A Horse That Stops to Grab Grass While You Are Riding
It doesn't seem like such a big deal to some. To me though, it is. Horses spend the majority of their day eating. It is the least they can do to be respectful and try not to eat while they are being ridden. Don't take it personally though, even the best horses, if given enough time to be distracted, have been known to reach down for some grass
Riding Fault's That Make the Horse Think He Can Stop and Snack: An Unassertive Rider
The first riding fault that I have found that causes the horse to think that he can stop and eat while being ridden, is that he doesn't feel like his rider is giving him much direction. In other words, the rider is being more of a passenger than a rider.
This is easily fixed by sitting up, putting your leg on, and insisting that your horse move out when you say so. When you tack up a for a lesson, your horse is essentially clocking in at work. Therefore, you are the boss, and when you say go forward, they should go without question.
If your horse tries to grab grass frequently during lessons, I would recommend you ride with a crop to reinforce your leg. That way you give him two chances to move forward when you ask and then next time he get's swatted behind the saddle with the crop. Think of it as you want your horse to be marching. If he is easily moving forward off of your leg, then he is anxiously awaiting whatever it might be that you ask him to do next. He will be focused on you and ready for the next instruction, whatever that may be.
Exercise 1: Marching Through a Pattern
A good exercise to use to practice this marching sort of walk is easy to set up. Take some traffic cones or poles and set up an area in the middle of your riding area that is away from the grass. It can be a circle or winding through poles. Any simple tasks away from the grass that you are going to ride your horse through. When I say ride him through, I mean assertively. We are riding not "passengering" right?!
I want you to use your leg and crop, if necessary, to make him march through that pattern you set up. Try to find a steady forward tempo, and if you start to lose it, correct it right away. If the horse turns towards the grassy area, gently guide his head back in the correct direction.
If for some reason he tries to abruptly turn and head to the grass, I want you to take the rein on the opposite side of where he is trying to go and bring his head around all the way to your foot. That will make him stop. Then as soon as he is pointed in the correct direction, take a deep breath and get right back to marching through our pattern again.
It is super important that you turn his head away from the grass to stop him and even more important to get him back to his marching walk exercise as soon as possible. We don't want him to think that he is getting a break from his bad behavior. So, think quick correction then back to work again.
This exercise is building your confidence in your ability to control your horse's direction and pace. That way, when it is time to get back on the rail and work again, you will be able to keep his attention better and feel more confident that you can get him by the grass without him stopping for lunch.
Exercise 2: Correct Position, Deepen Seat in the Saddle
For the next exercise, you will need the help of your instructor or some other ground helper. For this exercise, you will be standing still on your horse. You will loosen your reins so your ground person can have enough slack to pull on your horse's mouth without hurting them, as well as enough slack that you can have a normal amount of contact.
Your ground person is going to pull on the reins, simulating the horse pulling forward and down to get grass. As your helper pulls, I want you to think about putting your weight in your feet, keeping your hips forward and shoulders back—even farther than usual if you have to. I want you to feel your seat bones in the saddle, both of them equally deep down in the seat.
Practice this a few times. When your position is correct, the motion of the horse pulling his head down to eat will only put you deeper down in the saddle, with your weight over your feet. That will give you the leverage to hopefully keep your horse from getting his head down at all, but if he does, you are in a better place to get his head back up again.
So I would recommend practicing that exercise until you can sit and hold the reins and not let your ground person pull you forward out of the seat at all.
Going back to the basics, this all boils down to the whole "leg too far back leads to shoulders too far forward," which is the perfect set up for a sneaky lesson horse or pony who wants to stop at the salad bar at the end of the ring.
Exercise 3: Reinforcing That You Can Still Sit Up Even if Your Horses Head is Down
This exercise is for riders who get scared when the horse tries to grab for grass, which is understandable, seeing as the neck is out in front of you normally but is between you and the ground when it grabs. If that buffer between you and the ground is gone all of a sudden, that can be a scary thing, especially if it get's to that point where rider's leg usually would have gotten back behind them pitching them forward.
You will most likely need a ground person for this one also. What I want you to do is let your reins get loose enough that your horses head drops down to the ground. Some horses will do this when you loosen up automatically and others might require some help from a ground person.
This is a super simple exercise. All I want you to do is once your horses head is down is to focus on your correct position in the saddle – look forward (not down the sliding board of the horse's neck), keep your hips forward, shoulders back, and seat bones deep in the saddle.
Once you have corrected your position, you are just going to take a deep breath and realize that even though your horses head is down you still are balanced. A lot of people panic and curl up, which is the least balanced thing to do and bound to scare you even more. So just sit there and relax and realize that you are balanced even with your horses head down.
Then, once you get more comfortable with that, you can practice letting your rein length change just a bit so it allows the horses head to go down. Then, use the skills you learned from checking your position to sit up, correct your lower leg and shoulders, and bring his head back to where you want it.
A Little Add on Exercise
One other thing you can do to help is to put something small in your hand so that you have to keep your fingers closed around your reins in order to hold on to it. You can use pennies, pieces of candy, a little rock, whatever is handy. It is good to train yourself to have a firm grip on the reins so the horse can't slide them through your fingers. That way you adjust them to the correct length and they stay there.
Not to mention, if you have a firm grip on the reins as well as doing the other exercises to work on position and keeping your horse going forward, you are going to get better and better at not allowing him to get his head down.
It All Comes Down to Two Things
The first is a proper position, training yourself to ride in balance with a straight line from shoulder hip to heel. The second is that you are riding and not passengering! That you are using your legs to send your horse forward and steering him with your reins. We should strive for our horses to never have time to wonder what we want them to do. We should ride assertively so that they never question us or consider stopping for a snack at the salad bar!