Horse, Stop Mugging Me!

The biggest fear of using treats in training and what hold most people off is the fear of The Mugging Horse. What can you do about mugging and how can you prevent it?

What is mugging

Mugging is when a horse demands a treat or attention by pushing you with his nose, trying to help himself to the treats in your pocket, kicking the stall door to get attention. Just to name a few symptoms.

What most people don’t understand is that they encourage their horse to mug and almost always reinforce it! All this happens even to people who really hate mugging horses. Why is that?

Principle behind mugging

Horses ‘mug’ because it leads to a reward! That’s it!

‘But I yell at my horse to stop if he kicks the door! I never allow this behaviour.’ Even if you run over to a horse that kicks their stall door (even to smack or shout at him), he gets what he wanted: your attention!

It’s not about what you think, it’s about what your horse thinks! If he -the learner- feels he is rewarded (you came over) he will do the smae behavioru again next time he wants you to come over.

I reinforced my horse to nicker to me if she wants me there. I like that and it’s not so destructive as kicking doors. It’s also available in the pasture, where there is no door to knock on.

Know your learner!

If you want your horse to stop mugging, put yourself in his place. Ask ‘What’s in it for the horse to behave like this? What am I giving (attention, treat, something else) that he wants from me (maybe even to lure you away from that horse)?

So what is his reinforcer? If they mug you for food, it’s the treat they get. Even if it’s denied 4 times before. That even made the mugging only stronger!!

Turn the tables

Use the reinforcer he wants for the behaviour you want! If your horse want attention, give him attention when he does something that is more desired and preferably also incompatible with the undesired behaviour (mugging).

Kicking doors

Give door kickers attention when they stand with 4 feet on the floor. That is incompatible with door kicking. It’s hard, because your horse is silent when he behaviour well! So that is something you have to train yourself to do! And everyone else in the barn.

What not to do (biggest pitfall of people):

Ignore the horse? No!! Not giving a treat when your horse mugs is called extinction. You’re trying to let the behaviour go extinct because it has no use, it doesn’t lead to what he wants. This will only work if you and all other people will never, ever give a treat

Since that is almost impossible, this won’t work. As soon as one person gives a treat when the horse asks for a treat, you have reinforced the mugging with your variable ratio reward schedule. In other words: you made the behaviour stronger!

Punish the horse? No! Punishment is to decrease a behaviour. I understand that people want to decrease the mugging behaviour but there are main 2 issues with punishment.

  1. The punishment needs to exceed the reinforcer by far in order to stop the undesired behaviour! The pain of the punishment must be stronger than the good feeling the pushished behaviour leads to. Eating (food) is a survival behaviour and therefor cannot be punished enough to let it go out of the behaviour repertoire. Same might be true for attention: heard animals need eat other and need to be seen by their group members. If you will smack a horse hard enough to never eat a carrot out of your hand, he will be very conflicted if he loves carrots. He will find other ways (trying to get carrots from other people).
  2. With punishment (which is scientifically speaking purely meant to de-crease a behaviour) you won’t give your learned any information what you want him to do. So that leads us to what the solution is:

Solution for mugging horses: how to stop mugging

The best way to approach mugging in horses, whether it’s for attention or food, is to teach them what to do. Teach them desired behaviour that is incompatible with the undesired behaviour! Then reinforce the new behaviour with that what the horse really wants! A carrot? Attention?

  • Desired and incompatible behaviour can be standing with 4 feet on the floor
  • Looking away from your pocket (they can’t push you or grab food out of your pocket if their muzzle is nowhere near your pocket)
  • Teaching your horse to keep a distance is incompatible with mugging
  • Teaching your horse to keep his lips closed and muzzle relaxed is incompatible with mugging
  • etc

Prevent mugging

If you start clicker training and reinforce behaviour with treats or food reinforcers be clear to your horse about your expectations. Reinforce ‘Table manners‘ right from the start. Click the link to find out more.

Fear of working with treats in training

solutions for treat crazy mugging horse with clicker training

Not starting to click with your horse is because of the fear of creating a ‘monster’ out of your horse that only will be focused on the food. That is true for maybe the first few sessions, but almost all horses learn within the first 10 minutes that it’s not about the food. It’s about the behaviour they have to perform (that leads to food).

They learn clicker training is about them, making a choice. If we are clear what we want them to choose (Table manners over mugging) they understand quickly and cooperate eagerly. After all, there is something in it for them, what they really want!

Clicker training done well turns your treat crazy horse into a well behaved, well mannered horse that is eager to work with you.

Learn more

I can talk for hours about this subject! There is so to learn. Go to my website if you have a treat crazy, mugging ‘monster’ that you want to turn into an eager friend that is polite and well mannered when treats are involved.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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