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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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.
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.

 

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologic
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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Tips to Train your Horse to behave Safe around Treats

The expression “Training with treats” is often immediate cause for a lively discussion between people who do and people who don’t use food reinforcers. Want to watch the video? Scroll to the bottom of this blog!

Reasons to Train with Treats

There are many reasons to train with treats. I only will state 3 here.

  1. Food is an amazing reinforcer! Horses want to work for it and sometimes they don’t even want to stop working (which can be listed with the cons).
  2. Keeps your hands free. You don’t need to hold the treat until you need it, like you do with a whip.
  3. Horses will raise the criteria for a behaviour by themselves in order to earn a treat.

Reasons NOT to Train with Treats

_mugging_hippologicHere are the 3 reasons I heard the most.

I will debunk them in the next paragraph.

  1. Horses get pushy or will start to bite you.
  2. Horses will start mugging you when you carry treats around.
  3. He will only work for the treat, not for you.

Debunking the myths

1. & 2. True, horses can turn into biters or will behave like you’re a vending machine if treats are ‘randomly’ (from the horse’s perspective!) offered during training.

Therefor you need to establish some rules. They are really simple to understand and every horse I worked with learned them within a few minutes:

Rule #1 All treats are announced by a marker signal (usually the click sound from a box clicker). No click, no treat.

Rule #2 The fastest way to treats is to move away from them. Simply teach the horse an incompatible behaviour with the undesired behaviour.

Biting and mugging are not possible if the horse is not in range. Teach him to move his head away from your body and/or the food source (your pocket). This sounds so easy, but pay attention to what most people do: they give the horse attention for the undesired behaviour and therefor reinforcing it. It is the receiver (horse) that determines if something is a reward or a punishment. If the behaviour gets stronger, it was reinforced.

___clickertraining_hippologic

Rule #3 Treats must be taken with lips only. Teeth are not allowed to take (or grab) the treat.

Reason #3 ‘He will only work for the treat, not for you’. Weird enough people are not saying this when you work with aversives: “If you work with a whip he will only do it because you carry a whip or wearing spurs.”

By implementing rule #1 the horse learns to pay attention to the marker, the click and not the food. The food is not a lure, it is a reinforcer.

When you start to train a horse that is not used to paying attention to a marker signal he will pay a lot of attention to the food. True, in the very beginning (only the first few sessions) it is about the food. Once the 3 basic rules are implemented, the attention shifts from the food to the click, the challenge and or the interaction with the trainer.

Yes, the food reinforcer will still play an important rule in future training. Only not in the same exercise all the time. You will fade out the click & reinforcer.

Clicks and reinforcers will still be used to train new behaviours. We always want to improve and develop, don’t we? That is why food will always be a part of (positive reinforcement) training.

Even when we don’t carry food around the horse still wants to perform eagerly the tasks we cue him for. We made a positive association in the brain using food in the learning process.

Have you ever heard someone asking ‘When can I fade out the whip, the bit or my spurs?’

Tips to Teach Your Horse to behave Safe around Treats

  • Teach your horse the food always moves to the horse, never the other way around
  • The quickest way for your horse to earn a treat is to move away from it
  • Teach your horse to wait patiently until the food is delivered to his mouth, by offering the food (especially in the beginning) ASAP after the click
  • No click, no treat
  • Only lips are allowed to take the treat. Use (temporarily) bigger size treats if your horse uses his teeth to grab the treat and click&treat faster.

 

_give an appetitive HippoLogic

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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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What to do if your horse is mugging you

In clicker training we use often treats as rewards. Why? Food is a primary reinforcer and therefor it motivates most horses. Giving treats as reward or as ‘pay’ for a well done job is highly motivating for the horse. Treats are easy to dispense, it’s a quick delivery and small enough to fit sufficient rewards for one session in your pocket.__safety_hippologic

One of my key lessons is to teach a horse how to behave around food and treats. What to do if your horse isn’t behaving very safe around food? Well, you can decide to find another reinforcer or better yet you can work on your horses behaviour. The first step is to make sure you are working safely. Getting mugged is no fun and losing a finger in the process is even worse.

Work with a barrier between you and your horse until your horse is behaving safely around food. Polite behaviour around food is one of the Key Lessons in clicker training.

Grabbing the treat
Some horses turn to mugging because they have lost treats in the past. This may have been because the handler dropped the food or pulled their hands back as the horse was reaching for it. They have adopted a get it while they can attitude. Sometimes its a phase and they just need to be taught proper table manners again.

Possible solutions
Make sure your horse knows the rule: first a click then a treat.

Only take a treat in your hand after the click. Never the other way around: take a treat, wait for the behaviour you want to reinforce and then click and treat. Always click first, then take and present the treat. This accomplishes three very important things which is why I repeat it so often:

  1. Your horse isn’t distracted by your filled hand and neither are you.
  2. Your horse has no reason to be nibbling or biting at you.
  3. With improper timing your hand reaching for the treat becomes the bridge instead of your click. Horses are incredibly perceptive and will pick up your behaviour before you realize it.

Always bring the treat to your horse, don’t invite the horse to come and get it. Use a stretched arm and deliver the treat near his mouth quickly and calmly after the click.

Deliver the treat directly at the lips of your horse, so he doesn’t have to be afraid he can’t reach it or he has to search for it.

Exercises
Speed up your RoR (Rate of Reinforcement). Click and treat as soon as your horse is keeping his lips still and is not displaying the grabbing behaviour. If he is not using his teeth to get the treat, you can present the treat in a closed first. Wiggle your fist if he nibbles your hand, click and open your hand immediately if he stops moving his lips/mouth for a second or if he looks away.

Encourage (click) all the behaviour that you want: looking away when you put your hand in your pocket, keeping his mouth closed and lips still when you present a treat in a closed fist.

Safety
If your horse is using his teeth you can present the treats in a shallow food bowl or lightweight frying pan to prevent injury.

_safe_horses_handfeeding_hippologic

Some horses are better at taking large treats, eg big chunks of apple or whole (small) carrots to help reassure him that he gets the treat easily. Some horses will be encouraged to use their lips instead of their teeth if you give them smaller treats (grain). Try out different food sizes to find the one that works best for you and your horse.

Try a context shift for example you can feed your horse from above. Hold a large treat high so your horse has to keep his head up. He’s probably not used to taking a treat from above, so he has to use his lips and thus preventing him from using his teeth.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Have fun clicker training your horse and let me know how it goes.

Sandra Poppema
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