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Mats and Horse Agility

More things to do with your mat work! Once you start thinking differently about how you train the possibilities are endless. Take for instance horse agility obstacles.

Horse agility seems to be becoming increasingly popular. After watching a video on youtube, I immediately saw fabulous opportunities for the foundation clicker lessons to be expanded upon in these situations. This is a great place for clicker training to help you build the skills and relationship necessary to eventually do well in these competitions.

One of the challenges is to have your horse stand with his front feet in a hula-hoop. Which foundation lesson could be used to make learning this obstacle quick, fun and easy?

If you guessed ‘standing on a mat’ you are right. So, now how do we use this lesson to set our horse up for success with the hoola-hoop obstacle?

Our end behaviour is to have the horse stand in the hoop and stay there. How do we shape this using mat work and the clicker? What small steps can be taken to ensure we set our horse up to succeed? You should, if you have been following my blogs, begin to see how to break behaviours down into small steps.

I would first revisit just ‘standing on a mat.’ Is this behaviour solid? Will he offer to go to the mat on his own if it is near? Has it been on a high enough rate of reinforcement for him to see it as a good spot to be? If your answer was yes to all these questions, then you should be able to introduce the next step. (You should also make sure he is ok with a small mat to stand on and that he is ok with things around his feet. To make things even safer for both of you perhaps use a hoop cut into 2 or 3 pieces so he won’t get the hoop hooked on his foot and panic. This is fine to do in any case but if he has issues re: things touching his feet and legs that is another very important lesson that should be addressed before moving forward with this training.)

So your training plan will look a bit like this:

1. Revisit mat lesson and place it back on a bit higher rate of reinforcement. Remember if you are changing the location of his mat or size of the mat you will need to review and expect a bit less to start with.

2. Once the ‘standing on a mat’ is solid and he will seek the mat out place the hoop on a corner of the mat. If he is still ok targeting the mat then move the hoop so it covers more of the mat. If you are using pieces of hoop, just add another piece till it is a hoop around the mat.

3. Once he is targeting the mat with the same eagerness as when the hoop was not there start to reduce the size of the mat within the hoop. You may need to do this with just a mat to start with if he gets ‘lost’ after you make the mat smaller. Usually this is not an issue.

4. Gradually make the mat smaller and smaller till there is no mat and he will ‘target’ to the hoop the same way he does to the mat.

5. Both the mat and the hoop can be put on a cue once you can predict that the behaviour will happen, NOT before.

6. Target him off the mat/hoop with a hand target. You need to keep the behaviours in balance. If you are giving high rates of reinforcement for standing in the hoop he will get stuck in the good zone and not want to move out of the hoop. Remember all exercises must be kept in balance, so make coming out of the hoop a good thing too.

7. The behaviour will be stronger if it is free shaped.

8. Gradually give the cue when he is further and further from the mat or hoop so that eventually you can ‘send’ him to the obstacle using the verbal or hand cue.

Remember depending on your horse and how he feels re the hoop or any new things you may have to relax your expectations and click and treat for simply showing interest in the hoop.

Alexandra Kurland’s teaching is about making clean loops of behaviour. In this case, a clean loop would be horse will go to hoop, click treat, horse targets hand and moves out of hoop, click treat, horse goes back to hoop, click treat. There should be no hesitancy to do any part of the loop and it should not have any unwanted behaviours in it either like wandering off. If your loop is not clean make the parts of the loop cleaner and tighter (so make sure he knows the mat work and the mat is closer to him to start with). Do not resort to pressure to make him do the behavior for that will only result in a less eager participant because the threat is there if he doesn’t do it. Look for small tries and reward those.

Agility obstacles are a great way to add some fun into your routine. It allows you to play with a horse too young to be ridden or one that is retired. Clicker training makes sure it is fun and if it is based on Alexandra’s work it will also ensure that the soundness of the horse, both mind and body will be the best it can be.

If you want a chance to be in a clinic with Alexandra Kurland the founder of Clicker Training for Horses let me know as there are non-horse spots available still for the October clinic here in Alberta!

And there are still auditor spots for the Bent Branderup clinician Ylvie Fros here in Sept 5 – 8…first time over from Europe…she is also a centered riding instructor.

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