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. Aft