Cones, mats, poles, and targets: Putting them to use in ground and ridden work to teach new behaviors and facilitate learning

IMG_3357Some of the most practical behaviors that I teach with clicker training are ones that involve the use of objects. These objects can function as prompts for specific behaviors, visual cues, or provide guidance for how to do other behaviors.  Because they are taught with positive reinforcement, they usually take on additional value (positive valence)through classical conditioning.  Clicker trained horses eagerly approach targets, mats and other physical items used as part of their training and will seek out opportunities to interact with them.

Often this happens automatically without any deliberate effort on the trainer’s part, but we can also choose to build or take advantage of these associations so that the positive emotions associated with clicker training are carried over into new behaviors or new activities.  This is very helpful when training any behavior, but I find it is especially helpful when training new behaviors that might have an aversive component (medical or husbandry behaviors) or for behaviors that might require physical effort (riding or groundwork).  It changes how the horse feels about the activity and makes it easier for him to learn.

I ride in an arena most of the time and I know that it’s important to plan my sessions carefully so that my horse stays mentally engaged and enjoys the work.  Therefore, I’m always looking for ways to combine familiar material (behaviors and skills) with new ideas (can you do it in a slightly different way?) to keep the work interesting. It’s always a challenge to find the right combination so that the horse can be successful but also continue to advance in his training.

One thing I have found helpful is to set up patterns using objects like poles, cones and mats.   They can be used as markers or visual guides to indicate changes of bend, direction, or transitions.  They can also be used to cue specific behaviors like standing (mats), touching, following, or head lowering (targets).  I usually use portable objects so I can set up many different configurations and move them around as needed to make the exercises suitable for the needs of each horse, and to build the right combination of consistency and flexibility.

Using objects to guide a horse and rider through a training exercise is not new and certainly not unique to clicker training. But, when we combine this training strategy with positive reinforcement, and use objects that are associated with known behaviors and positive emotions, the benefits are even greater.

Here’s a short list of some of the reasons I like to use objects:

  • They can be associated with specific behaviors and desirable emotions.
  • With some horses, especially ones that have emotional baggage about traditional ridden work, using objects that are associated with positive reinforcement changes the context and allows me to re-introduce groundwork or ridden work in a new way.
  • They encourage active participation on the part of the horse, give the horse more control, and can provide a “sense of purpose.” It may seem anthropomorphic to talk about a “sense of purpose,” but I know Rosie does better when she knows what she is supposed to do, as opposed to if I ride random patterns (as it may seem to her) until I click.
  • When used as markers, objects provide visual guidance for the horse and rider and also make it easier to evaluate how successfully the exercise has been done.  How close did he come to the cone? Was he straight between the poles?
  • For some behaviors, the horse’s eagerness to participate can be useful information. Did he walk directly to the target? How did he touch it?
  • If used in patterns, they can also help both horse and trainer learn new movement patterns and develop a feel for correct movement.  Once you can ride a straight line between two poles or a line of cones, you know what “straight” feel like.
  • Objects can also be used as an intermediate step between liberty work and more traditional handling.  You can go both ways –  start at liberty with objects and add cues for more traditional handling, or start with more traditional handling using objects and work toward liberty work.

What kind of objects can you use?

Here are some of the objects that I use, and a few ideas for how to use them.  This is not a complete list, but just some examples to get you started.

Targets: 

I use a variety of targets including both hand-held and stationary targets.

They can be useful for:

  • Leading (following a hand-held target)
  • Standing (standing at a stationary target)
  • Isolating and moving body parts (head, legs, shoulders and hips)
  • Going to a location (go to a stationary target)

Cones:

They can be used as stationary targets or for marking patterns (visual guides.)   I find it can be confusing for some horses if cones are used as both markers and targets in the same pattern, so I don’t recommend doing that unless you have already taught different behaviors for different types of cones.  A simple way to use a cone as a target, without confusing the horse, is to place a target stick upright in the cone.

I tend to use them for:

  • visual guides – marking geography to practice patterns (turns, circles, serpentines, etc.)
  • Destinations – if used with a stationary target, a cone/target combination can encourage a lower head upon approach.
  • Turns – to encourage bend and help a horse learn to turn without falling on to his inside shoulder or counter-bending.
  • They work well in the middle of patterns as they provide guidance but don’t necessarily become associated with stopping
  • I sometimes use two cones placed close together to make a “cone gate” and direct a horse on to a line of travel. Having two cones is a different visual than a single cone and can help a horse learn to follow the desired path a little more closely.

Mats: 

Mats come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I tend to use solid mats (stiff rubber or wood) for movement exercises as I don’t want to have to keep adjusting a mat if it gets crinkled as can happen with some of the thinner mats.   Most of the time, I am just looking for two front feet on the mat, but I have sometimes used mats for hind foot targeting, or asked for all four feet on a mat, or on two mats placed close together.

They are useful for:

  • Stationary behaviors
  • Destinations (go to the mat)
  • They can be used to isolate body parts (moving front or hind feet while the other feet stay on the mat)
  • the terminal behavior in a chain
  • teaching a horse to go forward – going from mat to mat can encourage forward behavior
  • teaching a horse to slow down – going from mat to mat can provide places to stop for a horse that wants to go
  • Mats can also be placed in patterns and used to teach turns (toward and away from the trainer) and even backing.

Poles:

I also use ground poles, either placed on the ground or on short risers (blocks that elevate them a few inches).  Cavaletti also work well.

I have used them as:

  • visual guides – a pole placed parallel to the line of travel (or two poles placed to create a chute) can tell a horse where to go.
  • visual guides – a pole placed perpendicular to the line of travel can also be used to direct a horse. I sometimes place one or more poles to mark the size of the circle I want, when working at liberty or on the lunge line.
  • cues/visual guides – horses can learn to go from pole to pole (going over them) when laid out in a pattern in the ring. The poles function as cues for the behavior of “step over the pole,” but they are associated with movement, so they also function as visual guides for where to go.  You can teach a horse to do several in a row before he is clicked and reinforced.
  • shaping movement – different spacing or configurations of poles can be used to shape movement.

Other objects:

In addition to targets, mats, cones, and poles, I’ve used other objects to make movement training more interesting, or tap into existing behaviors that have been trained under other conditions.  I think as long as something is safe, portable (or can be easily incorporated), has value to the horse, and will contribute to your training goals, then it could be a useful addition.

Here are some other ideas:

  • hula hoops
  • balls
  • pedestals or platforms
  • buckets
  • mounting blocks – most people focus on using a mounting block to get on, but if you’ve trained it with positive reinforcement, it has high value and can become a place to stop or do some targeting or …
  • toys for fetch (giving your horse a fun activity at the end of a chain can build enthusiasm)
  • what does your horse like?…

When using objects, there are some important things to consider:

  • Have you clearly defined the behavior associated with the object?  When teaching a behavior, it’s important to have clear criteria and be consistent about only reinforcing those efforts that meet them. But, when I start using the object as part of a larger pattern, I might have to adjust or relax the criteria, at least initially.  If so, I need to plan for that and also consider how I am going shift back to the original criteria, or if that’s even necessary.  For example, with mat work, how much precision do I  want? 2 feet on? Fronts square? All square? Orientation to the mat? With targeting, do I want a touch? A touch and hold? An approach?
  • How much or what kind of stimulus control do I want? Is the object the cue, or do I want to use another cue to tell the horse when to go? I find that verbal cues often function more as “release” cues and the verbal combined with the object tells the horse what to do. Objects as visual cues are very strong and this may become problematic if I don’t consider this in my plan.
  • If I am building patterns, I want to consider the best way to assemble the pattern. I can teach it adding each individual behavior one at a time, or by teaching sections and then combining them. I also have to decide if I want to assemble it by forward chaining or backchaining.
  • There’s often a fine line between the object being helpful as part of the pattern and the object becoming the most relevant piece of information.  If I am using the object to set up a pattern where the horse can practice a specific movement pattern, it may be acceptable if the arrangement of objects becomes the cue.  My horses know the cone set-up for a serpentine and that’s ok with me. On the other hand, I have other cone set-ups that are associated with multiple patterns and I want them to use the cones for guidance, but also pay attention to my cues so they know which one we are doing. This builds in flexibility.  My experience has been that if I don’t plan for flexibility, I don’t get it…
  • Do I want the objects to remain as part of the behavior, or do I want to fade them out?  Always consider the long term goal.   If I want to fade them out, then I need to include that as part of my training plan.  There are lots of ways to do this, but I usually do it gradually.  Sometimes I can tell when the horse no longer needs the object(s) because they will start to anticipate or offer the behavior in the absence of the object. Other times I have to play with the set-up to see if they are ready to have them removed.

Common Patterns Using A Combination of Objects:

  • cone circle with mats – Alexandra Kurland teaches balanced work on a circle and turns using cones, with mats placed at various locations to provide breaks, reinforcement or direction
  • mat circle – mats placed in a circle to teach a horse to go from mat to mat on a curve line
  • exploding cone circle – another from Alexandra Kurland, although the name is mine (I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t use the term “exploding”) – start with a tight circle of cones and then slowly expand it. Useful to teach a horse to stay on the outside of the cones a liberty.
  • connected cone circles – two circles with a path in between. Alexandra Kurland uses these for mat work, changes of bend, etc.
  • cone lozenge – stretch your cone circle out to include straight lines so your horse learns to go from a curved line to a straight line. Also lots of possibilities for patterns across the lozenge.
  • serpentines using cones, poles, or cone gates to help the horse learn to bend and straighten
  • shallow serpentines to teach bending lines at walk, trot, canter and introduce counter-canter
  • chutes of poles to teach straightness – I’ve used these when teaching Aurora to trot on a lead so she learned to stay in her lane, without crossing into mine. I placed a mat or cone gates at various distances so she knew where to stop trotting

Aurora’s pole circle- a more detailed description of how to choose, adjust and expand upon a basic object defined exercise:

This fall I wanted to introduce Aurora to the idea of trotting on a circle so I put some thought into various options, taking into account what I had available (cones, mats, and poles) and what she knew about them.

I had previously done a little work on a cone circle, a useful set-up that I had learned from Alexandra Kurland, who uses cone circles a lot.  But I only had enough cones to mark a small circle, so we had just done it at a walk.  I had also used cones and poles as visual guides to teach her to trot in a straight line so I could jog her for the vet, if needed.  To do this, I set up “cone gates” to mark the start and end of the trot, and placed poles in between to mark the line of travel. She would start at one cone gate, trot through the chute of poles and stop trotting at the second cone gate.

This basic pattern with ground poles and cones was easy to convert into a new configuration that would set her up to trot on a circle.  I knew I would initially need to define the line of travel on both sides because she has a tendency to either want to be very close to me, or to zoom off.  Finding a middle distance is difficult for her.  So,  I simply laid out the ground poles in a large circle and placed cones on the inside so she had a “track” with poles on one side and cones on the other.

I did debate about whether to have the poles mark the inside or outside of the circle.  Both would work, and ultimately I did have her do both, but I started with the poles on the outside because I thought this had the additional benefit of teaching her the idea of working along the track in a defined space like an arena.

Therefore, my plan was to start with the poles on the outside and use cones to mark the inside of the track.  With this set-up, I would be able to mark and reinforce her for staying between the  poles and cones. Then, as she got better at staying between them, I could slowly decrease the number of cones and reinforce her for staying near the poles, until eventually she learned to just follow the poles and didn’t need the cones anymore.   When I use objects, I always try to plan ahead if I want to fade some of them out.  It seemed like it would be easy to decrease the number of cones and maintain the behavior, if she built up enough reinforcement history for going around next to the poles.

I want to mention here that my goal was not to have her trot around and around.  She’s still young and I knew she didn’t know how to balance on a curved line in trot.  I didn’t want to stress her either physically or mentally.  This exercise was more about introducing the idea of a circle and teaching some basic skills like how to go out, stay at a distance, and maintain the trot with a little duration.  My goal was to get her to trot twice around.  At the same time, I wanted a chance to observe how she carried herself (balance and posture) so I could start to put together some groundwork exercises that would be beneficial to her.

The initial set-up was this:

IMG_3345

I simply laid out my available rails (12) and set them on small horse blocks which raise the poles about 2 inches off the ground. This created a round ring about 45 feet in diameter, which left room for wide track around the outside.  I did leave a “gate” which is where the larger white blocks are in the picture. I could have made the circle slightly smaller and just used a pole as a gate if I didn’t want a clearly defined entrance and exit.

I introduced the circle by walking her in and around the “track” next to the poles.  The first time I walked with her into the circle, she was quite funny because she walked around the entire thing with her nose on the poles. I think she was sniffing them, but maybe she was just tracking them with her nose.  After that first inspection, she walked with her head in a more normal position.

Over the next week, I did several short sessions of just walking with me, next to the poles. I just let her walk around with me in the circle did this for a few days. I didn’t want the circle to become a cue to trot, so I wanted her to learn to walk quietly in there before we went to a faster gait.

Once she was comfortable walking in there, then I asked her to trot and jogged around the track with her.   I gave her enough space that she didn’t have to go too close to the poles, if she didn’t want to.   She didn’t seem worried about them and was happy to trot next to me.

Then I added the cones. It looked like this:

IMG_3342

We went back to walk and I spent a few sessions reinforcing her for staying on her side of the cones, while I was on my side of the cones.  Over the course of these sessions, I added more distance and reinforced her for staying in her “track” even when I was not right next to her.  On several occasions, she clearly adjusted her line of travel if she started to cut to the inside the cones, so I knew she was getting the idea.

Once she got the idea, I started doing the same exercise at the trot.  This was interesting as she got a little confused and went out over the poles a few times.  No big deal. I just had her stop, walked her back in and tried again.  We haven’t worked on trotting over poles, so I don’t think she was doing it deliberately. She would just get moving and keep going in a straight line.

Once she was figured out that I wanted her to stay inside the poles, then she would have moments when she followed them and stayed between the poles and cones, but she would sometimes veer in and come to the inside of the cones.  This was where the cones were useful as a visual marker because if she cut in, I could just cue her to move out and click her for going back to “her” side of the cones.  I had taught her to move out away from me with a target during her regular leading to the field and back, and this cue came in handy when she started to cut in.  After a few sessions in the trot, she started to correct herself if she cut in, and would change direction to get on “her” side of the cones.  I was a little careful about what I reinforced as I didn’t want her to think the goal was to weave around the cones.

We’ve been working on this on and off for about a month. I often do two or three days in a row and then leave it for a bit.   So far she’s learned to:

  • trot when asked, but not before
  • go out on the circle
  • stay next to the poles (there are a few spots where she often drifts slightly in, but not a significant amount)
  • stop trotting when I click

We still need to work on:

  • staying out and waiting for me to bring her reinforcement to her (she wants to come to me)
  • relaxation in the trot (she’s a little high headed)
  • a little more duration
  • clarifying that the click is not for being in a certain location. She seems to think she gets clicked for being at a certain spot on the circle – probably because I clicked in the same spot a few too many times in an early session.  So she has some confusion as to whether the click is for duration or location (this is not uncommon as horses often fall into patterns where they do the same thing at the same spot so the location and the clickable behavior get sort of intertwined. )

Other uses for the circle:

While Aurora has been working on her training goals, I have left the circle set up in my arena. One disadvantage to using poles is that it does take more time to set up and take down.  Since I don’t feel like doing that every day and I have other horses that do either groundwork or riding sessions in the arena, I started thinking about ways I could incorporate the circle into their training.  This has turned out to be a lot of fun as the circle has a lot of possibilities, especially if I remove a few poles so there are openings.

Here’s one possible configuration for the circle with some poles removed:

IMG_3343

I can ride around and through the circle at all three gaits and have used it to practice familiar patterns as well as create some new ones. Sometimes I leave the cones in and use them to add clarity or to encourage better turns, etc. Other times I take them out so there are more options.  For groundwork I sometimes add a mat or two, or I might do the patterns with a target stick. To avoid confusing my horses, I don’t ask them to do any patterns that require going over a pole.   It keeps things simpler if I only use them to mean “go around” and not “go over.”

I’ve used this set-up for both groundwork and ridden work. What I’ve found is that the different options create a lot of “clickable” moments and I can click a nice turn, response to a cue, balance shift, or change in the horse’s gaits.  The combination of straight and curved lines and different types of turns make it easy to explore what the horse knows and find some new variations that challenge him a bit, or let him practice what he needs to learn.

Horses who struggle with changes of bend seem to find it easier to go from one clearly defined opening to another clearly defined opening and I can change which poles are present/removed to create different options.  In the past I’ve done similar things with cones, but I found that I really liked the clarity of poles vs. openings.

Here are some of the things I’ve played around with so far:

  • go around the outside (larger circle – useful if a horse tends to fall in)
  • go around the inside (smaller circle – useful if a horse tends to drift out)
  • practice changes of direction by going around the outside and then taking a path through the inside.  sometimes I just remove two poles so there’s only one path. Other times I remove several so I can practice different lines of travel (bending lines, leg yielding lines, etc.)
  • practice turns and circles by going around one or more poles
  • practice figure 8’s by going around one pole and then another pole. I can do these using poles opposite each other, or along the edges
  • practice leg yield in combination with bending lines by weaving along the outside (I often remove every other pole for this)
  • practice loopy turns (serpentine type turns) by removing a pole and then leaving two so I have bigger turns
  • I can use a turn out of the center of the circle to get more engagement if I ride it with the idea of a square turn).  Once I’m on the line of the circle, I can either ask the horse to collect more or extend.
  • I have also used it with Red in his long-line sessions and found that having specific openings in the circle improved my ability to steer him.
  • I don’t have to stay “tight” to the circle to use it. Sometimes I use the full arena but just pop in and out of the circle at various points, doing a turn and then going out on to a bigger pattern.

Other possible configurations:

One day I removed some of the poles and placed cones across the openings. The cones still provided a visual barrier but were easier to move around than the poles. If you only had a few poles and wanted to do a combination of poles and cones, this option might work well.  Eventually I will probably shift Aurora to more cones than poles, so that I can set the circle up more easily and/or make it bigger.  I do think that, for her, the poles were much clearer and it was worth doing in the beginning, but I don’t think she’ll need them forever.

Here’s the circle with a combination of poles and cones:

IMG_3341

I also set this up one day, adding a pole to go over and just one cone to mark the track on the opposite side.

IMG_3340

The pattern of one cone to go around and one pole to go over is how I have defined Red’s liberty circle for quite a while, so I was comfortable adding “go over the pole” and didn’t expect it to confuse him.  I set it up inside the pole circle to see if he was really doing a round circle or if it was getting more egg shaped. Turns out, he is pretty accurate.

I’m sure I will come up with some new ideas for patterns to do through the circle. I haven’t done much at the canter. And then it will be time to come up with a new set-up.

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