solutions for treat crazy mugging horse with clicker training

Key Lesson ‘Table Manners for Horses’: stop mugging and pushy behaviours in clicker training

Teach your horse manners to stop mugging, biting, grabbing the treat and being pushy around food and treats in training. The key lesson ‘Table Manners for horses’ increases safety and it provides clarity. Use this exercise to prevent and stop frustration and undesired behaviours in your horse.

Table Manners is one of 6 Key Lessons (foundation behaviours) in HippoLogic’s horse training. These foundation exercises make training easy and logical for your horse.

Use treats to stop mugging

You want to be a safe as possible when you’re working with horses. You certainly don’t want to create problems, which can easily happen if you train with food as a reinforcer without having clear ‘rules’. Therefor you need to become very clear in what you want and how you ask it.

Clear expectations

Rules are all about expectations. Teach your horse when he can and can not expect a treat.

  • Treat only appear after a click
  • No click, no glory, eh .. no treat! Be consequent!
  • Each click will be followed by a treat. Even when you clicked accidentally.

Your Key to Success in using food as reinforcer is to teach your horse safe hand-feeding with Key Lesson Table Manners.

Explain the ground rules to your horse

People who, in their horses’ eyes, reward randomly with food will have horses that are always expecting the unexpected: a random treat. That leads to impatient horses: they want it now! 

Therefor you have to start making clear your horse has to know he has to do something in order to get a reward.

He also has to know what he did, that made him earn the treat. He has to learn to pay attention to your marker (the click). No click, no (food) reward.

Mugging horses

What to do if your horse is mugging you? Use a marker to help your horse understand that ‘mugging’ is never reinforced. If there is no click, no food will come his way. Be consequent!

Mugging is annoying for the handler and can trigger frustration in the horse. Especially if he sometimes gets rewarded for this behaviour (with attention, a pet or even food), while other sometimes he gets punished for it or ignored. It’s this various reward schedule that is actually strengthen this undesired behaviour even more. How to handle this?

You want to reinforce the opposite behaviour of mugging. A behaviour that is incompatible with pushing your arm or sniffing your pockets. This will make your training sessions more safe.

Table-Manners for Horses

  • Teach your horse to move his head (read: mouth) away from you, your pocket with food or your ‘money belt’ full of goodies.
  • Teach your horse to keep his lips closed
  • Teach him to gently take the treat off of your hands
  • Teach him an ‘End-of-Session’ signal that means: no more clicks, no more treats

Table manners around dinner time
If you want your horse to behave around feeding time, you have to communicate clearly what behaviour you expect from him:

  • standing with four feet on the floor while the food cart is coming
  • back up when the stall door is opened or when the hay is delivered and so on.

Use a marker signal to pinpoint the wanted behaviours. Read more here.

Polite behaviour
With ‘polite’ behaviour I mean safe behaviour. The horse must wait ‘politely’ until the food is delivered to his lips, after the marker. He shouldn’t move towards the treat, he has to learn that the treat will come to him. The horse must (learn to) take the treat carefully off of my hand and only use his lips and no teeth.

When I click and when I deliver the food, I pay close attention to the horses state of mind. Those two moments (click and the delivery of the treat) are the reinforcing moments, and I do want to reinforce safe behaviour, so I pay attention to the horses state of mind.


Present the food in a safe way to the horse and ‘prove’ to your horse that you are trustworthy. You will always deliver a food reward after a click and you will deliver it (bring it to his mouth so he won’t have to ‘search’ for it). If you drop it on the ground,simply give another one.

People who are easily scared by a horse that moves towards the treat in their hand and proceed to drop the food, need to work on their food presenting skills. You want the horse to trust you on where the food is presented (to their mouth) and that it will arrive. Be consistent and reliable in the way you present treats.

Before you click, always check if you still have at least one more treat to offer. It doesn’t have to be food, but if you’re working with food, make sure you have something left in your pocket to give.


The value of the reward, the size and the chewiness can all influence (un)desired behaviours around food. If the size of the treat is too small, it can easily fall on the floor and get lost, if it is too big it can be hard to eat quickly. Is the reward a high value treat, the horse get frustrated if it’s not delivered quickly enough. If the horse has to chew very long it can distract him from the training.

There are many aspects to take into consideration when you reinforce your horse with food. Please don’t let this long list scare you away from working with food rewards.

Food is such a powerful reinforcer that once your horse understands how you want him to behave around food and treats in training,you can have a lot of fun with it!

Links to other Key lessons:

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Sandra Poppema, BSc

Sandra Poppema BSc HippoLogic Clicker training coach

I teach horse people to connect with their horse in training, so they get results and the relationship they want with their beloved horse. Make training win-win!

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22 thoughts on “Key Lesson ‘Table Manners for Horses’: stop mugging and pushy behaviours in clicker training”

  1. Goede post, zie wel erg vaak dat paarden die met eten beloond worden erg opdringerig worden en dat eigenaren dit vaak accepteren.

    1. Dat is het: de eigenaar moedigt dit gedrag (onbedoeld) aan. Vooral paarden die erg enthousiast worden van het vooritzicht van voerbeloningen kun je goef ‘tafelmanieren’ bijbrengen. Ze willen alles immers wel doen voor een beetje lekkers. De trainer moet zich er alleen wel ven bewust zijn, zoals je al zei.

  2. Very good tips indeed! I have always taught the horses I look after that they have to take a step back first, before they get a snack. The same goes for dinner, they have to wait until I give them permission to step forward to their food.

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  9. Iedereen die voedsel wel gebruiken als beloning zou dit eerst moeten lezen. Te veel mensen doen maar wat raak. Mooi en duidelijk geschreven.

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