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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‘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.
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What have People Told You About Clicker Training Your Horse?

When you tell people that you clicker train your horse you get (well meant) ‘advice’ not to do it. What makes me sad is that most often that advice is coming from people that:

1) Haven’t tried it and have zero experience in what the process is like.

They base their opinion on what they think would happen to them. Keep that in mind next time you hear a warning about positive reinforcement horse training. If it’s a warning, it’s based on fear or wanting to protect you (because they are fearing something bad will happen). The opposite is also true: if people are enthusiastic about it, it’s because they get amazing results and they would love to see you experience the same!

2) Have tried it and base their opinion on their experience. If you keep that in mind, you know how well that went… Just like when people want you to try it: it’s also based on their experience.

What have people told you about clicker training your horse?

I asked on my Facebook page. This is what people said they were told:

  • It doesn’t work with a particular breed, age, etc
  • You’re making a beggar out of your horse
  • Your horse only likes you because you have treats 
  • He’ll only do what you want so long as you have treats
  • I’m bribing my pony and teaching him to bite
  • Causes them to bite
  • It’s using bribery to get respect
  • Than horses will work only if we have food and they’ll become very dangerous

What have you heard about clicker training your horse? Share it in the comments below and ask yourself what the other person’s experiences are and what they fear.

How to handle critique?

Then there’s people who have no problem pointing out what’s wrong with your training, or worse, with your horse. It feels like an attack if you know you’re in the middle of a process or maybe even at the beginning and what they see is not the goal. It’s just a stepping stone.

We all go through that, no matter how well of a trainer you are: the start, middle and end of a training process all look different. So if someone base his or her opinion on what they see, it might not be on what you get at the end. You can explain that what they see now is not the end goal.

Another way is to hear people out. The secret of people is that they all want to talk about themselves. If someone is voicing their opinion about your way of training, simply ask “How would you do it?” That’s it. Let them talk…. You’ll be amazed what you’ll hear. It’s fun.

Happy Listening!

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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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5 Tips for dealing with Frustration in Horse Training

We all get frustrated in training or riding our horses. That’s a given. Horses can also get frustrated if their expectations about their training or the consequences of their actions (release of pressure or receiving a treat) are not being met.

What can you do to prevent frustration and what if you are already frustrated or your horse is, what can you do next?

What causes frustration in your horse

If expectations are not being met it can cause frustration in your horse. For instance, you’ve clicked and now he expects a treat. If you’re clumsy or slow with your food delivery while your horse is waiting he can get frustrated. If you always offer carrots and now you’ve clicked and he gets a hay cube instead he can be dissapointed which can lead to frustration (‘Why am I not getting my favourite treat, a carrot?’).

Same can happen in traditional training and riding: the horse seeks release (relief) from riding aids and body language (pressure, pulling on lead ropes, waving whips and training sticks) and doesn’t get this release of pressure when he performs correctly.

If you, as trainer, raise the criteria in your training too quickly or make the steps too big your horse can get really frustrated: normally he immediately get a click and a treat if he goes to a mat and steps on it, but now he does not! What is going on? You might think you’re working on ‘duration’ but if your horse gets frustrated in the process his learning process will slow down.

Preventing frustration in clicker training is one thing, but what can you do if your horse is already frustrated? 3 Tips.

If you go too slowly it also can cause boredom or frustration in your horse.

Poor timing of the trainer or inconsistency (lack of clarity), can cause the horse to get frustrated. You just clicked for X, now you’re clicking for something different? No, but if the timing is poor this can cause miscommunication, which can lead to frustration.

If you decide to clicker train the new horse in the barn instead of your own horse. This can cause frustration in your horse: now is is being excluded from training, choice and treats. His expectation is not being met.

All examples that can cause frustration in the horse because he can’t seem to influence the circumstances or desired outcome. I think you get the picture.

If you know better, you’ll do better

Now you know, you’ll see this happening all around you. First you’ll recognize it in other people’s horses and if your brave you’ll see it in your own horse too. That can be painful, but it’s a necessary step in order to prevent frustration in the future. Be proud that you’re ready to acknowledge it: now you can move to the next step.

How can you recognize frustration in your horse?

This is a tricky one because I haven’t found any scientific research on recognizing frustration in horses, yet we all have seem in in horses. Haven’t we?

I am willing to take the risk not being scientific and base my story on anecdotes and experience of my own observations.

Next time you observe a person training (riding) a horse look for these behaviours. They cannot taken out of the context but in order for clarity’s sake I have to. Here a signs that the horse is irritated or (getting) frustrated:

  • Tail swishing (can be as subtle as just once)
  • Pawing with one or two (alternating) front leg(s) or weight shift
  • Stomping front foot
  • Head lift (subtle) or
  • Push with the nose
  • Flick of one ear
  • Two ears flicked and closed
  • Snaking of the neck
  • Ears pinned
  • Wrinkles around the nostrils

Horses may not all use these and many are also to express other emotions and messages. Here is a picture of a horse that expects breakfast and was pawing. Instead of giving food, I made a picture to capture her expression.

How to deal with frustration

In order to prevent frustration you have to offer clarity. What to do if your horse is already frustrated?

  1. Start with congratulating yourself for noticing! Not many horse owners/trainers recognize it in their horse
  2. Stop and breathe so that you can come up with a plan to handle your horse’s frustration
  3. Change what you’re doing that is causing frustration (this is crucial) and aim to prevent frustration. If that means you have to give your horse a break or ask something you know he can and will do, ask that. This will interrupt the feelings of frustration.

Prevention

Frustration is not always preventable but you can prepare yourself and your horse in training and set both of you up for success. Clarity provides frustration in training. #animaltraining

  • Improve your timing (watch yourself on video)
  • Improve the RoR (rate of reinforcement)
  • Lower your training criteria until your horse understands what he has to so
  • Become more predictable for your horse and make a plan before you start training
  • Ask help if you can’t solve it on your own. A tiny bit of frustration in your horse can help find solutions, but too much and too often will put a strain on your relationship with your horse.

Read more about preventing frustration in training and riding.

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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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‘Help, my horse turned into a monster since I started clicker training’

 

My horse can’t stop throwing behaviours at me since I started clicker training‘ or ‘My horse keeps doing tricks, even when I don’t ask him to do so‘ are common ‘problems’ when
people start clicker training their horse.

_clicker monster_hippologicProblem? No, not at all!

I have written ‘problem’ between quotations marks because it is not ‘a problem’. It is in fact a normal part of the process: your horse is getting enthusiastic about the influence he now has on his training and of course he is excited about your rewards. It is a step you can’t skip.

Have encountered this problem when you started clicker training? I certainly have! I have struggled with this for a while and I didn’t know how to handle it.

Things became much better when I started using a start and end of training signal. Once I understood how to bind a cue to a behaviour and not let the horse take too much initiative in training things became much better, safer and more fun for both of us. No more frustration or uncertainty about expectations of treats.

Imagine this

Your walking along on a sunny day and a stranger in a red t-shirt walks up to you and gives you a $5 bill and goes away. Wow! Did this happen for real? Cool!

A few minutes later the same stranger comes up to you and gives you another $5 bill. Wow, you can’t believe it. What happened? What did you do to deserve this? You start paying (LOL) attention….You suddenly see people in red t-shirts everywhere.

You figure it out

Then it happens again: the stranger, who you now recognize, comes up to you, smiles and hands you another $5 bill. You figured it out! It seems that every time you cross a street, the stranger gives you something valuable! You are having fun with this person!

The next day you are walking and you notice that person in the red t-shirt, who you now consider a friend. You quickly look if there is a street that you can cross in order to get some more money. Yes, it works! Wow.

You become his friend

Now you know what to do and you start walking back and forth to cross the street in order to earn money. He is a really friendly person, you like him. He is your new friend and you start smiling at him and waving every time you see him.

The next day you get up early and can’t wait to get to the city to cross some streets. You see your new friend, wave at him to attract his attention and start crossing the street back and forth.

Your friend doesn’t want to play along anymore

This time your new friend becomes angry and behaves strangely. It scares you and you are totally confused! What happened? Where is your money? Why doesn’t he give you money? You do your best and you take him by the hand and start crossing the street in order to show him that you know what is expected!

He becomes really angry and doesn’t give you any money. He starts pushing you away, he starts yelling at you that you have to stop. Then he goes away. Sadly he didn’t give you any money. You don’t know what to do… What is going on?

Frustration kicks in…

The next day your friend gives you money each time you cross a street. The day after that he doesn’t. It is really frustrating.

The clue was a cue

It takes you a lot of time to figure out that when the light is green (your cue) he will give you money when you cross the street and when the light is red he won’t. Ah, it is that simple, huh? Now that you know what cue to look for it is easy and fun again!

This is the story from your horses’ point of view.

You teach him to touch a target, maybe it is your hand he has to touch. Presenting the target (your hand) means: you get treats now.

What your horse considers a cue

Wait there is more, animals consider the environment a big part of the cue. So every time you take him to the arena or wherever you clicker trained him before, he will consider that as a signal to receive treats. When he doesn’t, he can become frustrated. What do we do when we get frustrated? We fall back to behaviour that got us rewards in the past: we fall back into our (bad) habits.

The same goes for horses: they will display behaviour that got them rewards in the past. Many horses were rewarded -in some way or another- for mugging. If that isn’t going to work they will try out something new (“Maybe nibbling will help?”). Trying out new behaviours is exactly what clicker trainers want their animals to do! How can you get new behaviours? The new behaviour (targeting) that got him rewards yesterday suddenly won’t get him any today. This is hard to understand for a horse.

Solutions

Make yourself predictable and use an announcer that signals “Now there is a chance of earning rewards” and “Now it is not”. If the light is red you have no chance of earning money, if the light is green there is.

#1 Start clicker training session

One of the ways you can communicate to your horse that a clicker lesson is about to start is clapping your hands or strapping on your money (treat) belt. If you don’t introduce such a cue your horse will find one. If that one is really a reliable predictor of a clicker training session is to be seen.

#2 End clicker training session

The same goes for an end of session signal that means: sorry, you can try but no more clicks & treats from now on. Be very strict with your start and end of training signals.

Horses soon learn that your end of training signal really means no more clicks and treats. This is very clear and it prevents frustration. Even in between my 5 minute sessions I use a start and end signal. My end of signal session is to show my two empty hands and I say “All gone”. I used to give Kyra a treat when I brought her back to the pasture. I want her to wait for the treat because I don’t want her to run off (and maybe buck) if I am not ready. After the treat I am ready to let her go. I say “All gone” and show my hands. Her cue that no more clicks will follow.

#3 Protective contact

Train for a while with a barrier between you and your horse until he understands the start and end of training signals and the cue for the behaviour. You can work without the barrier as soon as he stops mugging.

targeting

Horses that are new to clicker training

They have never experienced the joy of having so much influence in their own training! They discover that if they display a certain behaviour (eg targeting) they can ‘make you give them a treat’. Yes, that is how they feel.

Of course they don’t want to stop. They will try to influence you the next day and they are just asking (by displaying the new behaviour that got them rewarded yesterday): “Hey do you want to give me a treat? I will do X for you! You see?”

If you don’t react by giving them a treat (because you didn’t ask for the behaviour or it became almost dangerous) they don’t understand. A start and end of training session will help them understand when to expect treats and when not to expect treats.

Next important step in the process

In shaping behaviour you start with clicking and treating for every small step towards the goal behaviour. The horse doesn’t know about your goal behaviour! He is just trying new stuff and realizes that he is getting lots of click & treats for it! At this point in the training he thinks you are an awesome vending machine (he puts in the behaviour and you drop him a treat).

When your horse is displaying the goal behaviour solidly it is time to teach your horse to pay attention to your cue. This is the next step in positive reinforcement training:

You only will click & treat

  • after you have given your cue

and

  • when he is displaying the right behaviour.

If you don’t give him a cue and he does display the behaviour he won’t get a click and treat. You can ignore the behaviour or ask (cue) for something easy that you will click and treat him for. Or you can simply give the end of session signal again.

This is the part that novice clicker trainers don’t know about. This is the part that they skip (accepting that their horse doesn’t have a cue of what is expected when and when not).

Novice trainers don’t realize that they have to introduce a cue to the new behaviour and teach their horse what a cue means: only after the cue is there a chance to get a click & treat.

Please realize that there are more reasons than just the ones I mentioned here that can cause over-excitement in your horse. If your horse doesn’t listen anymore since you started clicker training, please contact me for a personal consult over Zoom or a FREE discovery call. I have  20 years of experience clicker training horses and empowering equestrians to train their own horse.

Safe the date: Thursday March 7, 2019

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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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