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Mat Work: Part 1

Why on earth would I want to teach my horse to stand on a mat? At first glance, it seems like an easy enough thing to do, and perhaps it is, if you only look at the “big picture” and you have a quiet, non-spooky horse. But if you look closer at the skills needed to do this precisely, or the skills needed if your horse thinks it is like one of those “horse-swallowing puddles” you find on the trail, then it might not be so easy.

Even so, you could still ask why? Why stand on a mat? What could this possibly do for my horse other than get him to stand on a mat?

I’d like to try and explain what you will gain from this simple exercise, but first let me explain a couple of ways to teach this behaviour using the clicker and positive reinforcement: targeting to the mat, and shaping the standing on the mat behaviour.

We always want to set our horses and ourselves up to succeed. Seeing as we have been working with targeting, how could we get the horse to target to the mat? We could have him follow the target (hopefully some of you have played with following the target in your exploration of targeting) and when he steps on the mat we would click and treat. When we clicked, we of course removed the target before delivering the treat. Now click and treat again several times as long as he is standing on the mat.

You could even practice a bit of “grown-ups” while on the mat. Grown-ups is a behaviour that is already known to him, that has a history of reinforcement. You need to balance out the behaviours that you teach. If you spend too much time on the mat, reinforcing that, he will become reluctant to leave it. The mat is a good place to be. Why should he leave it?

So present the target and have him follow it off the mat and click and treat for following and “catching” the target. Again, do this a few times and then have him follow the target back to the mat and repeat the above sequence. This gives you practice in balanced starts and stops, and stopping where you want.

What if your horse won’t step on the mat or will only get kind of close to it…so not really afraid, but not totally comfortable? This you can deal with either by shaping it (see next week’s blog on shaping) or by changing how you are reinforcing the targeting.

If he will get close, but is still leery of the mat perhaps you are too focused on the goal. Start to notice when his focus changes from the target to the mat. At a point just before that stop by letting him ‘catch’ the target and play some simple targeting with him for three or four times. Then walk away from the mat. Repeat this loop each time watching to see if his attention stays with you and the targeting game longer and try to casually work towards the mat.

If he will get right up to it, but not step on it, use your placement of the target once he is there to ‘help’ him accidentally step even a toe onto the mat, then make sure you are on a high rate of reinforcement for this leaving the target down and out of site so he starts to associate the rewards with the mat behaviour. You can also feed for position but remember not to lure too much.‘The food is served at the table’ i.e. where you place your hand, and you are simply placing your hand in a slightly different spot.

You want to start out with a big mat and gradually work down to a smaller and smaller mat. Once he has figured out that the mat is a great place to be you can introduce it while grooming and have him stand on it longer and longer to build duration. It might take you a bit longer to groom as you will need to walk him off the mat and back on again or reset him to the mat should he choose to walk off by himself. Try and find a place to do this where you do not have to tie him up to do it.

Eventually, you can use this to teach ground tying and many other things. If he knows how to go to his mat you can get him to load into the trailer simply by throwing the mat into it and he will hop in and stand on it while you close it up and get ready to go. It may seem like a silly exercise, but it has many, many applications if you can think outside the box! I’ll go into more applications in the next two blogs. In next week’s blog, I will help those of you with another way to build a really scared horse’s confidence with regards to the mat.

In case you were thinking I simply picked up and place the feet on the mat for the pictures I didn’t they were actually stills pulled off the video! Remember to take your time and start with a big mat, gradually getting more precise by using a smaller mat. I hope to have video for next week but no promises, we are starting to hay and that takes priority!

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