Did you notice the question marks in the title? Did you notice I didn't make a statement that eating grass while riding is wrong or right?
Here's a simple truth: It's ok for your horse to eat grass while riding.
What's not ok... is when you need your horse to focus on a task and he or she ignores you.
So what some riders do... is prevent all grass-eating situations so the horse never learns to get distracted by the grass. But what I do, and what all the top riders in the world do, is let the horse eat grass (within certain boundaries) when you're on a break from focused activities.
So what does "certain boundaries" mean? I'll get to that, but first I want to describe why we let our horses eat grass and why you can too.
Reason number one:
Horses get ulcers easily. Mother nature told horses to eat often to keep the stomach acids at bay. Horses like to obey mother nature. A little grass during breaks is good for the stomach.
Reason number two:
Horses need calories. Some things, like endurance racing, require a bit of caloric intake to maintain energy. A little nibble on the trail might win you the race.
Reason number three:
Horses like riders who get or understand what the horse needs. There is a psychologically positive effect on your relationship when you give, from time to time, instead of only taking. A little bite to eat can encourage curiosity and a tiny bit of relaxation and confidence.
Reason number four:
Horses aren't robots. I don't want to be the jerk that doesn't ever let my horse be a horse. A little break from time to time gives us both a chance to cool off.
So what does "certain boundaries" mean again? That means that when you let your horse put his head down, he might take you from one end of the field to the other, mowing every inch of grass there is to be seen and completely forget about you. That can be problematic if you're holding a herd of livestock at the gate or trying to have a conversation with your friends. I like to keep my horse in a relatively small space when I let them graze with me on their back. That way, if I need, I can pick up the reins and get back to the focused task I need him for. If my horse drifts too far from home, I simply, but effectively, ask them to return.
Also, if my horse takes over and demands grass, which can happen, instead of focusing on what we're doing, I'll shut it ALL down. I don't let a horse eat when he or she demands to eat. I only let a horse eat that asks politely and when the timing is right. It's not difficult to teach a horse to be polite. Take feeding treats for instance. If the horse bites off your whole hand with the tiny treat it's time to ask him to be more polite by shutting the whole operation down. Don't allow them to eat like an alligator. In my book, "Leadership and Horses" I lay out a simple principle. "You get, what you allow!" So shut it down, take it away, then try again and again until your horse behaves the way you really want. The same goes for eating while riding. If your horse takes over, simply pull harder on the reins, even pop the reins up hard to signify that the grabby behavior is not allowed while asking them to go forward with your legs. Be careful, but be clear. Your horse will actually love you for your clarity.
When you couple clarity with breaks and rewards then you will have a true partnership with your horse.
Last note: If you believe that I'm wrong about letting horses eat while riding, I still love you:) There are certain situations and riding traditions where it's simply not appropriate to allow grazing. I get it.
Comment below and share this with your horse-loving friends. When you do, I think you help make the world we share a better place.