Some days ago I wrote a summary of everything I've learned about "making grass your friend" until now to answer a question in a facebook group:
We have a similar problem (the horse rather wants to eat grass instead of interacting with the human) over here (Haflinger gets 24/7 hay but no grass) and decided to solve it not exclusively with +R for some reasons. That is why I was hasitating to write an answer, and please just delete it, if you do not want this approach to be shared here. I am also interested in the way others solve this problem and would like to read about it! But as no one has given an answer until now, I want to give my opinion for reflecting about it.
I know that there is a way to work trough this problem using only +R. You “simply” have to increase the criteria very slowly and work with high reinforcing treats. There are some reasons why we decided that this is not our way.
In my opinion using traditional positive reinforcement (giving a treat when the horse does something the human considers “right”) *can* be a slight type of force. Not like the force of physical or mental pressure but like the force of unlearning that there is another chance. If you use +R and sloooowly raise the criteria there will usually come the point where your highly motivating treat is not really better than leaving you to eat grass anymore. But the horse forgets about it because it does not notice when you arrive at this point because you did not stand on lush green grass out of a sudden but worked towards it way slower. So the horse may learn that eating grass is not an option by learning that it’s best to stick to you even if there is grass around - and he would learn it with positive reinforcement. But for me personally this way of using +R where it changes how the horse perceives his world in a way that would usually not make much sense to the horse creates a feeling of manipulation. Like I would not be honest to the horse no matter how nice and friendly this way of dealing with this problem seems to be.
Another reason why I don’t do it this way is that I see this “problem” as one of the greatest opportunity to learn - learn about how the horse perceives me and the way I am asking for unpleasant things and most important learn to communicate “no” in a way that makes it possible for the other person to be fine with it.
I think that there will always be situations in life in general and with horses especially where we want or need to say “no” even though we would prefer to always being able to say “Yes, great!”. This is why I want to learn how to communicate this in a friendly, gentle, still prosocial way instead of becoming rude or being perceived as unfair as soon as I am not saying yes anymore. I want to establish a No that does not create strong negative feelings like it normally does. The other person should not feel intimidated, pressured or forced with all it negative consequences because of me saying no.
Then there is a third reason. I usually interact inside of the paddock where the horse can always decide to walk away without negative consequences. It can just go and eat hay, drink water, take a rest, interact with its herd mates. So there is always freedom of choice because I do not restrict ressources but only add myself as another ressource. This freedom of choice exists for the horse and for me. The horse can always walk away when it gets unpleasant, boring or frustrating (and give me important feedback in this way) and I can do so as well. We can both go and keep ourselves busy with something else until we feel like interacting with each other again.
On walks this simply is not possible for us. In our surroundings we cannot give the horse freedom of choice because there is traffic almost everywhere (that is the reason why outside there is a bigger chace that a situation occurs in which I have to communicate that no, this is not what we are going to do - and this is part of the reason why I like to learn about communicating it in a positive way).
On walks both partners are forced to stay with each other. The horse is not allowed to walk away and neither am I. I need to keep the interaction going no matter what until we are inside the paddock again. As I am the human, I am responsible for keeping the interaction going. But as the horse is part of the interaction as well, I am not okay with the horse just deciding that it prefers to eat grass instead of responding to me. That does not mean that I forbid eating grass completely. Grass still is a big part of going for walks and plays a big role in our dialogues when being outside (how could it not be when walks are the only possibility to give your horse the chance to eat what it loves most
So here is what I am trying with the horses (it’s still work in progress, as I am not the fastest learner):
As I said before, I want to learn how to communicate no in a non-negative way. So here is my criteria for this way of saying no:
The no is communicated without rudeness, I do not pull the rope, push the horse away or do anything that includes big pressure or pain for the horse. I use my feet to ask the horse to stop eating. I place it under his mouth so that it needs to find another place to keep eating. When I am doing everything else right (I describe the other aspects in the further text), this already is the point where the horse decides to lift his head to respond to my request. But as I am still learning and it is quite difficult in the beginning, the horse often does not respond to this. Then sometimes I am too lazy or too tired to find out what I was doing wrong and then I rely on my bodylanguage. I use my feet and my hip to make it impossible for the horse to reach the grass. I place myself whereever the horse tries to get some grass. As soon as the horse reacts by giving me its attention, I remove myself again and point to the grass. In the beginning I do this over and over again to show the horse that reacting to me is the fastest way to get the grass. Then I increase the criteria, I ask for keeping the head up for a longer time, to do one step, two, four and so on. As soon as this works, trot is the next criteria for getting access to grass. This has the nice side effect that the horse will become eager to trot as soon as its feet feel grass underneath.
But as I said, these things are most important only when I am lazy or tired on not concentrated enough (and I usually prevent going for walks when I feel like this because I think its not fair to subject the horse to my shortcomings). And they are important to first show the horse that eating grass *is* possible and that reacting to the human is the fastest way to get there. There are some things that are way more important and this is how I am thinking and feeling about the horse eating grass in general and about asking the horse to stop it in particular.
As horses usually react with counterpressure to pressure, the reaction of the horse can be an indicator for me to notice how much the horse *feels* pressured by my kind of request. If the horse refuses to lift his head after it has already learned that reacting to me does not mean never eating grass again, than I am doing something wrong with making it easy for the horse to feel willing to respond to me.
So how do I make it easy for the horse to feel willing to respond to unpleasant questions?
First, I make the unpleasant question the less unpleasant I can. For example, I only ask for something that is very easy to do first - in this case lifting the head and looking at me.
Then I am trying to get control over my thoughts and feelings because they have the biggest impact on how the horse feels and thinks about my request. There are so many different ways to ask for one and the same thing and every way of asking gets another kind of answer. Of course! Think about your mother asking you to help her with the household (even though it isn’t relevant for your life anymore and maybe you are now the mother asking your child, it probably was one day). So just think about the way her question created a feeling inside of you. Did you feel appreciated because she trusted you enough to help her? Did you feel responsible because she made you understand that you are an important part in the family? Did you feel happy because you could spend your time with your mom while you were working together? Was it fun to help her even though it was kind of unpleasant work? Or did you get completely opposite feelings? Was it boring to help her? Did you get the feeling that she conciously interrupted what you were doing before? Did you feel like she did not really need your help but just expected it because this is what society expects from you, little child?
How did you react and how would your reaction have changed if she had asked in a different way?
This example may not seem very relevant for interacting with horses, but in my opinion it almost couldn’t be more relevant because the horses can get many different feelings about the same request, positive or negative feelings, - Please, stop eating grass. And these feelings are what can change the reaction of the horse.
Here is what I found out about the kind of asking that creates at least the less negative if not positive feelings:
I try not to feel any negative feelings myself. If I think about the grass like “Oh no, there’s all those green grass outside, that will only distract the horse from me”, then I am already on the wrong track because this creates a feeling of helplessness and negativity and of course these feelings will not help the horse to be willing to react to me.
If I see the grass as my enemy and completely forbid the horse to go there, the horses desire to get there increases and I will not be able to work with and towards the grass. So I learned to see the grass as my friend, as a large treatbag with the most motivating treats. I just need to use it and it will help me to keep the horses attention on me.
I try to establish a great positive feeling inside of me. Like a big smile in my belly, and having it on my face as well helps a lot. It’s hard to keep negative feelings up while you’re smiling all over your face. I also concentrate on how much I love and adore and appreciate the horse. With this feeling inside it is impossible to be rude or think in a bad way about the horse if it does not react to you at once. And of course, wouldn’t you enjoy doing what someone asks you to do even though it isn’t pleasant in itself when the person gives you the feeling of being loved and adored just for who you are? We usually like to spend our time with those people even if this goes with some negative aspects as well.
It also helps me to think and articulate that I understand that grass is important for the horse, and that I understand that it acts in the way it does not because it wants to offend me. It is important not to take it personally that the horse prefers grass instead of interacting because that would evoke negative feelings inside of me that make it less likely that the horse willingly responds to me.
Another helpful thought is that I believe in myself being able to ask in a way that makes the horse want to respond. If I do not believe that it is possible to get a positive reaction then I won’t be able to ask in a confident way. Being confident about what I want is part of being authentic in the way I act and being authentic makes it easier for the horse to understand and *believe* me - in this case believe that I really want the horse to react to me. Believe, that I have good reasons for my request even though the horse cannot understand the reason why.
Timing, the feeling for when-to-ask is also important. There can be moments in which the horse is to much “into the grass” to be interested in reacting to me. So I simply wait for a moment in which I feel that a positive reaction is most likely. This may be a moment where the horse is already slightly lifting his head or turning an ear towards me so that the horse does not get the strong feeling of being interrupted by me.
I also try not to concentrate on the grass and the stopping of eating too much but on the behavior I want. Keeping the focus on the problem will hand more power to the problem than necessary and it will grow bigger and bigger. But if I don’t see it as a problem but just as me asking for something rather easy (like lifting the head, walking some steps) it makes the task easier *for me*. So when I am asking the horse to lift his head I have the image of the horse looking at me in mind. When I am asking for walk, I think about us walking next to each other.
It’s also useful to concentrate on the next step already, for example thinking about walking a step while I am asking for lifting the head. This has two nice effects. First, I cannot think the counterproductive thought “Why is he still eating?!” while I think about asking him to make a step forward. Second, it automatically keeps my body- and mindtension up even if the horse has already lifted his head. With this tension I can keep the horses attention on me until I suggest eating grass again. If I did drop this tension in the moment that the horse starts to lift his head, it would immidiately go down again.
Being faster than the horse, not merely in movement but in thinking, helps to keep the motivation of the horse up. If I already suggest eating grass again before the horse even thinks about it, it will get the feeling that I take care of his needs and wishes and have good ideas - so it’s good to listen to the human. I try never to ask for too much so that I don’t destroy the horses willingness again.
I also don’t focus on the fact that I am saying “No”, I do not want to make it more important and meaningful than it is. It is nothing that necessarily destroys our relationship or the horses willingness or his trust in me. It is only one situation in which we have different intestets, not less, but also not more.
So I focus on what comes after it as in “No, you can’ stay here eating forever, but we can make some steps and oooh, do you see this nice grass spot over there? Let’s go there!”.
I always want to keep in mind that it is never about either or - either my interests or the horses interests - but about finding an approach that considers both of us and that makes it possible to go with the horses and with my wishes.
There are so many things to learn about this topic and I really love the fact that I do not have to teach “walking along grass without eating” as another exercise because it is possible to solve this by communicating poperly. It also includes the horses feedback and this puts the horse in the position of being my teacher and playing an active role in *my* learning process. This way there occurs no progress inside the horse - when I do not get better, the horse does not get faster in lifting his head, the horse does not get more attentive, the horse does not get willing to respond (it could, if I used -R in a consequent way, but I’m never really consequent with those techniques). At last this is what I am experiencing again and again with our gelding Nathan, who reacts different to different people, on different days and to the different kind of atmosphere that we create by the way we are asking.
I hope this can help you to find your way of solving this problem. It isn’t an easy one, that’s for sure, but one that has really inspired me to grow