In the mornings, sometimes I like to put a few horses out on the lawn to graze (hey, free feed!) while I do my chores. I think it’s funny when people comment about how “good” my horses are for staying around and not running away. Seriously, where are they going to go, to the gas station and back? – they’re on GRASS, right in front of the pasture where their friends are. They’re right where they want to be, so they don’t go anywhere.
Things get interesting when it’s time to go to work, though. How does a horse know whether you’re taking him out of the pasture to go eat some grass, or whether you had something else in mind altogether? If you’re in the habit of spacing out while you work the gate, or walk to the barn, you’ve probably experienced the old pull-your-arm-out-to-get-to-grass trick.
Not having an arena has made things interesting, as well. Without a nice, fenced in sandy lot to keep everything nice and contained and free of distraction, some have found it hard to keep their horses off the grass while trying to do groundwork or even ride. So again, how does your horse know when you’re taking him out to graze, or when you expect him to stay focused on your job?
When I was learning to start colts, my teacher Sherry always told me it wasn’t the grass that was the problem. They were around that all the time. It was the people’s inability to keep their horses’ attention that was the problem. “You have to be more interesting than the grass,” she said. She never made a rule of forbidding a horse to graze when it was with you, she just said make it clear when it’s ok to graze and when it was time to work.
Sherry is one of those mythical beings that has the incredible ability to let a horse graze in hand or under saddle without it taking over and getting the green eyed greed for grass. We spent a lot of time with her training horses hand grazing them after a ride, but she taught me how to convey the feel of what I had in mind down the lead rope, so pretty soon those horses were listening, asking questions, and sometimes asking me permission for a bite, rather than yanking it out of my hands.
I’ve seen lots of people who teach “never let your horse graze” but I always think back to Sherry, and her creativity, feel, and sharp attention – this is what made her horses light, not just “rules,” though discipline was an important part of her life with horses.
So going back to my original question, how do you make it clear to your horse when it’s ok to graze, and when it’s not ok? For starters, timing is important. Don’t wait til your horse’s head is down in the grass and pull. Pulling on his head only teaches him to pull down harder, especially if he figures out that he is pretty strong (which shouldn’t take too much time). Ideally, you’re paying attention from the time you halter him, and you’re focused as you walk across the lawn. And again, ideally, when you see the thought cross his mind, you’re ready to redirect his attention. I prefer to get there before the action has taken place, but as each individual develops timing and attention to detail, you may miss a few. Not to worry.
So you missed the timing and his head is down in the grass. Don’t pull. Ask him to go somewhere. Pretend he isn’t down in the grass but just waiting politely for you, how would you ask him to go forward? You’d open your lead rope and do what you needed to without pulling to get those feet moving. As Leslie always said, “a horse can’t move forward at any speed and graze – he’d step on his lips.” Although I have to say I have seen a few lesson horses sneak a bite or two at the trot, which totally blew my socks off.
As your timing gets better and better, and you become worthy of his interest, and learn to provide some nice feel, he’ll be more focused on you, and grass will be less interesting.
So you see, it isn’t the grass’ fault. And for some, a sandy fenced in arena won’t help either. You still need his focus and attention before you can really accomplish anything. In order to get that, you need to be focused, start to finish, and ready to redirect his attention until you can direct his attention. And then you’re working on a feel and the rest is just background noise. 🙂