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.
Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

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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.

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.

Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin