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 by explaining two different ways to train 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.
You can also think of targeting the feet to the mat (no one said it needed to be a nose targeted to something). This is useful for teaching ground tying or loading onto a trailer or standing next to the mounting block.
Another way to teach this would be to free-shape the behaviour. Turn the horse out into a small area and place the mat on the ground in a spot where it is likely to be noticed or in a likely path. Perhaps watch him in the pen for a bit and put the mat where he is likely to encounter it. (Managing your environment to set you and your horse up for success is an easy way to get the behaviour you are wanting.) Now remember, we are not expecting or waiting for the whole behaviour before starting to reward. We are rewarding successive approximations of the end behaviour. We are shaping the behaviour and will click and treat if he even looks toward the mat as a starting point for the behaviour. Food delivery in an appropriate place can also help set up for success, but do not lure with the food. Click and treat if he moves toward the mat. Reward even a tiny lean or step if he is afraid of the mat. We are allowing him to make the decision to go toward the mat. He is learning what will get him the treat. We are not pressuring him to go to the mat. The first time you do this with a horse, it can take a bit of time. Most horses have not been allowed to explore and think. They might wait for you to tell them what to do. You should try to resist doing this.
A part of each behaviour that you train should be free-shaped, because this allows the animal to own the behaviour. It will also result in the animal performing this behaviour without prompts from the handler and even on its own when no one is around. I oft en find my guys standing on the mat in the arena, if I leave for a few minutes and it is out there. This helps the animal to become a problem solver, which is something I really want. Small successes for everyone involved will make learning occur faster than big steps. Read “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle for more on specific kinds of practice (learning in small steps) that can increase skills up to ten times faster than conventional practice. So, this seems like a lot of work just to get your horse to stand on a mat. Perhaps not a lot of work if you have an easygoing horse that walks onto the mat and stands there the first time you ask. With the easy horse you could shape the behaviour and help get your horse on his way to becoming a problem solver. Can you have him, by shaping and clicking approximations, place a foot exactly where you want it placed? Can you refine the communication? All the rocking back and forth while getting the foot placed will improve his balance as well.
Perhaps it would be a lot of work with a horse that is not into paying attention to you or is scared of the mat. By shaping the behaviour you will build his confidence and enhance your relationship with him. He will feel he has a say in things he is uncomfortable about and learn that he can become comfortable and solve problems. Each step in getting him to the mat politely becomes a major training task and will need to be spread out over several sessions. All the time you will be working on manners and lightness and calmness. Everything is everything else... this is why we stand on a mat.
One of the major advantages of the small steps in clicker training is that you are never very far away from a click and treat, a reward for a good try, no matter how small. And you are never far away from a place that you can quit for the day on a positive note. Th e training of any behaviour is never really finished so why think you need to finish it today? When you stop on a good note it is always easier to make progress the next day when you start again. You can make tremendous progress in training only 10 minutes a day. Start with a big mat, and make it smaller as the exercise gets easier. Try it, just for fun. Until next time... keep it positive.
P.S. The horse’s feet were not picked up by me and placed on the mat!