gelding to work immediately after you correct him. Trot him in one direction, then another. Make him move. Make him associate his grazing behavior with having to work hard.

Be strong. No matter what type of pressure you use, the consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to overpower your gelding’s urge to eat.

Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.
Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.

Avoid a Rut
Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass. If you’ve been trying to correct your gelding’s grazing behavior for some time with no success, he’s learned to ignore your corrections. He now thinks that you’ll never use enough pressure to bother him.

With this ingrained behavior, you’ve gotten in a rut. Your gelding tries to eat; you say no. He doesn’t worry about the consequence and tries again; you say no. He tries again and on and on.

It’s better to give one strong correction than to get into a nagging relationship such as this. A firm correction will motivate your gelding to change. This is much kinder than pulling on his mouth over and over for years. Make one correction, and be done with it.

Establish your leadership role in your herd of two. Invest time in your young gelding to give him the best manners you can.

This investment will increase your gelding’s value and your riding enjoyment for the rest of his life. He’ll also be better behaved for your veterinarian and farrier.

Horses are happier in the presence of authority.

My Horse Won’t Stand Still For Mounting

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Common Complaints

My horse won’t stand still for mounting.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse to stand still while you mount up.

Does your horse begin the ride before you do? When you put your foot in the stirrup to mount, are you hopping and scrambling, reaching for a handhold on the saddle, or dangling from your horse’s side while he heads down the trail? Or does he take off the instant you skim the leather—leaving you grabbing for the reins as you struggle to get your foot in the stirrups before he reaches full speed?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to stand quietly and relaxed for mounting. Soon you’ll have a horse that stands like a statue on a loose rein as you mount.

The Reason
Many horses have never been taught or required to stand still on any occasion, let alone for mounting. Until you can control your horse’s feet (both moving and not moving), you don’t really have control of the horse; this is as true on the ground as it is for riding.

Horses are very impulsive when it comes to moving—remember they are flight animals. To get a horse to think before he acts—and not move impulsively—takes good training and strong leadership skills. A horse must not only learn what rules to follow, but also that there are ramifications if he breaks a rule—that’s where your leadership comes into play.

For young horses, it’s important to learn good ground manners, including standing still when asked. A good trainer will start with lots of ground work to gain control over the horse’s feet. When the youngster is started under saddle, from the first time he’s mounted, he learns to stand quietly and wait for a cue before walking off.

Many older horses that do not stand still for mounting have been inadvertently trained to act this way. I call it “anti-training.” Generally the rider has been condoning the horse’s impulsive movement for months, if not years before realizing there’s a problem. It starts with little infractions—small but unauthorized actions– and gradually it snowballs until your horse hardly listens to you at all.

Often the horse has gotten into this habit from an eager-beaver rider that mounts and takes off. Soon the horse expects it and he makes an association with mounting and moving his feet—this the action of mounting becomes his cue.

Instead of correcting the unauthorized actions of the horse, many riders cave in to the horse’s actions, thus condoning it. This is often rationalized by the rider as being okay because “I was going to ask him to walk anyway,” but the horse sees it for what it’s: he’s making the decisions therefore he’s the leader.

In short order, you have trained your horse to walk off as you mount. Since he thinks he’s doing the right thing, he’ll begin to walk off sooner each time you mount until you won’t even have a foot in the stirrup before he’s headed down the road.

Whether your horse has never learned proper ground manners or has inadvertently learned to walk off through inaction or a lack of authority on your part, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, take assessment of your horse’s general ground manners and respect for authority. Is he always respectful of your space? Does he lead with good manners, matching you step for step, stopping when you do and going as fast as you ask? Will he stand patiently and wait for you whenever you stop and does he stand quietly for the vet and farrier?

If you have complete authority over your horse, you can control his feet entirely, both moving and standing still. If this is not the case for you and your horse, you probably need to start doing groundwork to develop this critical connection with your horse. There are numerous articles on my website on how and why you do groundwork. I also have DVDs that will explain horse behavior and training techniques; the videos and all the equipment you’ll need are available packages at Shopping.JulieGoodnight.com.

I teach my horse that he can’t move a single foot unless I authorize the move. I practice this stand-like-a-statue game a lot, especially at times when I know my horse does not want to stand (like when all the other horses are headed back to the barn). These exercises are thoroughly explained on my website and in my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.

Once your horse is obedient and mannerly from the ground, you can start retraining him to stand still for mounting. The first step is to realize that whatever you have been doing, hasn’t worked. You have probably condoned the behavior many times or not given adequate corrections or insisting on obedience. You’ll have to make a commitment to change that—to be the captain of the ship.

It may have been your impatience that has led to this problem, so you’ll need to get in the habit of standing for a moment after you mount and never letting your horse walk off without waiting for a cue. If he just walks off because you’re mounting, he’s making an unauthorized action and it needs to be met with a swift and certain correction. Pick up on the reins, back him up and say “whoa!”. Be adamant about not letting the horse walk off until you cue him and you should only cue him when he’s standing still (just a momentary pause will do).

If your horse is walking off before you even get a foot in the stirrup, there’s a simple exercise you can do to change his associations. It’s a classic case of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard for the horse. Like all horse training, this exercise requires an excellent sense of timing and consistent reinforcement.

Outfit your horse in his normal riding gear, with the reins secured to the saddle and a 25’ longe line clipped in the left ring of the bit. Approach your horse in slow motion, as if to mount; it’s important that you move slowly so that the timing of your corrections is precise. Keep the reins and line loose and do not make any effort to prevent the horse from moving off—let him make that decision—through this exercise, you’ll make him rethink that choice.

As you go through the motions of mounting, your horse will begin to move—you’ll have to concentrate hard to find the right instant. At that time, step back (well out of the kick zone) and get after your horse; send him out on the longe circle, making him trot long and hard until he’s eager for a stop cue. Then ask him to stop and repeat, approaching in slow motion to mount.

Each time he walks off without authorization from you, longe the pants off of him—give him a reason to think about how he can get out of this dilemma. You may need a training flag or whip to keep a safe distance from his flying hooves and to motivate him to action.

Each time you start the mounting process over, look for an opportunity to reward him. As you go slowly through the motions, if you reach a milestone—say, you put your foot in the stirrup and he holds still, reward him by turning and walking away from him and leave him in peace and comfort for a moment.

In the process, while he’s thinking and holding still, pet him and tell him he’s a great horse when he’s doing the right thing and hiss and spit at him when he’s not. Put him to work when he decides to move on his own.

When he begins to understand that you’re asking him to do something really easy, you’ll be able to go further and further in the mounting process until you’re on his back with him standing still. Once you swing your foot over his back, your hands control his movements. When he stands for mounting, reward him by getting off right away. Repeat this numerous times during each training session so he really understands what is expected of him.

If your timing is good, it should only take a few repetitions before your horse begins to make an association with his decision to walk off and having to work really hard. Suddenly the easy thing to do is stand still. If it takes you more than 6-8 circling episodes to make progress with your horse, it probably means you do not have the skills needed to have good timing in the release of pressure. He may be learning the wrong thing and you probably need to enlist some professional help.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon learn to stand like a statue when you mount. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit TV.JulieGoodnight.com.