Food Related Anxiety and Over-excitement

Most horses start out at least a little thrilled about the clicker training experience. Teaching a safe, alternate behavior to mugging, such as stand facing forward, is a fantastic way to keep us safe and help the horse learn to relax around food. A key element in this first behavior MUST be relaxation. A horse can tuck their chin or look away or stand facing forward, but be boiling over, trembling with excitement.

What's wrong with too much excitement? We want them to be happy, don't we? We want our horses focused on learning, thinking, processing, seeking, and trying new behaviors. This can't be done when the horse is over-threshold in any direction; fear, anxiety, or excitement. What if getting relaxation isn't so easy? What if our horse is more extreme than "most", and we can't find even a moment of calm behavior to reinforce?

One of the most important changes is to NOT start a training session unless they are calm. Starting a session while the horse is at the door, buzzing and pawing and tossing his head, would only reinforce this behavior. Instead, start while the horse is eating hay or otherwise "being a horse".
Additionally, find times throughout the day where he is off being a normal horse; eating, drinking, napping, hanging out, and toss him a big handful in his bucket, then keep moving. Catch him doing things you want to see more of, and reinforce those. This is one part of helping him realise that treats/reinforcers will come when he's behaving in a normal, calm way - that he doesn't need to get wound up and start throwing behaviours at us for that to happen.

Training with a barrier between you and your horse (protected contact) is often a good idea, especially if he already has a habit of mugging or a history of aggression. It's still just as important to make sure you don't trigger the anxiety in the first place - if your horse becomes frustrated or anxious, do something to help him out; don't continue on just because the barrier is keeping you safe from his behaviour.

Deejay’s Story – Clicker training a horse with Food Anxiety

Working outside on grass can help alot, so training in your horse's paddock is ideal if this is possible (setting up some temporary fencing can keep herd-mates at a safe distance), or with hay available during the session, to provide them with options. Starting a session just after a hard meal helps satiate them. It's important to remember that because a horse is designed to eat 24/7, gaps of time without food leaves them feeling 'starving', which induces that anxiety. Slow feeding options for both hard feed and hay can help ease this starvation feeling.
This can vary depending on the individual horse, but in most cases, LARGE handfuls of food with a high rate of reinforcement will ease their worries. They are satiated quickly and you can usually slowly reduced your handful size throughout the session - but it helps take that "I'm starving" edge off in the beginning. Other horses may do better with smaller amounts fed at a higher frequency; you'll have to experiment to find your horse's comfort level.

Using lower value treats helps, too - find foods that your horse is motivated by, but not so motivated that he's jumping out of his skin trying to get to it. He needs to be able to learn calmly and happily. While scratching may be a good temporary reinforcer to use, it's ideal to get a horse comfortable and safe around food rewards - for efficiency, and easing their stress over food throughout their life.

Another thing that has proven to be incredibly valuable is toys... Particularly toys that provide food. You can use buckets with holes, hanging cones, hay nets, forage/treats hung up, cardboard boxes, plastic bags with holes - anything they have to shake, rattle or roll to get treats out of. There are many more ideas in the [Enrichment] file. Please ensure your toys are species safe - no loops large enough to capture a hoof, or anything they could potentially choke on. These toys takes the pressure off humans as being the sole providers of all things good. Make sure there are toys in the pasture, but they are especially valuable in stalls. This is not only entertaining, but allows horses to express their natural foraging behaviors, pawing, rolling objects, shaking trees and so on. It encourages problem solving and creativity, which is great for clicker horses! Most importantly, it puts the horse in control of their environment and their food reinforcers. This sense of control brings comfort and confidence.

<- Back to Training Articles

Skip to toolbar