Mat training is one of the Key Lessons, the basics for success in clicker training. In the beginning the goal of mat training is to teach your horse to “stand on the mat”. Then you click and reward. Simple. But, do you know you can also use “standing on the mat” as a reinforcer for another behaviour?
Make standing on the mat rewarding
You start with building a lot of positive associations with the mat. You start using primary reinforcers to reward your horse for standing on the mat, like treats. Don’t forget to bridge and reward for stepping off of the mat.
After a while the mat is supercharged with pleasurable associations. Every time the horse goes to the mat or stepped on the mat a click and reward had come his way.
The mat as reinforcer
Once the mat is very attractive, you can start using it as a secondary reinforcer. You will notice when the mat is supercharged: your horse will be drawn to the mat as a mosquito to a lamp.
Start asking a very simple exercise to perform on the mat, for instance ‘head lowering’, then you click and reward. In this way you create a chain of behaviours. This one consists of three links: stepping on the mat, standing on the mat (duration) plus head lowering. You can variate the rewards you offer your horse.
If the mat is used as a reward, you click and let your horse step on the mat. The click and going to the mat both act as ‘end of exercise’. Your horse can also enjoy a little break on the mat, which can be rewarding in itself. Don’t forget to still use a primary reinforcer most of the time.
If you want to create reliable behaviours you still have to reinforce the secondary reinforcer (mat) with primary reinforcers, like treats. Don’t phase out the primary reinforcers one hundred percent.
You can put a few mats in the arena while riding. You can use the mats as reward. You can practise a certain exercise riding from mat to mat. If you are working on canter you can canter from mat to mat. The mat indicates the start and the end of an exercise and can help both rider and horse. Or you can lay down the mats only a few meters apart and work on lateral movements where you ride from mat to mat.
Because the mats are supercharged, you should click and reward for ignoring the mat while passing by, walking, trotting and cantering over the mat. Your horse has to learn that only if you ask to stand on a mat, he will get rewarded.
I have used mats to teach Kyra to jump at liberty. I started off easy with one mat before a pole on the ground and another mat just after the pole and I sent her or walked with her from mat to mat. This is why it is important to reward right from the start for stepping off of the mat. Each session I either increased the distance between the mats or I heightened the jump a bit. Now I can send Kyra around the arena with 2 jumps all by herself. She really seems to like it a lot.