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.’
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).
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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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————————————————————————–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!