Horses Mugging for Treats

Part 1 of the email from Alexandra in her Yahoo Group, Dec 2012.

The question about mugging is such an important one because clicker training is only fun when the food issue is settled.  You can have the cleverest horse in the barn, but if in between doing all his cute tricks, he’s after your pockets for treats, the appeal of clicker training will disappear fast.  This is why I place so much emphasis on the foundation lesson I refer to as: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.

Grown-ups isn’t something you do a couple of times in the start-up of clicker training and then forget about.  Grown-ups is your glue.  It ties everything else together.  Canine trainer Steve White has a great image he uses for teaching core behaviors.  He refers to them as tap root behaviors.  Grown-ups makes a great tap root behavior.  You ask for grown-ups – click/treat.  Then you do a couple reps of a different behavior.  Click/treat.  Now it’s back to grown-ups to establish that your horse can still show you calm, good manners, even with the treats right under his nose.  Each time you return to grown-ups, you strengthen it.  Just like a tap root, it grows bigger, stronger, deeper.  Select grown-ups as your key, core tap root behavior, and over time your horse’s manners will become world class.

I’m going to describe the basic starting point.  This will be a review for a lot of people, but review is always useful.  There are always new details to highlight.  And then because it’s the holidays I’ll share couple of stories.  (I know what some of you are thinking – I don’t need the excuse of the Holidays to share stories and that’s very true!).


The original question was about a mini who was mugging pockets.  Whether it is a mini or a full sized horse, I like to begin with protective contact.  Put a barrier between you and the horse.  This gives your horse the freedom to explore, to learn what works and what doesn’t.  In clicker training we want the horses to offer behavior.  We want them to feel safe experimenting, so it is very important in this initial phase to allow the exploration and to avoid corrections.  In the beginning lessons I’ll let a horse nuzzle my arm and nudge at my pockets.  He’s not going to get any treats, but he is free to explore.  At any point if I feel unsafe, I’ll step back out of range.  Nuzzling at my pockets too vigorously makes me go away.

Now I know what some horse people will be thinking at this point.  I’m teaching the horse that he can move me around.  And yes, that’s true.  Nuzzle my pockets and I retreat.  Leave my pockets alone, and I stay and interact with you.  Take your nose away from my pockets, and click!  Magic happens.  I reach into my pocket and hand you a treat.  So we both have control.  My horse can choose to mug me and get nothing.  Or he can move his nose away and get a treat. I’m controlling what I choose to click, and he controls his behavior towards me.  We both feel empowered.  We’re both reinforced.  I get to hand out goodies – something I enjoy.  And he gets to eat them!  Sounds a lot like Christmas has come for both of us.

In clicker training I want to focus on what I want my horse TO DO, not the unwanted behavior.  Grown-ups is the training ground for doing this.  I want my handlers to learn to be non-reactive to behaviors they do not like.  That doesn’t mean they are ignoring them.  If a horse is mugging me, I will note the behavior, but as long as I feel safe, I will remain non-reactive to it.  I won’t correct the horse.  I won’t startle him, or push him off my pockets.  I will give him time to explore and to discover that mugging doesn’t lead to treats.   When he takes his nose away, click, that’s what produces treats.

My end goal is a polite horse, but I can’t begin with the expectation that he’ll have perfect self-control around food.  That’s a lesson we’ll be working on over an extended period of time.  I don’t want my horse trying to push his way into my pockets.  That’s not acceptable, but every time I find myself grumping at this unwanted behavior, I need to restate my goals in terms of what I do want.  What’s something I can train FOR, not against.  That’s the real keys to the kingdom switch that says I am thinking like a clicker training.

If this were a magazine article, I would pull those last two sentences out and put them in a sidebar.  They need to be highlighted and emphasized.  I see people tying themselves up in knots over whether they are using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.  The question is not what I use.  But how I teach.  Am I training for behavior I want?  Or am I trying to shut down behavior I don’t like?  And am I being a splitter or a lumper?  The goal is a positive learning experience.  That can be achieved using a variety of teaching strategies.  If I stay focused on what I want and split my lessons down into small steps, I will stay comfortably under the clicker training umbrella.

For more details on the Grown Ups lesson please see the Lesson 1 DVD; Getting Started.

Alexandra Kurland

About theclickercenter

Clicker Trainer
This entry was posted in Ground Manners, Grown Ups, Horses Mugging and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Horses Mugging for Treats

  1. Great post. Very clear, and we can apply it to all companion animals.

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