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.
Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

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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Become a member of our Happy Herd on Facebook and get access to my Facebook LIVE’s.

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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Become a member of our Happy Herd on Facebook and get access to my Facebook LIVE’s.

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.

Key Lesson ‘Patience’

In this key lesson the horse learns to stand next to you in a relaxed way and keep his head straight forward, not too high and not too low. The goal is to reward the horse for his ‘patient’ behaviour. Of course the horse is not really ‘patient’ when he stands with his neck straight and his head on a comfortable level, it is a ‘learned behaviour’. A very safe behaviour!

Benefits of this Key Lesson are (this makes it my favourite exercise to teach):

  • It teaches your horse relaxation
  • Responsiveness to cues
  • And it reinforces calm behaviour
  • Bonus: it’s incompatible with ‘mugging’, stepping on your toes and other unwanted behaviours

Focus on what you want
It is really important that you communicate to your horse what it is you want or expect from him. If you don’t think about this, you will end up with a horse that is always asking your attention when you are busy with something else. In this case you want your horse to ‘stand with four feet on the ground, relaxed, neck straight forward and horizontal’.

Asking attention
I think we all know horses that will show their whole repertoire of tricks if people are around to get attention, kick their stall doors in order to ‘call’ people over, push a person, sniffs pockets and try to get the treats out when the person is talking to someone. Or horses that pull their handlers to the juicy patches of grass as soon when they want to check their her phone for messages. Wouldn’t it be great if your horse just stood there ‘patiently’ and waited for you to be ready to give the next cue?

This is why the key lesson ‘patience’ is an important exercise to spent some time on. The time you spend on this exercise is really a good investment. It looks like the horse is ‘patient’ but it is just a learned behaviour, just like the behaviours described above. The difference is, that the key lesson patience is desired behaviour and you can put it on cue.

Default behaviour
Just like head lowering you could choose to make this behaviour the default behaviour. It is a very practical behaviour. It prevents the horse from mugging you, pushing you, sniffing your pockets or asking your attention when you are doing other things, like talking to a friend, adjusting your tack, braiding his mane and so on. It also calms your horse down if he is excited. This is a behaviour that the trainer always should reinforce, even when it is displayed without cue. That is the way you can make it a default behaviour. A default behaviour is a behaviour a horse can fall back on when he is getting frustrated, anxious or wants your attention.

Useful
Teaching a horse to be ‘patient’ is also a useful exercise under saddle, with ground tying, waiting in line on competition grounds, during a bath/hosing him down, brushing, saddling and so on. Ask you horse to be ‘patient’ if he can’t wait for your next cue and randomly shows behaviour. It will help him become relaxed. This can help prevent frustration. Then teach your horse to wait for cues.

Reinforce what you want to see

It is just that most handlers forget to reinforce this simple behaviour of seemingly ‘doing nothing’. The handler has to be aware of this behaviour and reinforce it and put in on cue. Once you have learned to recognize it in your horse, keep it in his repertoire by reinforcing it.

__keylesson_patience_clickertraining_1

If the horse has a tendency to mug you or invade your personal space, you can start teaching the horse to ‘look away’. Later you can shape it into standing straight forward with his neck.

_keylesson_patience_hippologic

Kyra ‘s head is still a bit high in these pictures. I shaped my ‘Patience’ now more into a combination of ‘Patience’ with ‘Head lowering’. It is such a great tool and helps calm the horse down and makes everyone safer!

Links to other key lessons

_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!
Get your FREE 5 Step Clicker Training Plan on HippoLogic’s website.
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