If you’ve been clicker training for a while, you’ve probably discovered how useful mats (foot targets) are for training husbandry behaviors and groundwork. But, you may not realize that mats are also useful for riding. Yes, for riding. Here are some of my favorite ways to use them:
- introducing movement for green horses
- practicing halts and downward transitions
- setting up gymnastic patterns
- helping horses find relaxation in scary corners
- as secondary reinforcers
- as start and end points of chains
I could write a detailed explanation about how to use mats for each of these applications, but then this would be a very long article. Instead, I’m going to write a more general description of how I incorporate mats into arena patterns and school figures. If you have questions on one of the other uses of mats, let me know and I’ll either answer your questions in the comments or write additional articles on the other applications of mat work for riding.
Before you use mats under saddle, your horse should have good understanding of mat work on the ground. This includes:
- a cue to go to a mat (it’s helpful if you can send the horse ahead of you)
- the ability to stand quietly on the mat (no pawing, foot shuffling or other fidgeting)
- being able to easily leave a mat
- being able to walk past a mat or stop in the general vicinity of a mat without insisting upon going to it
I practice at each gait (walk, trot and canter) on the ground before I try riding to a mat at that gait. Practice is important because I don’t want the horse to be making abrupt or hard stops on the mat and it can take some time for the horse to figure out when to deccelerate or transition down when approaching a mat at trot or canter. Depending upon the horse’s level of training, I may ask for the down transition as I approach the mat or allow the horse to do it on his own.
Using mats for patterns
I like using mats as part of arena patterns because they provide focus and structure to my riding. They remind me to set reasonable expectations and remind my horse that reinforcement is available . The latter is important if I am riding a crossover horse who might have become sour or bored with arena work. Using mats can make arena work look “different” and most horses will be more enthusiastic when mats are included as part of their riding session. An additional benefit is that mats provide regular opportunities for a little reflection. When my horse is standing on a mat, I have time to think about what just happened and what to do next.
Here’s a general overview of how I use mats in patterns. I’ve described the progression as three “levels” but there is a lot of back and forth between the levels, depending upon my goal for the day and which pattern I am currently teaching.
- Basic: Navigation and geography. When I start riding using mats, I usually place the mats at strategic points that help the horse learn to move around the arena in different patterns. My focus is on using the mats to introduce the horse to the entire working space and common lines of travel. Most of the time, I click for stopping on the mat.
- Intermediate: Improving rideability, stimulus control, and basic gymnasticizing. Once my horse is comfortable going from mat to mat, I start to use the mats to teach more advanced school figures and improve the horse’s ability to balance and bend. In this phase, I will click for stopping on a mat, but I also click between mats when my focus is on improving some aspect of how the horse goes from mat to mat.
- Advanced work: This involves setting up more complicated mat patterns. I often make chains that start and end with mats. I find it’s a good way to practice specific movements while keeping some flow to the work. For example, I might add transitions between gaits, a few steps of lateral work, or a circle or series of turns instead of taking the direct route between the mats.
An example of a progression.
Let’s say I have a green horse and I am using mats to teach him to walk down the long side of the arena in a forward and balanced walk.
I set out two mats on the long side. I have two options for how I use them:
- I could start with the two mats quite close together and then slowly increase the distance. I start on the first mat and click for stopping on the second mat. I usually choose this option with a green (new to riding) horse because I want to teach the behavior of “walking all the way to the second mat.”
- I could start with the mats farther apart and click as the horse is walking toward the second mat. I am more likely to choose this option if the horse is already comfortable being ridden at a walk and I want to reinforce the idea of going forward (as opposed to arriving and stopping).
At this level, I am using mats to encourage forward movement, create stops, and get a sense of how the horse moves between the two mats. It’s a good way to map out where I want to go and see how the horse handles the pattern. Does he fall in? Fall out? Stop easily on the mat? What would I like to improve?
Once I have an idea what the horse can do, then I start working on improving how the horse does the pattern from mat to mat. I usually pick one thing I would like to improve. In our example, I might notice that the horse tends to drift in off the rail as I go down the long side between two mats. My goal is to have him go in a direct line from the first mat to the second mat.
The first thing I want to do is mark the desired behavior when it happens, so I will ride the pattern again and click when he is nicely walking along the rail – before he drifts in. I reinforce him and then continue to the mat where he gets another click and treat. The next time, I see if he can walk a little farther (while staying on the rail) before I click and treat.
If I see an improvement, then I can continue with this strategy, asking for slightly more distance before clicking. If not, then I have other options.
- I can provide more guidance by making some adjustment to the environment. I could add a cone or pole to mark the path. I could shorten the distance between the mats. I could try doing the same exercise in a different location and see if the drift is a balance issue or related to that particular location.
- I can pay attention to what I am doing. Once I’m on the horse, I have to recognize that my own behavior is going to influence his movement, whether it is intentional or not. Am I doing something that is encouraging the drift? Am I looking at the second mat? Am I sitting evenly? Can I adjust my behavior (position, seat, legs, focus) to help him stay straighter?
- I can use his existing repertoire to help guide him back to the line of travel. Are there behaviors that he knows that I can use to help him continue without drifting? The latter will depend upon what I’ve already taught him – do I have ways to ask him to stay straight?
In this phase, some of my clicks will be for stopping on the mat, and some will be for moments when the horse meets a specific criteria between mats. My goal is to mark the behavior when the horse is learning, but eventually I use “continuing to the mat” as the reinforcer for the desired behavior.
Once the horse can do the basic pattern, I can start to increase the complexity. This can include:
- adding transitions between mats
- varying how I get from mat to mat by adding turns, circles, etc. (fewer direct lines)
- riding past mats at closer and closer distances
- building short chains that start and end with mats
In our example of going from mat to mat down the long side, I might start increasing the complexity by adding a halt half way between the two mats. This allows me to practice asking the horse to halt and walk forward, checks to make sure that the “go to the mat” behavior is not overriding any other cues, and gives me the opportunity to see if the horse can stop and go again without falling out of balance.
A sampling of mat patterns
I thought I’d share some of my favorite mat patterns that I use for teaching school figures to horses. I usually have between 4 and 6 mats out in my ring at any one time. I tend to use rubber doormats as they are durable and soft for the horses to land on. Each mat is marked with one or two cones because my arena footing is gray and the mats can sometimes become hard to see after they’ve been in one spot for a while.
I’ve marked some possible paths for each mat pattern and written them out below the figures. There are lots of other options, especially if you use the mats as both destinations and navigation points (riding around them).
Note: I usually set the patterns up so the horse approaches the mat at the widest side. But, if you want more flexibility you can use larger mats or two mats side by side so that you can arrive on the mat from more directions.
Pattern 1: A good basic pattern for a horse just learning to go around the outside of the riding arena, but it also can be used for more advanced figures.
- practice going down the long sides and through the short sides. If the horse wants to cut in at the end, add mats in the middle of the short sides.
- riding half circles on the inside of the arena – good practice for riding arcs without the support of the wall
- turns across the half school line
- diagonals – I usually move the mats a little further in and change the orientation, but the basic pattern works well.
Pattern 2: This is the most common pattern I use, so I’ve put up two diagrams showing possible paths.
- around the outside
- across the diagonals
- half circles in the middle from mat to mat
- full circles in the middle of the arena – start on one mat (on the middle of the long side) and make a full circle (going past the other mat by riding to the inside of it. I walk this pattern on the ground first before I ride it, so the horse understands we are going past a mat.
- if you want to ride larger circles in the middle, you can move one of the mats to the quarter line and ride around the outside of it to get back to the starting mat.
- half of a three loop serpentine. I introduce three loop serpentines by teaching each half separately. The horse only has to practice one change of bend before arriving on the next mat, which makes it easier. Once the horse can do that, then I either move the mat to a new location on the serpentine, move it so we navigate around it, or add a down transition (which I click) at the original mat location.
Pattern 3: This pattern uses fewer mats and it’s a good way to practice diagonals as well as to get the horse used to going half way around the arena without encountering a mat.
- three loop serpentine with the center mat as a navigation point
- centerlines – I didn’t mark this path, but this pattern works for centerlines if you have a big mat or change the orientation of it.
- full circle around the center mat. After I click, I will walk the horse to the mat in the center for a break and extra reinforcement.
Pattern 4: mats down the center line
- half circles
- figure 8s
- center lines. If your horse has a hard time turning on to the center line, a strategically placed mat can help him find it.
- I also ride from mat to mat down the center line. I can change the spacing and orientation.
- I’ve also used this pattern for a horse that is nervous about one end of the arena. I do circles and turns on and off the mats. It gives the horse opportunities to look at the back while slowly working closer toward it.
Pattern 5: This is similar to pattern 2, but the mats on the short sides are set on an inner track to provide more options. You can also do the reverse – keep the mats on the short sides on the rail and set the side mats on the quarter lines.
- riding half way around the arena from short side to short side.
- riding mat to mat on curved or straight lines. This is how I introduce riding diamonds.
- riding an inner oval or rectangle by going past the side mats on the quarter lines. This is a good way to practice straight lines without the support of the wall.
- start on mat at the end, turn on to the quarter line – go past the side mat, leg yield to the wall and then turn and go to end mat (this path is now shown on the diagram)
- riding across the arena in a straight line (start on one mat, turn and go across, turn to go to next mat). You can practice lots of different types of turns (round turns, square turns, quarter of a turn on the forehand).
Fading out the mats
Depending upon your long term goals, you may choose to fade out the mats or only use them for new patterns. I usually have several mats set out in my arena, but I use them more some days than others. In general, I don’t like to remove the mats abruptly if the horse has become used to riding with them. Instead, I slowly transition to providing other forms of guidance or feedback.
- Have some mats in the arena but vary how much you use them. This is a good way to make sure you have good stimulus control over the mats.
- Remove the mats slowly. If I am working on a specific pattern and want to ride it without mats, I will slowly remove them. I often provide an alternative object that provides similar information but does not cue the horse to stop. Cones and poles work well for this.
- Remove the mat and click for continuing past the previous mat location, while still staying on the pattern. Slowly vary where you click so the horse gets used to going farther before being clicked.
- Replace the mat with another behavior. For example, if your horse is used to trotting to a mat, stopping on it, and then continuing on the pattern, you can replace the mat with a walk transition a few times. I click for the walk transition. Then, I click for going back to trot after the walk transition, and eventually I drop out the walk transition and trot the whole thing.
While transitioning slowly away from using mats is my preferred way of doing things, I have had a few times when I removed them entirely, either to see how the horse was without them, or because I felt the horse was getting too fixated on going to mats. I find that it’s not uncommon for the latter to happen, even if you have previously had good stimulus control around mats.
If the horse does become overly intent on going to mats, I will remove the mats for a few sessions. When I add them back in (one at a time), I use them sparingly. I want most of my clicks to happen off the mats. Over time I will start to use the mats more, but I still try to keep the majority of the clicks for behaviors other than stopping on a mat. With most horses, I can find a good balance of mat behaviors vs. other behaviors.
Most horses love mats and including them in your riding is a great way to connect groundwork to riding. I’d love to hear from you if you already use mats in riding or if you give it a try. I find it’s a great way to keep things interesting and fun for the horses.
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Another fantastic article. Thank you for all that you share.
Thank you Chloe. It’s always great to get positive feedback. I hope you have fun playing with mats.