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Help! I Have a Muggy Horse!

I would like to show you how proper food delivery, accompanied by the clicker, can actually stop mugging if you already have a muggy horse.

Why do some horses that are fed treats become muggy?

Usually, a horse is muggy, not because they are getting treats, but because the treats are fed indiscriminately. The horse gets treats for no apparent reason that he can see. There is no specific behaviour that is linked to the treat so he starts to “mug the vending machine.”

Can we solve this using clicker training and proper food delivery?

You bet. In fact you can train your horse to actually turn his nose away from the food and almost look like he is saying “there is no way I’m going to take that food!”

How do I start?

You will actually begin by perfecting your food delivery skills using another human as your “horse.” Most mugging issues begin because of poor food delivery skills and not linking the food to a specific behaviour. Food delivery is a mechanical skill that should be learned, practiced and perfected away from your horse. Treat delivery should be the very first lesson that a handler should perfect before trying to train with a clicker and treats. These lessons have been presented in past Saddle Up issues. Please check the archives for these.

So why is this skill so important?

If you are clumsy and slow in your food delivery the horse will get frustrated waiting for the reward and start to “look for the treat.” If you deliver the treat close to your body it is more tempting for the horse to look for more.

What now?

Now put 20 treats into your pocket or pouch. With your horse in a stall with a stall guard stand next to his head on the outside of the stall. You should be out of mugging range to start with but close enough to deliver the treat. Once again you will need keen observation skills. You will wait for the instant he starts to turn his head away from you. You will then click, to capture this behaviour, and deliver the treat to him where you would like his head to be.

Now quickly return to your waiting position beside him. It’s a good idea to give your hands something to do so they aren’t sneaking into the treat pouch ahead of your click. A simple solution is to give your feeding hand a “target.” If you are standing on the left side of your horse, you’ll want to feed with your left hand. If you are right handed, this won’t feel natural, but mechanically it gives you the best balance. To help develop good feeding habits, put a piece of duct tape, on the back of your right hand. After you feed, move your left hand back to your duct tape “target.”

With your hand on its target watch your horse. As soon as he moves his head SLIGHTLY away from you (assuming he is looking at you and trying to grab for that treat) click and deliver the treat where you would like his head to be. Do not expect his head to remain straight in front of him and do not wait to click and treat until it is straight in front of him to start with. This is the final position that you are working toward and you need to break the training down into very small steps so you both can feel successful.

A good mantra to follow is “click for behaviour, but feed where the perfect horse would be.” Be certain to feed out away from your body so your horse’s head is lined up straight between his shoulders. After you have run out of your 20 treats, again remove yourself from your position, far enough that he won’t be tempted to grab and give both of you a bit of “process time.” Think about how things are going. Is he still diving for the food, do you think you are waiting too long and for too much movement of his head before clicking?

Take this time to think about how the session went. Gather data so the next session will be better.

Repeat this exercise several times until you feel that you are getting a bit of hesitation in his head coming back toward you, or he is looking away sooner. You may even begin to see him keeping his head straight, deliberately controlling himself and keeping his nose away from your treat pouch. That definitely gets a click and treat!

When you feel as though you have made a bit of progress with this lesson, switch back to some targeting (see past issues of Saddle Up for instructions). You can alternate back and forth between these two lessons. Use one round of twenty treats for targeting. Use the next round for this new lesson. When you’re finished for the day create an end of training ritual. For example, you could empty your pouch on the last click and treat into a food bowl, place it in his stall and then close the stall door. Develop your own signal for being finished so your horse will come to know when he is done.

This new lesson is called “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.” It is one of the foundation lessons in clicker training.

Both you and your horse are learning that he must perform a “behaviour” in order to get a treat. He will not get treats just any old time. Th e vending machine can’t be mugged. Th ere are new rules to this treat game. You will pay him for doing a wanted behaviour … payment for work if you like to look at it as a paycheck. You work for a paycheck so why shouldn’t he? You will both come to enjoy the game now that you both know the rules. If you consistently follow these simple guidelines for treat delivery it will certainly help both eliminate and prevent the dreaded muggy horse that is associated with feeding treats. A properly trained clicker horse is pleasant and polite even if you have a pouch full of treats.

Your own “Grand Prix” horse

In dressage a Grand Prix horse is one that has achieved the highest level of training. In clicker training we can all have “Grand Prix” horses. Here’s how:

A “training level” clicker horse has learned to move his nose away from the treat pouch and keep his head still for a few seconds. A more advanced horse will not only have his nose away from your pouch, he’ll be standing square, ears forward, head at the perfect height. Not only that, you’ll be able to walk around him, leave him to go get your tack, bounce balls behind him, open umbrellas over his head, swing plastic sheets up over his back, and he’ll stay in his “grown-ups are talking” position.

A “Grand Prix” horse will do all of this. Plus you’ll be able to hold a bucket of grain directly under his nose, and he won’t dive into it until you give him his release signal. In fact you’ll be able to put the bucket down on the ground, walk away and he’ll wait until you cue him that it’s okay to have his grain. Th at’s truly turning the ordinary into the extraordinary! (See Blessing waiting for dinner below for a great example of this!)

Taking a basic manners lesson like grown-ups and expanding it to create these beyond the ordinary manners is the fun of clicker training. You don’t have to have a “fancy” horse to have an amazing horse. All you need is a clicker, a pocketful of treats, and a willingness to have fun! Watch for upcoming clinic dates in the March issue.

Monty Gwynne owns a private training/boarding facility, Flyin G Ranch, in Cochrane, AB, where she assists owners in training their own horses using clicker training. Monty has successfully trained horses of many breeds for many disciplines over the last 30 plus years, including gaited breeds. Monty is the only Canadian-approved instructor for clicker training using Alexandra Kurland’s program (the founder of clicker training for horses). She has been training using the clicker for the past 12 years.

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