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There is a lot that goes in to “making a good horse” from scratch, or to making a better horse out of something not quite what it could be, or to keeping a really good horse good. It’s pretty likely that if we’re working on our horsemanship, we’re probably working on it by trying to do one or all of those three things. For years, I’ve worked on a seemingly little thing that appears, in my experience, to be a pretty big help in making a good horse – not eating grass while the horse is working.
The way I see my work with my horses, we are “punched in” (at work together) as soon as we acknowledge each other that day. Ray Hunt said something really important about reaching for his horse and looking for that horse to reach back to him. So I feel like when I walk out to the field, I am already reaching to and for my horse, so that’s when our work together starts. I do not let my horses eat grass while they’re working. Not in a halter, not loose in the round pen, not in a bridle. No grass. No hay. Not unless I tie them up and put it in front of them.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from here. My definition of a “broke” horse is “a horse who won’t leave me”. One of the most common complaints we have about our horses is that they don’t pay enough attention to us. Most of us want to be safe and have fun with our horses. We want to enjoy our time with them, and some of us might want to achieve some mastery and refinement someday. Very few great achievements in life are made in the absence of hard work and self discipline and in the presence of inattentiveness and lack of attention to detail.
If I want a substantial level of engagement with my horse, I need to be mindful of the things that cause him to lose track of me, or to “leave me” mentally or physically. According to my definition of a “broke” horse, his ability to withstand distractions and choose to stay with me will help him achieve the title of “broke” horse. Grass can be a terrible distraction to a horse who thinks he’s entitled to it whenever it’s around. So this is a place where I can work on getting my horse with me and becoming more important to him for a time than the grass is.
It’s important to understand that the equine is designed to graze 18 hours a day, so he will likely feel instinctively compelled to eat while we are with him. He may also want to eat while he’s with us to comfort himself emotionally or to distract himself from us mentally. If eating while they’re with us provides them with relief (and the food itself is a powerful reinforcement), they will want to do it again. And again. So wanting to eat while our horse is working is completely natural and part of horses being horses.
Sometimes the human will use grazing while working to cover up training or relationship issues. Foxhunters and trail riders often let their horses graze because that's how they can get the horse to stand still and quiet for a period of time. People who show will hand graze their horses in between classes because the horses can’t stand tied quietly at the trailer. For some of us, we equate offering food with offering love to our horse, and we may offer the grass thinking we’re improving our relationship with the horse.
Now, if you let your horse eat grass and it works for you, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. It’s your horse and your horsemanship and if you do something different than what I do, that’s fine. This is just something I’ve observed and done some experimenting with and I’m offering my thoughts on it.
There are many reasons I don’t let my horses eat grass when they’re working. The first reason is because of my pursuit of feel in my horsemanship. If a horse eats grass while he’s wearing a halter or a bridle, he is either going to pull on me in the process, or I am going to pull on him in the process. This meaningless pulling and dragging dulls off my hands and the horse’s nose or mouth, and if I ever want to achieve refinement in my groundwork and riding, we are both going to need to be sensitive and aware. For my part, I do not want to put any more pressure on my horse than I have to, and I want to be mindful of the feel of that pressure at all times, and tugging on my horse to get his head out of the grass is just a pressure-filled, non-feely interaction with my horse. We know that we get good at what we practice, so I don’t really want to spend any time practicing this. If my horse snatches at grass while we’re riding, he can pull me out of the saddle, learn to root on the bit and even step on his reins. Again, this is just not the feel I’m looking for while I’m riding, whether there’s grass available or not.
Secondly, if my horse eats while he’s working, my horse is thinking about the food and not about me and feeling back to me to do the job we’re doing. If we want our horse generally to be able to pay attention to us, then it makes sense that we would not want to invite him to practice tuning us out regularly. I also recognize that if I am to be absolutely consistent with my horse, it can’t be okay for him to tune me out sometimes and not others. I do not want grass to be more important to my horse than I am when we are together.
Thirdly, when a horse learns to not eat grass when he’s working, he is developing the skill of self-control and self-discipline. It’s important to me for a horse to learn that they can have an opportunity to leave me and learn how to stay with me. A horse who knows he is not going to eat on the job has learned a degree of self-control that a horse who is entitled to eat all the time has not. I have also practiced the self-discipline in myself of saying, “No.”
And fourth, is safety. If my horse knows that he does not eat in a halter or a bridle, I can ground tie him on grass and he won’t graze himself off over to the next county. If I’ve got him bridled, I can get off to do a job and he won’t have his head down in the grass where he could step on a rein, cause me to step over a rein or my mecate leadrope or otherwise tear up my equipment and his mouth.
Fifth is that not eating while working will enable my horse to someday do pretty sophisticated jobs like taking beginners or children trail riding or roping and working cattle in grassy country. You can imagine what a wreck we could end up with if we roped a cow, tied off to our horn, stepped down off our horse and went to work the cow as our horse walked off to graze with the cow tied off to the horn!!!!!!
Lastly, I don’t let my horses eat while they’re working because I’ve just found that it’s one of those things that once a horse starts doing it, it is nearly impossible to get them to stop, and it tends to take a LOT of time and a LOT of energy. Sometimes the lengths to which I have to go to accomplish it frankly don’t feel very good to me. So for me, it’s just better if they never start.
We have babies here at the farm who learned not to eat while working as yearlings. It was really easy for them, and they clearly do not miss the couple of mouthfuls of grass they might have snuck in if they hadn’t learned to pass it up. The grown-up horses are more difficult, of course, because they’ve already been allowed to eat grass by other people and they have that expectation. But consistency and attention to detail pays off, and even our grown-up horses learn to keep their heads up and their minds on us.
True story. I was doing a clinic in Des Moines, Iowa a few years ago, and I needed to step off my Cruz horse to help a student adjust their equipment on their horse. Cruz was standing by the edge of the arena, and I’d unbridled him when I left him and hooked his bridle on the horn. Now, in my mind, he was still working. As I helped the student with her adjustments I heard the tell-tale tearing noise of a mouthful of grass. I whirled around instinctively in time to see Cruz’s head come up with a mouthful of grass. Our eyes met and slowly, he spit out the entire mouthful of grass. A spectator asked me how I trained him to do that and all I could do was laugh. I didn’t know he’d do that. But it felt pretty special to me that he did.