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.

‘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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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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