How do you use, or can you even use, food rewards with horses that are pushy and aggressive around food?
First, yes. You can, and even SHOULD, use food rewards when working with horses that are pushy and aggressive around food. You just need to learn HOW, and you also need to resolve the CAUSE of the food anxiety.
Horses are VERY food motivated animals, since they are designed to be seeking food the majority of their lives, it's pretty much ALWAYS on their minds; think horse grazing/searching for grass 17 +/- hours a day. This makes food a powerful motivator and a fantastic "paycheck"/reward during training.
If however the horse goes long periods throughout the day without food, or has been starved in their past, or they have been taught that acting aggressively gets the food, you may find yourself struggling with a little TOO much food motivation from your horse. Which usually looks like pushiness, biting, open mouth treat taking, kicking, cranky face, charging, and maybe more. This however, is not "normal" or just "how it is", and withholding food more or punishing the horse isn't going to help. Instead, MORE food is the answer.
No more fasting periods throughout the day
Offer slow feeder hay nets (preferably always full)
Turn out of longer periods throughout the day/night (24/7 is ideal)
Don't punish the horse for doing what's natural to them
Seeking food (aka mugging, pushiness, "in your pocket")
Keep another food sources available during training
Work on grass
Have hay very close by (even under foot)
Soaked hay pellets in a pan
Make sure your horse has recently eaten before training
Had breakfast or dinner recently
Had at least a couple hours to graze prior to training
Work with a very low value food reward
Something that is the same value as the the food available, or just barely better
Typically plain hay pellets are what I work with.
The goal is to make the food you have "less desirable"
Train with a safe setup until new behaviors can be established
Start off training with a fence or stall door between you and the horse
Feed from a pan or a bucket in the beginning and periodically later on
No more arbitrarily giving treats for pushy behaviors
Reward inside the fence, not over
Don't give food for cute but potentially undesirable behaviors like pawing, open mouths etc.
Discourage guests and other horse owners from passing out treats randomly
Don't give the horse food for "begging"
Only giving food for the behaviors you DO want to see.
Give food away from your body, where you want the horse to be standing (hold it out away from you)
Knuckles up first (see below) until the mouth is gentle
Reward anything calm and relaxed where their head/mouth are not on your body.
These are the basics to helping with the emotional aspects that drive food anxiety, but there are a few more details you should know before getting started though, and for those I recommend checking out my blog "how to get started with clicker training" and and any of the books recommend on my website's resources page
Food Anxiety with Blue
Blue is a 3 year old lovely mare that is SUPER food motivated, but has been fed treats when she's practically coming through the fence at the human and with an open mouth, teeth first. She's also very pushy and demanding when there is no fence and will aggressively attack other horses and people that come near her food.
For the first couple sessions we worked with a feed pan, click/reward for her staying on her side of the fence while she learned what the click sound meant and how to target two different kinds of targets. As I saw her brain start to put together the pieces of the puzzle I watched her anxiety around food drop. "AH! If I touch this target the click happens which means food is coming", we slowly started to introduce taking food from my hand.. which has been another learning experience for her!
In the beginning I had to keep my hand closed in a fist (offering it knuckles up, as seen in video) as she tried to figure out how to get to the food in my hand with her teeth first and then would either do lips or move her mouth away. For either of those responses I would flip over and open my hand to offer the food to a GENTLE mouth. I promise, it took maybe three tries and she had it figured out. No more trying to take my fingers WITH the food. Of course we have some refining to do, but she's a quick study!
You'll notice though... I didn't START here, as this is the first time working with my hands and she had done at least five sessions by this time. If I had tried working with my hands (especially without a fence) right away it wouldn't have ended well for anyone. I would have been forced to punish her to protect myself which would have resulted her in her being even MORE food anxious, not less, and resolved nothing.
I also needed to begin separating the arrival of food from my body and where I was. She was so convinced that the best way to get food was to get to me that I could put a couple handfuls of treats in the pan a foot or two away from me and she would be still trying to come through the fence to me.. not even in an angry way, she was just THAT well trained that human = food, and the best way to get to the food is to become over the top pushy and demanding. Which of course, equals dangerous for humans.
In the end, after some resolving of some core food anxiety and learned behavior problems , Blue was be able to resume "normal" training while being able to work patiently and low stress around food. We will be able to work with food, kids will be able to give her food safely, and her owner can feel safe... all without ever punishing her. There were other steps that were taken to resolve her "resource guarding" around other horses, but that's for another post another day. ;)
Dangerously Close with Sly
When I first started training with positive reinforcement I was very focused on when the click happened, which isn’t bad, but I was NOT very aware of where I fed my horse their food rewards. I would click/mark when the horse had their head away from me or was having good manners, and if I was SUPER consistent I could achieve perfect manners, but any time I started focusing on other behaviors the good manners would become lax again. Why? Because I wasn’t paying attention to WHERE I fed my horses their food rewards.
Where you feed your horses is JUST as important as WHEN the click happens. If you click while your horse has its head away from your body and is at a desirable distance from you, but then you feed the horse right next to your treat bag/body the horse is STILL learning to come close to you to get the food reward. IF however you always feed the food AWAY from your body, the horse will learn that food NEVER happens close to the human and they will stop coming into your space or being “pushy”.
You could even take it a step further, like I’ve done here in these videos, and teach the horse to back or step away from you to get their food reward. Not with pressure or punishment, just with food delivery location.
Sly has/had a tendency to be too close to me in a very dangerous way (which is not a respect issue by the way) and to be mouthy. He would run into me, run over me, get right in my space, and even rear when he thought someone was going to punish him for it. All I had to do to help him through this was present the food reward in such a way that Sly had to step backwards or to the side (out of my space) to get his food. Very quickly he started not only staying out of my space but would back up on his own if he was too close! When he was far enough out of my space I would click and bring his food reward TO him, even sometimes asking for one more step back or to the side to confirm where I wanted him.
Another great way to help is by using a feed pan. If you aren’t confident with hand feeding or your horse is still very pushy and excitable then this awesome tool can help create some separation between you and the food. The horse will learn that they don’t get the food directly from you, but from the pan, so they will stop seeking you out for food. You can fade out the use of the pan later, and even with experienced horses it’s still a great tool to bring out every once in awhile.. especially when doing distance work.
The only difference between feeding from a pan and your hand is that you toss the treat into the pan vs taking it to the horse’s mouth. Same amount of work! Obviously with moving exercises the pan does present some more challenges, but there are ways to work with this.
Practice this at liberty and on the lead line, in the barn and in the round pen, on a walk and during feed time. Create an invisible bubble around your body and reward the horse for staying outside of it. Use a target or lead rope if needed to help guide the horse to the correct position, take a step back, and click/reward him in the location you want him to be (away from you).
Also, we need to be teaching them how to turn away from you without speeding up, bumping into you, lagging behind, or getting stressed. It’s very easy to forget this step and just expect the horse to understand that when we move into the horse’s space they are just supposed to “know” how to move out of the way. Instead, most horses do not just “naturally” understand this concept or have the physical control/awareness of their own body to do this with ease... we have to teach them!
As I think of more things to add to this article, I'll likely go back and edit it. I hope to make this a primary source for food anxiety/aggression related questions and I hope people find it helpful for working with their own horses. Please don't hesitate to reach out for help. Contact me via my training services page and provide lots of information and preferably a video. Please let me know if you have any questions!
Here are some other articles and books on the subject as well that you might find helpful.
Food Related Anxiety and Over Excitement - Empowered Equines
Resolving Your Horse's Food Anxiety Once And For All - Positively Together
Help! My horse turned into a monster - HippoLogic
Training With Food, Sometimes - Cooperative Horse
Deejay's Story - Discourse with Deejay
Eliminating Problem Behaviors - The Willing Equine
Myths That Lead To Punishment I - The Willing Equine
Myths That Lead To Punishment II - The Willing Equine
Why I Don't Give My Horses Treats - The Willing Equine
How To Get Started With Clicker Training - The Willing Equine
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