Is Your Horse Mugging You?

What is ‘mugging’, you say? Mugging is all behaviour your horse uses to get your attention (negative or positive) and/or all he does to get treats or his food faster

Other common names for ‘mugging’

There are many ways your horse can get your attention. When it’s in an undesired way we -horse people in general- call it:

  • ‘Mugging’
  • ‘Begging’
  • ‘Attention seeking’
  • ‘Impatience’
  • ‘Dominance’
  • ‘Aggression’
  • ‘Food aggression’
  • Disrespectful’
  • ‘Naughty’
  • ‘Treat crazy’
  • ‘Give-me-treats-behaviour’ or
  • ‘Jackassery’ behaviour.

Symptoms of mugging behaviour

What does the behaviour look like? It can be different for each individual horse. Here are the most common ways horses use to get attention (in good and bad ways). They use these because it pays or paid off in the past. It’s learned behaviour with a function for the horse.

  • Pawing
  • Pushing me with his head
  • Nudges me with his nose
  • Sniffs my pockets or hands
  • Moves his head up and down
  • Bites
  • Tries to untie himself (at the grooming area)
  • Vocal (nicker, whinney)
  • Kicks his stall door
  • Grooming
  • Bucks
  • Strikes
  • Weaves and shakes head
  • Rears and swings his hind end towards you

What to do about it?

Some people call it ‘cute’ until it becomes annoying. I think many horse people learned to ignore the problem because they don’t have a way to deal with it. They tried punishing or re-training but didn’t succeed and gave up. And people are taught to deal with it in the wrong way, ineffective ways that is. When I started out riding they warned me not to use treats. That it would be ‘bribing the horse’ and turn him into a treat crazy horse. They told me to ignore it (why that doesn’t work, I will teach in my mini course if I decide to create one) or punish it. Punishment will seldom work if you love your horse (I will address that in the course too).

Best way to handle it is to teach a replacement behaviour. One that is safe, cute and clear.

I can use your help

I am currently doing market research to see if horse people would be interested in an online course to stop your horse from mugging you. If you have a ‘mugger’ or don’t have a mugging horse I would love to hear from you.
Would you be willing to answer these 10 questions and help me? <- Click here to go to the questionnaire. Thank you in advance.

How I address mugging

I teach all my clients (equines and humans) Key Lesson ‘Table Manners for Horses’. I call it Key Lessons because these principles are the key to success in positive reinforcement horse training.

Key Lesson Table Manners

I choose ‘Table Manners’ because like human etiquette it’s something we have to learn! If you put a table full of veggies, soup, rice, cookies, dessert and candy in a room and let some toddlers go, it’s highly unlikely that they will all sit on a chair, wait until the food is served to their plates and use their cutlery to eat. No they will just follow their natural behaviour, which is go to the most attractive food (or edible) on the table, grab it with their little (unwashed) hands and start enjoying! Just like children we have to teach our horses what ‘we’ consider ‘desired behaviour’. Or what about this cat… naughty or not taught well?

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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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Why a good start is important. 5 Tips to start clicker training your horse

If you have not yet started clicker training your horse, here is a good way to start. Start with Key Lesson (your key to success) Table Manners.

Table Manners for Horses is similar to etiquette for people: we don’t use manners naturally, they are learned behaviours. Just like we teach children to use knife and fork and sit with our feet below the table and wait our turn, we can teach our horses safe behaviours around food and treats. We also don’t walk into other peoples houses (strangers) to see what’s in the fridge, right? Our horses are not suppose to check what’s in our pockets either.

Clear criteria

In order to start clicker training well, you need to have clear criteria in your head. What do you want to reinforce and see more off? What behaviour would you like to eliminate from your relationship (biting, mugging, being pushed etc)?

Focus on what you want, is the most important in equine clicker training. That’s what you want to see more of and that why you need to be prepared to click for ~ HippoLogic

Teach Your Horse to Behave Around Food: 5 Tips for Horses

Here are the criteria I like to teach horses who are new to positive reinforcement training:

✅ The horse needs to take the food off of the hand gently and calm: lips only and no teeth. No grabbing or moving super fast towards the food as if there’s a fear to miss out. That could be dangerous.

✅ The horse must learn to wait until the food (treat) is served to the lips and don’t move towards the food (the pocket with treats or hand that’s feeding the horse).

We -people- don’t go to the kitchen in a restaurant either so see where our food is. No, we wait patiently until it’s brought to us. We don’t start eating or grabbing the bread when the waitress still holds your plate. We wait until the plate is put in front of us before we start eating calmly.

✅ Only expect a treat after the bridge (click) and not at random.

Just like not every plate the waitress carries is for you. Only after you ordered you can expert food.

✅ The horse must be relaxed and in a calm state. Ears forward or relaxed to the side. This in combination with a closed muzzle and relaxed lips makes a friendly face. His must learn to trust the treat will come.

Just like in a restaurant you are polite and friendly to the waitress, not looking angry at the waitress when she bring the food to the table. You say ‘Thank you’ and smile.

✅ Make sure your horse is not hungry. In many restaurants you get or can order some bread and butter to change your hangry-ness into a better mood. Do the same for your horse: provide hay during training or train after a meal.

Horses are different than us. They are designed to eat 16 hours a day, so they will eat after a meal. If train when your horse is hungry, you’ll create problems that can be very hard to un-train, like grabbing the food and even biting.

Make sure positive reinforcement is a real win-win: win for you and win for your horse. Treat well ~ HippoLogic

;Read more about starting clicker training here.

5 Tips for Trainers

The criteria above mean also that the trainer also needs to have a few good habits.

Clicker training is not only about training your horse. You-as trainer- need to develop good habits, too. ~ HippoLogic

  1. Click first, then take a treat. Don’t make ‘pre-loading’ a habit or your horse will only focus on where your hands are. That really reinforces mugging
  2. Always deliver the treat to the mouth, so that your horse never has to look for the treat. Teach him that he can trust you to give it to him
  3. Make the food move to the horse, not the other way around. If you encourage your horse to move towards the food you easily reinforce the undesired mugging behaviour
  4. If you drop a treat, immediately present a new one. The one on the ground can be ignored, taken away if it’s sandy or be a bonus. If you or your horse drop treats often, use bigger treats
  5. Start with medium or low value treats (grass pellets, moist hay cubes) and not with high value treats (usually the sweet ones like carrot, apple and store bought treats)

What’s your biggest take-away from this blog? Use the comment below. undefined

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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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‘They Said’, Warnings about Clicker Training Your Horse

Did “they” tell you:
->> your horse would become dangerous by feeding treats?
->> you’ll turn your hores into a mugger?
->> it doesn’t work for all horses, all people, all breeds?
->> your horse will never work for you again without treats?
->> it’s all about the treats and not about YOU?
->> you’ll spoil your horse?
->> that you can’t train everything with R+?

What did THEY tell you?

***Share your story in the comments****

What do you say?

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

3 Reasons to Use Treats in Training

Treats, or food reinforcers, can be used in training very effectively. Three good reasons to use them are:

  • key lesson Table Manners_hippologic_safe handfeedingTrain wanted behaviour quickly
  • Animals are very motivated to earn their click and rewards. Therefor you can fade out the reinforcer and still get the behaviour. That is called a variable reward schedule. It’s very powerful!
  • It makes training very enjoyable for the horse and he will make positive associations with you and your training. A positive bond with your horse depends on the negative encounters being outweighed by the positive ones. Using positive reinforcement in training will give your bond a great boost.

Use Treats in Training Effectively

Timing is everything in clicker training horsesFeeding treats as a reward won’t necessarily get you the desired outcome. You have to use treats as reinforcer. To strengthen behaviour, not just to reward behaviour.

Be clear

Most important way to turn your reward into a reinforcer is to be clear why the horse got the treat.

You can communicate this effectively with the use of a marker signal, to mark the wanted behaviour. This is the best kept secret in horse training! This is very important: to use a marker signal!

COMMON FEARS ABOUT HAND-FEEDING HORSES

People who use food reinforcers are frequently confronted with a lot of misunderstanding about how “treats” or “rewards” can be effectively used as reinforcers. I asked my Facebook friends to help me out with some common believes that live in the equine world about treats in training. Thank you all for helping me. I will quote the answers:

  1. Hand-feeding creates mugging horses
  2. Hand feeding makes them bite.
  3. That it instantly makes them fat.
  4. Hand feeding horses is bad because it turns them into monsters, they get rude, pushy and bite everyone.
  5. That’s bribing and horses do X only for treats but not out of respect towards the person treating them!
  6. They get Treat Crazy, and will not be able to think or focus on what they are doing.
  7. It will make your horse aggressive pushy and mouthy.
  8. Hand-feeding makes them spoiled and they will refuse to eat out of a bucket and you will have to exchange it for a gilded bowl.
  9. It makes them nippy, aggressive, pushy, space invading.
  10. You can only hand-feed your horse twice.
  11. They’ll kill you if you forget your treat bag once upon a time in the future.
  12. It’s unnatural (as opposed to using carrot sticks and spurs and what not), since horses don’t feed one another in reward for tasks.
  13. It’s super dangerous, for when done incorrectly it turns them into raging killing machines that can never be re-educated.
  14.  Only hand-feed grain and hay but not treats because it will send the wrong message to the horse.

Let’s see how we can prevent these objections from happening.

Objection: Hand-feeding creates mugging, biting, space invading, dangerous horses

I will merge objections 1, 2 , 4, 7, 9 and 13. They all refer to the fear that the good relationship with your horse will end because of giving him treats.

There is a big difference between giving treats randomly and using treats as reinforcer to train behaviour.

Randomly dispensed treats can indeed cause frustration and confusion in the horse because it’s not clear why he got the treat.

When treats are (in the eyes of the horse!) randomly given, he will look for a way to increase the likelihood of getting treats. That is the principle used in positive reinforcement training.

If treats are given when mugging, biting, pushing, nippy, aggressive or space-invading behaviour just happened, that behaviour was reinforced!

Solution:

Be clear to your horse when to expect a treat and when not to expect a treat in training. You can give your horse clarity by using a bridge or marker signal.

With a marker signal (click) you now can easily train the opposite or an incompatible behaviour. It’s already clear he wants the treat, so now you use the treat to get desired and safe behaviour. I call that your Key to Success. This Key Lesson is called Table Manners for Horses. Your horse can’t bite you with a closed and relaxed muzzle, he can’t invade your space if he stands at a distance and he won’t mug you if he know to move his head away from your pocket with treats.

You can even give the horse more clarity by using a start-training-signal and an end-training-signal. Only during training treats can be earned. Be consequent!

 

Timing. Pay attention to when you give your horse treats. You get what you reinforce. So if your horse just sniffed your pocket and you think: ‘Hey lovely horse, you are right. I do have an apple in my pocket. What a smart horse, here you go.’ You just reinforced ‘sniffing your pocket’ and increased the likelihood of your horse mug you/invade your space again. Again: your marker (click) is a valuable tool to communicate.

Other objections of using treats in training

I will discuss the other 7 fears of using treats in another blog, so stay tuned. You can get my blog in your mailbox by signing up in the menu bar on the right.

If you want to use treats in training safe and effectively sign up for my course Ultimate Horse Training Formula. In this online course you will learn how to use positive reinforcement to train your horse, you will learn to avoid the most common pitfalls in horse training (in R+ as well as in traditional methods), you will learn to avoid and solve frustration of horse and human in training and get the results you’re aiming for.

 

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a gift) or visit HippoLogic’s website and join my online course Ultimate Horse Training Formula in which you learn the Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in Clicker Training.
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PS Did you know HippoLogic has an accountability program?

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Solutions for Dealing with so called ‘Problem Horses’

Often when there is a problem in the horse-human relationship people are looking for answers that help them. They want a solution, for their problem.

In most cases it is the horse that has a problem, with the way he is housed, fed, handled, tacked or trained. It’s the horse trying to tell you he has a problem. I see most people are looking for human centered solutions which often focuses on symptom management, not a cure. I like to solve problems with the horse in mind, because that leads to reliable and long term solutions. I don’t cut corners and hand out bandages, my aim is to cure the problem. Let’s find out how.

Human Centered Solutions

In Human Centered Solutions the human gets what she wants:

  1. If the horse is putting his head in the air the solution is often a martingale.

  • If the horse is ”lazy’ (I don’t believe that label is applicable to animals) the rider gets a whip or spurs.
  • If the horse doesn’t want to walk into a trailer, he is forced into it either by putting a lunge line behind his butt or he has to ‘learn what the sweet spot is’ and is chased around and around until the horse ‘chooses’ the right thing and that is entering the trailer.
  • If the horse eats or chews wood, the solution is to put a bad tasting substance (sometimes even sambal) on the wood or I also have seen that a horse in his own stable was surrounded by hot wire in order to prevent nibbling on the wood.
  • If a horse injures another horse, he gets ‘solitary confinement’ as punishment or as ‘solution’.
  • Unfortunately I can make this list very, very long. I think we can all think of at least 20 examples, right?

    Short cuts

    Human Centered Solutions are shortcuts that make the struggle longer. They may seem to give a solution because they deal with the symptom(s), but they don’t change or solve the root of the problem. In the long run they might even worsen the problem for the horse.

    I like to look at the cause of a ‘problem’ and resolve that. My philosophy is for every problem is a solution. It takes a bit more, and sometimes a lot more to choose this way. In the end it is better and it saves time, pain, frustration for both horse and handler.

    HippoLogic’s Horse Centered Solutions

    HippoLogic works only with Horse Centered Solutions. Solutions that work on the root of the problem, not the symptom.

    Head tossing

    In cases where the horse throws his head in the air, let’s find out why:

    Is he in pain?

    • Does the rider have harsh hands? Teach the rider how to balance and take the reins away until he has an independent seat.
    • Does the rider bump in the saddle or is unbalanced? See above
    • Are the horses teeth causing pain (hooks on his molars)? Let a vet or equine dentist take a look at his teeth.
    • Does the saddle fit? Call an independent saddle fitter (not a sales person).
    • Is the horse physically OK? Ask the vet to check him out.

    Is he anxious?

    • Does the horse try to flee? Give your horse confidence with training.

    hippologic
  • Does the horse try to bolt or rear? Why? Find out if he is in pain, if he does get enough exercise, gets too much grain and so on. Change what he missed into what he needs.
  • Is it learned behaviour?

    • Does the horse get reinforced by throwing his head up in the air? Change the training and reinforce him more for the opposite behaviour.

    Lazy horse

    If a horse is labeled ‘lazy’ I want to find out why. What does he do to get labeled as ‘lazy’? Does he not walk, trot, canter fast enough or doesn’t he react (fast enough) to the riders cues?

    Does the horse know?

    • Does the horse know what is expected from him? That he is supposed to go faster or react faster? Does your horse know what the leg aid means? Teach the behaviour first, then put a cue on it. Reinforce the desired behaviour with something the horse wants!

    Why is the horse not motivated to go faster or react quicker?

    • Is the horse tired? Does he gets his REM sleep (the only get REM sleep when they lay down to sleep) or is he sleep deprived? Take a look at his housing and check if he is laying down at least once every 24 hours.
    • Is the horse tired because he spent his energy on something else? Is he nervous, does he have to guard the herd, is it a stallion and is it breeding season?
    • Is the horse in good shape? Does he have the stamina that is asked? Is he overweight? Is he physically able to move better or faster? Let the vet check him out and ask a equine nutritionist (not a sales person!) for advice.
    • Is the horse not motivated enough? I like to use positive reinforcement to motivate a horse and a marker to mark the desired behaviour (increased speed or faster reactions to the handler cues). That is a bit of a puzzle, but once you figured it out you have solved the problem for the rest of the horses live (if he lives another 25 years that is worth your time investment)!

    If a horse kicks, bites, lashes out, rears or displays aggressive behaviour, take a look at what might cause it, before trying to fight fire with fire.

    Find professional help and ask lots of questions to find out the professional is horse centered (Why is the horse doing this? In what situation does this happen? What triggers the behaviour? What has been done?) or looking for human centered solutions (making the horse ‘shut up’, teaching him ‘a lesson’, teach him ‘how to behave’)

    I can go on and on. This is only the tip of the iceberg of possibilities you can try.

    Trailer loading, wood chewing and dangerous horses 

    _trailer loading_hippologic

    In these cases too, I focus on the cause of the problem: is there fear, pain, misunderstanding, physical needs or welfare issues that are at play?

    It takes time, effort and knowledge to understand what the problem really is. Sometimes it takes even more time, effort and trial and error to figure out a sustainable solution. But if you do, it is worth it, because you know it is a horse centered solution! Therefor you encountered the real problem and you are now understanding your horse. Who doesn’t want that? What is a better base for a relationship?

    If you think this is a blog that someone can benefit from, please use one of the share buttons  below. Or post your comment, I read them all!

    Or just hit the like button if you appreciated this blog. Thank you!

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    Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
    My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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    Myth Monday: Training with Food rewards causes pushy Horses

    All positive reinforcement trainers have heard people say: ‘Training horses with food rewards makes them pushy’. Some people even state ‘dangerous‘ instead of pushy. Maybe you have said it yourself before you started using positive reinforcement (+R) to train your horse.

    You get what you reinforce

    In +R training you use a reward that reinforces the behaviour you want to train. The trainer uses a marker signal to mark the desired behaviour in order to communicate to the horse which behaviour he wants to see more of. Key is the marker signal.

    What is mugging?

    Mugging or other undesired behaviour around food or treats is just learned behaviour. If you understand how learning works, you see that mugging is caused (reinforced) by the trainer. Even if it wasn’t a professional trainer, but just a mom who wanted to give her daughters pony a carrot just because …. If the pony was sniffing her pocket or maybe just gave mom a little push with his nose and mom thinks: ‘Oh I forgot I had a treat in my pocket. Here you are, sweet pony. You are so smart.’_mugging_hippologic

    If someone has rewarded a horse for sniffing his pockets, this behaviour was encouraged. Therefor the horse will repeat this behaviour. It leaded to a reward. The same goes for a horse that is pushing you around in order to get to the food. If he gets rewarded for pushing you around, you have ‘trained’ him to do so. Even if it was unconscious, for the horse it was not. He was the one that paid attention (Read more in my post What to do if your horse is mugging you.)

    Teaching ‘polite behaviour’ around food

    The same way you can encourage (read: train) a horse to mug or behave pushy, you can encourage him to behave ‘politely’ around food and treats. I put polite between quotation marks because it is not per definition an equine behaviour. It is a trained behaviour. Polite behaviour is one of my key lessons (the keys to success in +R training).

    Just like children have to learn not to speak with food in their mouth and other polite behaviours, so must horses learn what behaviours we want to see and consider polite (and save). It’s the trainers task to spent time on these.

    Mugging is a trainers’ fault

    Since mugging is a learned behaviour one can re-train it by reinforcing the opposite behaviour more and ignoring the mugging. Horses are smart and they will learn quickly what behaviours will lead to rewards and what behaviours will not.

    If the trainer understands the learning theory and the equine mind, mugging is easily prevented or changed.

    Train desired behaviour instead

    Just think about what the opposite behaviours of mugging look like and start reinforcing those.

    • The horse looks straight forward or slightly away when you reach into your pocket, instead of moving his nose towards your pocket.
    • The horse backs up a step when you are about to hand-feed him, instead of coming towards you to get the food.
    • The horse takes the treat gently off of your hand and uses his lips only,  instead of taking it with his teeth.
    • The horse stays out of your personal space instead of pushing you with his nose.
    • And so on.

    So, when people state that using food rewards causes mugging, pushy, dangerous or other unwanted behaviour in horses I know they just don’t understand how learning occurs. That’s OK. They can learn, we just have to reinforce the desired behaviour (or thoughts).

    Related post The Dangers of working with Food (rewards).

     —————————————————————-

    Therese Keels commented on Facebook : “It does cause pushy horses! They push you to think faster, use your imagination more. They push you to observe more closely, to pay attention and be present. They push us to be kinder, more considerate and understanding. They push us to be better at being us. Take that kind of pushy any day. :-)”

    Thank you, Therese for this wonderful comment! Love it!

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    Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
    I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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