equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Foundation Lessons: Ideas for how to improve and expand on basic mat work

This article was originally posted on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in July, 2010. The information here is basic. My book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement (available through Amazon (kindle and paperback), which I published in 2018, covers this topic in much greater detail.

Mat work is a form of foot targeting.  Most horses really like standing on a mat once they get the idea.  It’s a nice way to teach them about foot placement and standing still and I often use matwork as a way to introduce the idea of duration.  Once you have the horse standing on the  mat with his/her two front feet, you can start to refine it, as well as train other behaviors that use the mat.

Some ideas for matwork are:

1.  Can you stand with two feet on the mat?  Once you have two feet on the mat, you can add more criteria to this behavior to increase its quality.  I have listed some ideas in the order I tend to add them, but it’s not something I am rigid about. 

2.  Front feet square and balanced over them (not leaning forward or back)

3.  Front feet centered on the mat

4.  Front feet on the mat and head in a specific position (forward, head down, ears forward, etc…)

5.  All 4 feet square.  A lot of horses tend to carefully position their front feet on the mat, but let their hind ends trail out behind.  I like to teach the horse to stand square and in balance when he’s on the  mat.

6.  Can you stand with your back feet on the mat?  There are a few ways I have shaped this. I can teach the horse to back on to the mat, or to start with his front feet on the mat and then step off it and bring the hind feet up, or I can place the mat under the horse and ask it to step forward on to it. As with the front feet, you can add criteria to improve the quality of the behavior.  Some criteria are:

7.  Back feet square on the mat

8.  All four feet square

9.  Back feet on the mat and head in a specific position (forward, head down, ears forward etc…)

10. Can you stand with your feet (front or back) on different size mats, or in different locations, or on mats that are different textures?

11. Can you stand on a pedestal or box?

12.  Can you put your front feet on one mat and your back feet on another?

13.  Can you put all 4 feet on the mat? I start with a big mat and make it smaller, or start with two mats an easy distance apart and then shorten the distance.

14.  Can you put matwork on a cue that is not the presence of the mat? In the beginning the mat is the cue for the behavior (for most horses) and I usually don’t worry about adding more stimulus control for a while. If I don’t want the horse to stand on the mat, I don’t put it out.  But once the behavior is starting to be offered on a regular basis, then I do teach some simple stimulus control so that my horses don’t drag me to any mat they see. And then at some point I usually tighten up stimulus control by adding one or more cues and being more particular about whether or not I accept the behavior being offered without the cue.  So stimulus control includes:

15.  Can I ask you to go to the mat?

16.  Can I ask you to stand near the mat (but not go on it) or work near the mat without going on it?

17.  Can I send you to the mat from a distance?  Can you send the horse from one mat to another?

18.  If you want, you could have separate cues for front feet on the mat and hind feet on the mat. I have to say that I haven’t done this, but it would be another thing to play with.

19.  Mat work has many practical applications.  It can be used to teach a horse to stand quietly or ground tie.  I start teaching standing quietly by building duration.   So how long can your horse stand on a mat?

20.  To teach ground tying, I start by moving around the horse while he’s on the mat.  I might ask questions like can you stand on the mat while I pat your neck? your side? your hind end?

21.  Can you stand on the mat while I go around you? while I step away from you? while I do something else?  I often start teaching this by teaching the horse about things I might need to do such as tie my shoe, fix my hair, take off my coat, reload my treat pouch etc…

22.  Can you stand on the mat with distractions?  This is similar to number 21, but I start by standing with the horse while someone else creates distractions.  Later I can ask the horse to stay on the mat while I am creating the distraction. 

23.  You can build up to having the horse stand on the mat while you rearrange cones or poles, set up jumps, or do similar tasks in the ring.  An advanced horse will stay on the mat even if you go out of sight. (ok, I’ve never tried that one but I’m sure it’s just a matter of progressively building the behavior. It’s just not something I have ever taken the time to do). 

Katie Bartlett July 2010