Crazy about food!
Food Manners 101

With most horses, we will use food as our primary reinforcer. Therefore, food manners are of paramount importance for any clicker trained horse. Luckily, your horse’s enthusiasm for food is exactly what will turn him into Mr. Manners.

The prerequisite for this lesson is your horse understanding the meaning of the click as a conditioned reinforcer. This is usually taught through targeting. You can read about the targeting lesson in a Step-by-step guide on Alexandra Kurland’s website:


Nikolai reaching for the target    Nkolai touching the target
Here, a Morgan-Tarpan cross gelding, Nikolai, learns to touch the target in his first clicker training lesson. Violet, Nikolai's owner, presents the target. Nikolai reaches to sniff it... ...And touches it. Click!

Violet feeding Nikolai

He gets a piece of carrot. Violet feeds him by reaching into his space, thereby introducing the idea of backing out of handler's space to receive the treat.

A fast learner, he progresses to tracking the target in just two mini-sessions, showing that he understands the connection between his behavior, click, and food. He is ready for the next step in his training.

For the lesson in food manners, you will need a treat pouch, treats, clicker, halter, lead rope, and your horse. The behavior you will be building in your horse is standing calmly next to you with his head facing forward, what Alexandra Kurland calls "The grown-ups are talking, please do not interrupt" exercise. If you can, rehearse your lesson with a human partner beforehand. This will allow you to get fluid with your mechanics, which are important.

hand position Your default position is standing by your horse’s shoulder, with your hands folded over your treat pouch, holding the lead rope in your right hand, with your left hand over the right. Hold the clicker in your right hand, which leaves your left hand free to feed. Practice clicking, reaching into your pouch, taking one treat, and stepping forward towards your horse’s head while unfolding your arm to deliver the treat where you want your horse’s head to be. Practicing with a human partner as a substitute “horse” helps you iron out all the details before getting to do this with the real horse. Juggling the lead rope, the clicker, and the treats can be very confusing at first, and on top of that you have to watch your horse and click at the right time! This is where preparation goes a long way!

Organize your training space. You will be working in short sessions, so plan to have a space which you can exit in between the mini-sessions, leaving your horse for a few minutes to process new information. A stall, round pen, or paddock work well. You will use breaks to refill your pouch and analyze your mini-session, making the necessary adjustments.

Count out 20-25 treats and put them in your pouch. Put a halter and lead rope on your horse and stand next to him. Depending on how excited he is about the smell of the treats, he may stand next to you neutrally or start to sniff and nuzzle you right away.

Scenario 1: If he is neutral and not sniffing you for treats, click, and deliver a treat where you want his nose to be, which is in front of his chest. You may need to take one step forward to comfortably deliver his treat without leaning forward too far. As soon as he takes the treat off your hand, return to your default position, with your hands folded. If you have done it and your horse is still in neutral, great, click and treat! Repeat this step over and over again. You put your horse on a high rate of reinforcement for keeping his head in a neutral, forward position.

Nikolai keeps his head away from treat pouch Violet taking a treat out of the pouch click and treat for keeping head away from treat pouch

Nikolai is facing forward, so Violet clicks and feeds him. Please note that although he turns after hearing the click to look at her hand as she is reaching into the pouch to take a treat, she still feeds him not where his nose IS at the moment, but forward, where she wants it to be.

Scenario 2: Your horse is crazy about food! He immediately starts nuzzling, sniffing, and even pushing you with his nose. Stay neutral and impassive. Your hands are covering the pouch, so he is not getting any gratuitous treats. Do not react in any manner; if you do, your horse will likely find this interaction reinforcing and will keep nuzzling you more. (Note: if your horse is behaving in a way that makes you feel unsafe, do not continue. Position yourself on the other side of a barrier, fence, or stall guard, out of reach of his head, and proceed with the lesson from a safe place.) If your horse moves, move with him to maintain your position relative to his shoulder. Eventually, your horse will take his nose away. Even if it is for a split second and only half an inch, click and feed him - where you want his nose to be. Return to your default position. If his nose is still away from your pouch, click and treat, and then proceed with the high rate of reinforcement as described above. If he goes back to nuzzling you before you have a chance to return to your default position, repeat step one: wait until his nose is away from your pouch, then click and treat.

Nikolai nuzzling Violet for treats Violet clicks Nikolai for keeping his nose away from treat pouch Violet feeding Nikolai where she wants his head to be

"These treats are simply irresistible! Can't I just help myself?" Violet does not react to Nikolai's nuzzling. The moment he takes his head away from the pouch, he gets a click. By feeding your horse where you want his head to be, you are not only reinforcing him for the correct head position, but also buying yourself some time. While he is chewing his treat still facing forward, you are back in your default position and click him again. High rate of positive reinforcement when teaching any new lesson makes for a positive experience. Note that Nikolai's facial expression is relaxed and interested throughout the session.  

With both scenarios, you will get to the stage when you click and treat at a high rate and your horse stays with his head facing forward. Now try delaying the click just for a couple of seconds. He may keep his nose forward (click and treat!) or go back to nuzzling you. This time, however, you may see that after giving nuzzling a try, he will take his head away deliberately, a sign that he is starting to get the rules of this counterintuitive game. Click, treat, and go back to the high rate of reinforcement.  

Why is it important to keep the horse on a high rate of reinforcement in the beginning? You are making it clear to him what he gets clicked for (head forward) without leaving him extra time to experiment and engage in behaviors that will not be reinforced. You set him up for a very high rate of success. Later, when you delay the click and let him experiment, he will be more likely to repeat a behavior that he has been reinforced for. You are taking advantage of the fact that positive reinforcement increases the chance of behavior.

If you start delaying your click too early in the progression, your criteria become unclear to the horse. His head is still forward and you have not clicked yet. He will sniff and nuzzle your pouch. You will wait. He will turn his head away. Click and treat. Now, if you don’t go back to the high rate of reinforcement, he is likely to repeat the whole sequence of behaviors that got him a click last time, which is mugging you, then turning his head away!   

So, build a solid “head forward” behavior through a high reinforcement rate before moving on. To start increasing the duration, simply delay your click – but not so long that your horse turns his head. Counting, either in your head or out loud, helps you to keep track of time. If your criteria for clicking have been something like this:

     My left hand over my right hand – your head is still forward – click,

now they are:

     My left hand over my right hand – one...and... – your head is still forward – click.

Grow your duration in small increments. If you are counting to four, and your horse turns his head at the count of three, go back to clicking at the count of two and build it from there.

As you progress with your lessons and your horse keeps his head forward longer, your rate of reinforcement will drop. You clicked every three counts, and now it is up to twenty or longer... For a new learner, this might seem like bad news and he may get frustrated. To bump up your reinforcement rate, practice food manners for 4 or 5 clicks, then reward your horse by offering him the target to touch for a few clicks. An opportunity to do something easy and highly reinforcing will become an extra motivator. Work on food manners in between other clicker exercises, rather than spending big chunks of time on it.

Eventually, your horse will become an expert at self-restraint around food. This will be the time to scan your overall training picture for the instances of treat pouch diving. If your mannerly horse sometimes loses his composure and sticks his nose into your treat pouch, pay close attention to the circumstances when it happens. Some of these instances may be training holes to patch up, and some may be displacement behaviors indicating stress.

Patching training holes is a great opportunity to revisit earlier lessons and strengthen behaviors. With food manners, you may discover that your horse is solid when you are by his shoulder but can't help himself if you are standing in front of him. Practice the food manners exercise in various positions and circumstances to help him generalize it.

If your horse is diving for the treats when he is nervous or scared, or if it happens only when you are working on a particular exercise, you are likely dealing with a displacement behavior. In this case, mugging is the symptom of stress, and you will need to address the cause. An example from my experience was a horse I had a hard time working in hand on a circle. Instead of engaging his inside (right) hind leg, he would swing his rear end to the outside and lean in with his inside shoulder. The more we worked on it, the busier he became with his mouth. Eventually, as soon as I started sliding my hand on the lead rope towards his head, he would dive straight for my treat pouch. It turned out that he had arthritis in his right hock. After a hock injection and a period of recovery, we returned to the exercise, and neither the swinging of his hind end to the outside nor the mugging ever surfaced again.

horse enjoying a massage     horse walking with handler

Food manners 101 is an integral part in creating a highly motivated horse that is also in control of his urges. These clicker educated horses are relaxed and focusing on the task at hand. They are not excited or distracted by the proximity of the treat pouches.


This lesson is covered in Alexandra Kurland’s books: A Step-by-Step Guide in Pictures, p.31, “The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” lesson, and in Riding With the Clicker, p.14 . It is also in Lesson One: Getting Started with the Clicker of The Click that Teaches DVD series.


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