Mat work is excellent exercise(s) to do with Icelandic Horses. They are very receptive to it
and seem to learn easily to "take your mark". It also makes training fun! for them and you!
MAT EXERCISES by Margaret L. Leach
Click here to see a diagram
showing the many training possibilities that can come out of mat work.
I have had great fun seeing the many skills I can teach my horse while it
stands on a mat. This exercise can lead to many desirable behaviors from
the horse. Examples include the ability to stand quietly by your side while
you talk to someone, smooth trailer loading, reliable ground tying,
tolerance for new or different surfaces underfoot (trail riding), improved
emotional control in new or stressful environments and more patience
(duration aspects). The mat serves as a useful anchor while sacking the
horse out, teaching it to automatically stand in good body alignment and
teaching it show-ring stances.
You can use any number of materials to practice mat exercises. At the
clinics we tend to grab whatever is at hand. This might include a piece of
plywood, a feedbag or a plastic lid from a supplement can. It is easier for
the horse if the mat is a larger size. I personally bought a very
inexpensive "welcome" mat designed for use outside the entrance of a house.
The mat has a thin rubber backing and a cloth/matting surface. It is tough
yet easily washable.
To begin, ask the horse if it will step on the mat with one front hoof.
Click/reward the first time the horse happens to land a hoof on the mat.
Once it consistently steps on with one foot ask for both front feet.
Initially the horse may object to a strange surface and try to go around or
hop over the mat. This is normal. Just shape approximations of the desired
behavior until the horse finally steps onto the mat with both front feet.
Click/reward. Getting both feet to land on the mat at the same time may
require repeated "step forward, step back" until the horse offers to halt on
the chosen object. As an alternative to stepping forward and stepping
backward, work on a small circle. Just walk the horse forward over the
object in a circle until it lands a hoof on the mat. Keep working until the
horse can consistently land both front feet on the mat.
Next, you can extend duration of time spent standing on the mat by asking
the horse if it can stand on the mat for one second. Try three seconds.
Then try five seconds. Re-enforce for a gradual increase in the time spent
standing still. Duration should be extended in a seesaw manner so that the
exact number of seconds during any one trial is variable and unpredictable.
My initial duration goal was 60 seconds. I reached that length of time by
practicing this over the course of several training sessions. Achieving the
first 10 seconds of duration is the most challenging and time consuming.
Progress is much faster once the horse has learned the concept of standing
still as you move away.
While the horse is standing on the mat, you can choose to re-enforce
specific head positions. I taught my horse to stand quietly next to me with
head at "half-mast." Another criterion might be face and ears forward.
Standing on a mat is also wonderful for working on head lowering. When you
work on extending the duration for head lowering, time your click for when
the horse's head is in the center of its chest with face forward, rather
than looking off to one side. (Alexandra Kurland points out that if the
horse spends too much time looking off to one side, it will tend to follow
its nose and step off the mat when the position becomes fatiguing. If the
horse is lined up well, in good posture, it will stand comfortably and
quietly for much longer.)
Another task you can develop on the mat is preparation for ground tying.
Start by asking if the horse can stand quietly on the mat while you move
away from it at first only one foot, then two feet, and then three feet.
Progressing in inches, instead of feet, may be necessary in the beginning.
Ultimately you want to be able to stand at the end of the lead-rope and have
the horse maintain its position on the mat. Then you can start varying
where you stand at the end of the lead-rope. Possibilities include in front
of the horse, off to the left and off to the right.
Meadowlark is now working on standing quietly in the center of the arena on
a lead rope with me 10 feet away while another rider trots and canters along
the wall. This simply takes the basic exercise that is solid in the horse
and adds new outside distractions that might take away your horse's focus on
the task at hand. Remember to add distractions gradually. Don't ask too
much too soon. Set your horse up to succeed by taking small steps. Only
move on when the horse is very solid at the previous level. If your horse
breaks, just go back a few steps and practice more.
Eventually you might drop the lead to the ground, after the horse is very
solid at the initial steps and you are in a contained area that isn't too
distracting. Then you can ask the horse if you can move around it, behind
it, away from it. You can extend this out to greater distances and longer
duration until you have a horse that ground ties. My mare, Serena, now
ground ties in the barn aisle for grooming, putting on and off blanket, and
cleaning hooves. In fact, she will hold her position in the arena while I
run to the tack room for something. That behavior evolved out of standing
still on a mat.
Another variation is to move your mat around. Start in a low-distraction
area and then very gradually move the mat to a more distracting environment
or a place that is a little anxiety provoking for your horse. Move in small
increments from "safe zone" to "scary zone" so that the horse remains
relaxed throughout the transition. Start out close to the horse and
gradually increase duration of standing still. After duration is
established for at least a full minute, practice increasing the distance
between you and the horse.
Meadowlark and I spend a lot of time on her mat in front of the open arena
door (gate across) so she can learn to stand quietly while taking in all the
sights and sounds from the yard and road. I have also practiced this in the
barn aisle so she learns to focus on me rather than the bales of hay stacked
next to her or the horse in the nearby stall. We practice versions of this
exercise outdoors (on the lead rope), except I eliminated the mat. I just
ask for quiet standing with face forward or head lowering while I move into
different positions around her.
The mat can be helpful for trailer loading. When Meadowlark sees the mat,
her eyes light up and she hurries to go stand on it. By putting the mat
inside the trailer and asking her to target her feet on the mat, she went
right up the ramp and plopped her front feet onto it. The mat gave her a
familiar anchor in a new environment. By combining the mat with targeting
her nose to a bottle I had a powerful tool to overcome her anxiety about
going into the trailer.
The mat can be used for sacking out. Ask the horse if it can stand quietly
on the mat while you put a towel across its neck, over its rump, and
wherever else that appeals to you. Vary the materials used until your horse
remains calm and still on the mat despite unusual objects approaching and
possibly touching it.
With enough practice, the mat starts to serve as an emotional anchor of
familiar behavior for the horse. The horse learns that if it stands
quietly, the goodies will come. Then it is more willing to be introduced to
new stimuli while earning rewards.
Once the horse gets good at this exercise, have some fun by asking him to
place his back feet on the mat, instead of his front feet. You may need to
alternate stepping the horse forward, then stepping it back until the horse
happens to land a foot on the mat. Click that and jackpot! Shape for
consistently placing one back foot on the mat, then both back feet, then
duration, then overall position, just as you did for the front feet.
A wonderful result of targeting the mat with back feet is that I finally
achieved control of all four of my horse's feet through so I could line her
up nicely for photographs. Meadowlark used to stop any old way. She might
have a hip slightly turned out or one foot in front of the other. Now she
lines herself up as delicately as a cat. If I let her know, through very
tiny pressure on the clip of the lead rope, that she is not quite right she
will correct herself so she is standing up square. Now both of my horses
are tending to line up their feet automatically when I request a stand-stay
or halt. They no longer require the presence of the mat to "square-up."
By changing types of materials used as a mat, you can get a horse ready for
riding in a trailer or riding out on the trail. I practiced with Meadowlark
when she was still a foal, having her walk onto a large sheet of plywood
laid out in the indoor arena. She became accustomed to the hollow sound
wood makes. Then I taught her to go onto the board one step at a time, back
off one step at a time and to stop at any point I asked, standing quietly.
This exercise served as great preparation for getting into the trailer
I worked on the same exercise with a thick plastic tarp. (Caution: be very
careful that the horse neither slips nor gets its feet tangled in the tarp.
It is critical not to rush the steps.) I also used this idea to teach her
to walk through mud puddles so she wouldn't be finicky about water on her
feet. She liked that game so much that she now seeks out mud-puddles to
splash through when we go out in the yard!
Mat exercises are wonderful for the Attention Deficit Disorder horse,
the anxious horse, and the one that needs to constantly move. This exercise
teaches patience and leads to emotional calmness. Getting control of each
of the four feet on the ground through the lead rope is a prelude to getting
control of each foot under-saddle. Speaking of under-saddle, it is great
fun to teach the mat exercise under-saddle as well. Enjoy!
This is not the mat, but the platform; similar exercise.