Hopefully you had some fun and success playing with targeting to the mat, but possibly you have one of those horses who has some issues from being MADE to do stuff and so is very afraid to try it. In this case you will need a different approach that allows the horse to make the decisions with regards to how close and when he steps on the mat. This approach will do a lot to build your relationship with him.
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 and very important part of the planning before you train 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. You can feed him so he has to turn away from the mat a bit in the beginning, this is where the art of clicker training comes in, as by feeding a bit away from the mat it allows him a bit of a release from the ‘pressure’ of the mat and also allows us to see if he will start to chose to look at it again. Reward even a tiny lean or step or even a look towards it if he is afraid of the mat. We are allowing him to make the decision to go toward the mat, we are not pressuring him to do it. He is learning that he has some say in the process and is discovering what will get him the click and 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. Take lots of breaks and leave him to explore a bit on his own.
A part of any 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 often 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. If you would like additional reading on how this applies to human learning read “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle for more on specific kinds of practice using 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. The 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.
Next week’s blog will continue with a further explanation of how to use this foundation lesson in many different situations.