Ask the Horse Trainer: Horse Grazes while on Trail Ride

Ask the Horse Trainer: Horse Grazes while on a trail ride 

I have a 7 yr. old TWH, who is having only one problem. That is when we start out on the trail, he ABRUBTLY, without prior notice, stops and starts eating grass. It's a fight to get his head back up, and when I finally do, he may take 10 or so steps, and again without notice, stops and eats. This is the only bad habit he has. He out in pasture from 4:00 pm until 6:30 am and then put in his stall.

He is not under-fed. Most times other riders are back at least a horse's length from me, and his quick stopping usually ends up in a rear end collision.

Vet says I need to use spurs on him. Others say, carry a crop and smack him when he does this. I'm not into smacking him. What can I do?

My philosophy is that a horse's physical actions are a direct reflection of his mental and emotional state. If he THINKS about something he will then physically commit to it. Right now your horse is displaying signs that his brain is "unavailable" and more committed to thinking about the grass on the trail, therefore his body tries to continually eat. The snatching of grass as you ride is a symptom, not the issue. Often horses avoid uncomfortable, concerning, or stressful scenarios by eating. If there is a lack of clear communication from you, he will not feel supported with specific boundaries and guidelines as to what behaviors work and those that do not. 

 My guess is that this is not the "only" unwanted your horse offers, but rather, this is the only seemingly "unmanageable behavior." I'd say you might have assessed the standards and quality of what you ask and what your horse really offers before ever thinking about the trail/grass symptom. Waiting for the moment your horse is offering you an unwanted behavior is too late, instead, you'll need an effective set of "tools" when you ride that offer clear communication so that as your horse starts to show signs of mentally checking out, you can influence his thoughts away from things such as grazing on the trail, rather than waiting until he is committed and then reprimanding him for it.

Your goal for when you ride is for your horse to offer "What would you like?", rather than displaying his current, "Why should I?" attitude. Physically trying to "force" a thousand pounds of horse forward and not to graze is badgering but not a solution. Crops, spurs, etc., and other "training" devices may appear to temporarily help your horse quit, but he will eventually learn to "tune out" the chaos of severe aids and resist those too.

Horses are herd animals, so when they aren't getting "what they need" from people, their brain tunes them out. Too many times people get distracted by unwanted physical behavior (such as grazing), rather than slowing down and assessing where the horse's brain is. If the horse understands, trusts, and believes your input helps provide him safety, he'll mentally be "with you" and will physically participate in a reasonable manner.

The physical signs of resistance such as prioritizing eating versus paying attention to you are ways of your horse telling you he is having a problem. Typically horses show small signs of resistance before they reach a point of physically completely ignoring you. If his way of asking for help has been ignored by a rider who responds by "driving" the horse through his concern, the human is no longer a source of support. The horse is unintentionally taught that he will be reprimanded or ignored, so he mentally and then physically "shuts down" and becomes more resistant in listening to his rider's aids.

You'll need to step back and review the basics to find where the lack of clear communication between you and your horse starts. Keep in mind horses don't "just randomly" do things.

Finding a "safe" place such as a round pen and starting while working him from the ground you're going to need to re-establish clear communication using effective "tools" that you will eventually transfer over to when you are riding. You may work at liberty (with your horse loose) and/or with your horse on the lead rope (using the rope as if it were like a rein when you ride.) Can you direct first just his thought, without his feet moving? Can you redirect his fixation towards something you'd like? Can he "let go" of thought and address what you are asking of him? Can you influence his energy levels without him become physically tight or defensive? How soft is his posture in his halt? Does his brain stay present in the halt?

You'll need to be able to "break down" asking your horse to first look (literally) at different "things" without moving. This is asking for a mental commitment. He'll need to learn that ignoring or tuning you out when you're specific, doesn't work and that he must address you mentally. Then you'll need him to understand to "mimic" your energy so that as you increase or decrease your energy so should he. If he can first mentally address, and then physically "softly" move towards what you've presented, you're on the right track for creating a quality ride.

He'll need to understand to change his energy by either a physical aid (such as bumping the stirrup by his side) or a movement from you. Most people stand still or sit still in the saddle hoping the horse will figure out what speed they want. Instead, you must "take your horse for the ride" by offering what you want him to do. I tell people within each gait there should be ten different energy levels. This should first be established from you working your horse on the ground. If he's unclear with you on the ground, he will not just "figure it out" when you're in the saddle.

Too many people have never focused on asking themselves first what, where, and how they communicate with their horse. So their communication is presented as a "challenge" towards the horse. Often they present the same manner of communication repetitiously driving the horse bonkers until he accidentally figures out what is being asked of him. The more the horse has to "guess" at what the person wants, the more they tune out the rider's aids or communication.

The increased specificity you are in addressing the beginning, middle, and end of each segmented scenario, the more your horse will participate. One quality step will turn into three and then 10 and then eventually a whole circle and then the entire ride. But it takes clarity and awareness of riding every single step to "help" your horse find the right answer, rather than forcing him to guess. 

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