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.