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Pulling Ponies Won't Quit Grass Grabbing In-Hand

Pulling Ponies Won't Quit Grass Grabbing In-Hand

When working on the basics of leading, use positive reinforcement and reward your horse each time he makes a positive step in the process.

Photo: iStock

Q. My Miniature Horse pulls on me to graze when I’m leading him. How can I lead him without him eating grass?

Allison, Ohio


A. Miniature Horses and ponies, with their strong and short little necks and incredible food motivation, can be formidable! It doesn't take too many successful maneuvers for any horse or pony to learn they are stronger than you. 

There are a few simple methods of countering the head-down grazing behavior. Rather than trying to pull straight up, pull your horse's head to the side to turn in a tight circle or engage the hind end into moving by a light tap or swing of the end of the lead rope. Getting the horse to move forward is counter to planting his feet and nose to the ground.

But, you'll really need to go back to the basics of leading, and you can do this using positive reinforcement. I've discussed this in more detail in some previous articles. In short, your horse needs to learn that doing what you tell him and responding to voice commands will earn a treat. 

Start off in an area without grass. Reward him for doing something very simple and natural, even standing still with his head up, and pair this reward with a voice command, such as "up." Then he gets rewarded for the next step—walking forward with his head up—which you can also pair with a voice command, maybe "walk." Next, move slowly into working in more enticing situations, perhaps first with bits of hay nearby and then move to grassy areas. 

Some tips for making this work: Use very small treat rewards. Large mouthfuls of food will take a longer time to chew and you want to be able to reward frequently. Also, Miniatures and ponies tend to be fat, and you don't want to pack on the calories here. So, consider using a fingernail-sized piece of carrot or a few low-calorie feed pellets. Reward for each very small positive step in the process, but don't reward him for nudging at you for a treat—you don't want to create a pest. Think of it as taking the reward to his mouth, not his mouth coming toward you for the reward. 

Both you and your Miniature Horse will enjoy these sessions. Miniature Horses are so smart, and so food-motivated, they thrive on trying new things and figuring out what they can do to earn a treat (this is how they learn the unwanted behavior in the first place!). And if you make a mistake and get a behavior you don't want, realize that he can also quickly learn an alternative behavior that you do want. This is quite a forgiving method of training horses. 

Many people will use a chain lead rope on horses that pull. I don't personally have a problem with using a chain lead, but it must be used properly. Think of it as power steering—you do not want to use it in a punishing manner. I think of using a chain lead in a negative reinforcement (pressure and release) context. I prefer to apply the chain over the nose, rather than under the chin. 

Introduce the chain to your horse in a grass-free environment. He should learn that when you pull on the lead and bring the chain taut, you will relax and loosen up on the pressure as soon as he does what you want (walks forward, turns his head, raises his head, etc.). The process is done in a similar slow, step-wise fashion as with positive reinforcement and the horse should learn to respond quickly to the slightest pressure on the chain. If you feel you need to up the ante by using harsher pulls or jerks, then you'll get into a punishment mode—this tends to be a much less effective and riskier means of training. It might be best to have someone with experience show you how to properly use a chain lead.

Do you have a horse behavior question for Dr. Diehl? Send it to editorial@thehorse.com.

About the Author

Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS

Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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