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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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.

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  • 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?

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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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