Horses are hungry. The only time a horse is not hungry is when he is on his death bed or very stressed (unless he’s a stress eater like me…then hide the chocolate! er… grass). Horses will choose to sleep or play at times, but if you walk up and ask (with a big bucket of treats) while they are sleeping or playing, “Are you hungry?”, you won’t usually be refused.
If your horse isn’t fully engaged with you and there is a grass buffet, you may feel suddenly jerked off your feet when your horse snatches grass on the lead. This is rude and can be painful on your body. At liberty you may find that your horse is unwilling to pay attention when there is yummy grass present.
You can teach your horse a cue to refrain from eating, to lift his head when he’s up to his ears in grass and also to drop his head and graze as a reward. There is a demonstration of this in the video.
Not all horses take kindly to interrupted meals. Be very careful because there are horses and ponies that will challenge you if you lay down the law about grazing. I recommend you at first ask your horse to move on at a distance away at liberty so that you can stay well out of kicking range. You can see one of my older videos on how to do this.
Once your horse is easily moving off of food when you ask then you can work close up and ask him to raise his head with a verbal command and hand gesture. I like to say, “Head up.” and raise my hands as if I’m pushing the air upwards with my palms. If my cue is ignored then I disturb the grass or hay around my horse’s muzzle by doing a little dance or brushing the grass with my whip. I cluck or kiss to encourage movement. I do this until I’ve thoroughly ruined my horse’s meal and she lifts her head. You can see this in the photo.
As soon as my horse lifts her head, then I praise her and ask her to drop her head again by pressing my hand down towards the grass (preferably before she does it herself). I gradually increase the time that we can keep that big head up in the air. Then I incorporate walking from one eating location to another together.
At liberty, sometimes your horse will walk off and leave you when you disturb his meal, but that’s fine. You still proved your point that grazing wasn’t welcome. Over time your horse will understand that leaving isn’t necessary and will stay with you until you indicate that grazing is ok again.
This exercise is helpful to encourage polite behaviour at liberty and on the lead. It’s also excellent for improving leadership with your horse. The lead horse can always indicate to another horse when eating is not a good plan. You are assuming a leadership role when you can prevent or stop your horse from grazing on cue. This encourages your horse to pay more attention to you.