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Managing Food Anxiety & Mugging

Updated: Mar 9

Welcome back to the Leslie Horsemanship Blog

Today, Let's talk about food anxiety.

Food anxiety during training is an incredibly common issue with horse, and it's often the root cause of many problems and commonly expresses itself as resource guarding, stereotypical behaviours, and nippy/pushiness.

Those behaviour are symptoms that show up when the horse feels like it cannot get the food they require, or that they desperately need it for a variety of reasons. Its source is fear, anxiety, overarousal, confusion and frustration, which often occurs due to management issues, unclear requests during training, timing issues and inconsistency from the handlers.

This is also sadly what turns many people away from R+ training because they fear that using food causes nipping, mugging or pushiness issues.

But the reality is that food anxiety is easily preventable, and there are several easy solutions to food anxiety that I want to share with you today. These important points not only serve as ways to manage food anxiety, but also to prevent it!

So here are some of my best tips for combating food anxiety

1. Ensure the horse has access to forage 24/7

Horses are meant to be eating constantly, even as little as 3-4 hours without food can cause a drop in the PH of their stomach, which can cause ulcers. So when horses do not have access to food regularly, it makes food a limited resource. Limited resources get fought over, which is why we often see aggressive resource guarding in herds with a limited feeding schedule. In stalled horses we will see horses kick walls, weave, paw, head shake and become pushy during feeding time. During Training the horse will see the food as something it has to get as much as possible of because they may not get enough later. It is especially common in horses that have not been feed prior to training, so at the very least, if a situation does not allow for 24/7 feed, we should ensure our horse has had food prior to a session.

2. Use the lowest value food that your horse is still willing to work for.

High Value food can cause over stimulation-which will contribute to nipping, biting and pushiness. For the majority of horses, apples, carrots etc. are way too high value for most horses, and should be reserved for special treats. Although higher-value treats do have their uses and place, such as for jackpot reinforcers, regular Hay and Hay pellets (Timothy, Alfalfa or a mix of both) works well for majority of horses for daily use. If your horse is willing to work for some Timothy hay, don't move to alfalfa hay, If they are only willing to work for alfalfa hay, don't move to concentrate or crunch treats.

If you find that your horse has a hard time focusing, try lowering the food value and see if it makes a difference.

3. Keep an alternative source of food available to your horse while training.

When you're working with your horse in a formal session, ensure your horse has food and water available in a way that they do not have to work for. Keep a pile of hay in the corner of the arena, or load a rubber tub with some hay pellets at the start of the session. Doing so makes our horses feel reassured that they will not be forced to work for their food. That reassurance lowers anxiety, and any potential frustration because they can simply walk away from us to get food. Remember.. we don't want to trade aversive force for coercion. It is on us to ensure our training is enjoyable enough for our horses to want to work with us. If your horse does decide to walk away and eat, allow them to do so.

4. When you're teaching new behaviours, utilize a well crafted shaping plan and introduce the idea to the horse in small increments.

Keeping the criteria low at the beginning and shaping the behaviour with as many steps as possible and necessary for your horse, will minimize the chance of errors. This keeps your horse confident about their training, and avoid confusion. When your horse starts getting confused they get frustrated, and anxious about how they can receive their reward. Similar to if we teach with negative reinforcement and are not releasing pressure. This will presents itself as them going back to old behaviours that have worked in the past, or become pushy because they are trying to figure out what you want from them, and how they can receive their reward. Temporarily lowering the criteria will make your request clearer to the horse and avoid confusion, ensuring you will have a happy learner on you.

5. Ensure you are keeping a high rate of reinforcement.

We want to make sure our horses keep feeling successful. When we train new behaviour, confusion and frustration can happen more easily, and those are no-good for anyone. So whenever we are working with our horses on new behaviours and new criteria we want to reinforce frequently and not ever withhold food. Be careful of 'trainers greed', trying to push a horse to give you more than they are ready for, because we think "they can do it".

6. Master your food handling and timing skills.

Feed away from your body, with the horses head in a neutral position, in the front of their face, avoid lowering your hand as your horse grabs the food and instead push it up into their mouth. This will soon become second nature to you. Getting the timing of your click correct, will improve accuracy, speed up your progress and again, prevent errors and avoid any potential frustration in your horse. If you have a horse that is snappy when grabbing treats, a little trick I learned is to present your hand palms down when feeding, and instantly flip it when the hoStarse touches it with their mouth. Something else to remember, if you do ever mess up a click, feed anyways. One wrong repetition is less problematic than a confusing and anxiety-causing one. We can simply pay special attention to correcting the next couple repetitions.

7. Avoid integrating other horses into the same session

Don't share a session with multiple horses at one time if either of them is anxious around food, feels the need to resource guard it and/or hasn't learned the stay/station behaviour yet. Even a well-adjusted horse that doesn't experience food anxiety commonly, can express resource guarding when a second horse is introduced into the mix. This is because they now have to share their resources, and the horses may become worried that they will not be able to get enough food due to this. *side note: food is not the only resource you horse may be feeling the need to resource guard, you, yourself can be a commodity to the horse too.* Only start integrating multiple horses into a session once they both are settled with the process, and understand what they each must do when you are not asking them to do anything (such as pause, or station)

8. Lastly, one of the first lessons any horse should learn is to keep a neutral and relaxed head position between repetitions.

We call this behaviour "Default Neutral" or "Calm Default" It should be a highly reinforced behaviour so that it will become the horses 'default' whenever no requests are made to the horse. I recommend working on this behaviour regularly and go back to it as often as you can. We want this to become the horses most favourite go-to, so we should be reinforcing this heavily, as this also gives the horse a behaviour to fall back on, should they ever get confused about a behaviour that you're asking of them. Just the fact that the horse understands this, will ease their anxiety about unknown behaviour requests by their handler.

Food anxiety is incredibly common, because horses like most animals are hardwired to seek food at all times. By taking these steps we can ensure to ease their concern around food, have horses that can focus on learning new tasks and have fun while doing it. After all, no one can learn properly if they are anxious. The more we can do to help our horses be successful and comfortable the better.

Until next time!

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