I wrote this article several years ago. It had gotten lost in the shuffle of updating my website. Unfortunately the video that had gone along with it is among the missing. But, here is the article anyway. –Sharon
Here in New England one of the things I really miss in the winter is the ability to ride outside on grass. Or, as we like to call it, the ‘Carpet of Motivation’. The reason it has earned that name is because of all the food rewards we’ve offered—and we’ve used just about every possible treat under the sun—none have the reinforcing impact of grazing. I started the practice a few years ago and have since introduced several horses to it with excellent results. The rule is let the horses tell us what they find reinforcing. The horses tell us grazing is good!
The first thing you have to do is explain to your horse how the Grazing Game works. Before starting your horse should already be familiar with the clicker, targeting, head lowering, and backing.
Begin on the ground with the horse in a halter and lead rope and let him lower his head to take a few bites of grass, then ask him to raise his head by following your feel. Click for any response, even a momentary hesitation in chewing. Then let him graze again. Just a few bites, then ask him to lift his head. Click for reply then let him graze.
If your horse doesn’t respond to your request to lift his head don’t jerk it up. There are there several ways to illicit the behavior without force.
An easy way is to simply turn into your horse and walk straight through his line of grazing. Your attitude should be one of “I’m going this way. You coming? Oh were you grazing right there?” This nearly always results in the horse picking his head up to get out of the way and follow you. Click that and let him graze again. Provide a little warning you are about to start walking away and he’ll soon be with you as you walk off.
This should be practiced each and every time you are hand grazing your horse.
Consider the following if when you hand graze your horse just dives down for the grass and drags you around.
This is really just a variation on the mugging problem. Just as your horse has learned that he can’t just dive into your pocket for treats he can learn that he can’t just dive for the grass at will either. This isn’t a difficult point to get across. Like other mugging behaviors the solution is 100% consistency on your part.
The number one reason why horses learn to ignore their human on grass is their human taught them to do it. Consider this, when you take your horse out to hand graze what do you do? If you are like most of us, you stand out there chatting with friends or just mosey along daydreaming as your horse eats. Then, you look at your watch, say it’s time to go, then proceed to drag your horse back to the barn. Meanwhile the horse knows this is the last bite so he’d better make hay while the sun shines and keeps pushing for ‘just one more.’
So the very first step toward leveraging the most powerful motivator on earth is to change that dynamic. Set it up so that the horse doesn’t believe that this is the last bite of grass he’ll ever have. The way to do that is to keep asking him to pick up his head followed by letting him eat again. Your better leading and backing skills will go a long way here, and will improve dramatically if you practice like this on grass. With consistency your horse will learn—quite quickly in fact—that when you ask him to come with you it doesn’t mean that that is the end of the grazing. He needs to know that before you can effectively use the grass as a motivator for performance.
You will also want to have a cue that lets the horse know that he should return his attention to you. I use the horse’s name. So, before I ask the horse to do anything else I’ll say his name then immediately carry on with purpose. When they get accustomed to this routine they will soon stop eating in anticipation of some change.
As your horse improves in his willingness to let you control his access to the grass when up close you can start to integrate grazing as a reward for distance work like longeing. If you have been clicking and treating for longeing there is no difference except that you are standing on the treats. Just let him put his head down for a few bites. Then say his name and ask him to do something, such as Trot on.
You know your horse is with you when he will continue in walk, trot or canter nose brushing the grass but not grabbing for it until you click.
A most valuable side benefit of this is the gymnastic value of up and down transitions with the nose brushing the tips of the grass. The most beneficial exercises are the ones the horse does without forceful coercion. Here he stretches his own neck, and prepares his own balance to be ready to come to a quick halt. What may start out as choppy eventually evens out as the horse practices a maneuver he’s highly motivated to perform.
Due to the nature and accessibility of the grass you must be ever diligent about consistency. If you allow any loopholes (such as being too slow to provide the horse with something worth paying attention to) the horse will surely find them by deciding the grass is more interesting than you.
Once in hand and distance work on the halter is going well you can introduce grazing under saddle. A common concern is that of letting the horse graze with a bit in his mouth. I can only say that we’ve been doing this for quite a few years now and it has never been a problem. Other than a really slimy green bit to clean. But the horses are happy.
Your major concern, and again this is resolved through absolute consistency, is ensuring that the horse wait for your signal that he may graze. Pulling the reins out of your hands is just the same as mugging. Allow it to happen once and the horse will believe it is an option. Therefore, right from the beginning, after you click, ask the horse for some thing like rock back half a step then present the reward. Presenting the reward in this case is the signal he can lower his head to graze. I touch the withers in a special way. OR you may hand feed another reward. It is wise to mix up the rewards, sometimes feeding something from your hand, sometimes letting him graze. Since grazing is such a superior motivator it makes an excellent jackpot.