This is the story of my quest to train my three Dales Ponies for classical dressage, primarily by using Alexandra Kurland's clicker training methods, with a touch of others such as Philippe Karl and Anja Beran thrown in. I turned to clicker training because I had come up against some issues that I didn't know how to fix and because I wanted to inspire them to become enthusiatic partners. Bella and Jack are all my own work and have never been ridden by anyone else.

Bella, Grace and Jack

Bella aged 6

Bella aged 6

Treat Delivery

Jack aged 7


Monday, 10 November 2008

Mat Work

This is much easier to explain, but no one, including Alexandra Kurland, seems to be able to explain why it has the powerful calming effect on some horses that it does. It is another foundation exercise and is featured on the ‘Shaping to a Point of Contact’ DVD.

The idea, as I understand it, is that you get your horse comfortable with approaching a spooky object (the mat) then get him to put his front feet on it, to teach him to think about what he is doing with his feet. When he likes standing on the mat you get him to stand squarely on it, to improve his balance, and then play about with his balance by rocking him gently very slightly backwards and forwards, as a preparation for teaching him to engage his hindquarters. You do all of this on a high rate of reinforcement, clicking and treating repeatedly when he is doing what you want, so that he loves doing it.

People who did a lot of this work started to report that they were finding that their horses loved their mats so much they were happy relaxed when they were standing on them, regardless of what was going on around them. One person said that it was as if her horse felt that he was in a protected bubble, as long as he was standing on his mat. People were putting them in the spookiest places they had, putting several of them out on trail rides (so they only had to go from one to the next for reassurance) and taking them to shows and clinics, all with the same result – wherever they went their horse would stand still and relax, as long as he was on his mat. One person with a highly-strung competition horse had got it down to a beer mat. At shows, as long as he had one foot on that he was happy and without it he was impossible.

I had started doing mat work with my two on a stable mat in the yard, but when I read about these experiences on the discussion group (you get an invitation to join when you buy the ‘Riding with the Clicker’ book) I looked for something more portable. All I could find to start with was an old carpet tile, which I thought would be just about big enough, but Jack is has a very wide chest and it was too small, but he loved sniffing it. This combined head lowering with the mat effect, so I took it into our very spooky school (even Bella occasionally finds it spooky, so it must be bad!). Jack made straight for it and sniffed it, and I clicked and treated repeatedly.

The result of this has been that I now have it in the spookiest part of the school and, even when it’s windy, he heads straight for it. He used to hate going in the school at all when it was windy but now he would rather go in there and find his mat than walk past the entrance. I have proved this by letting him loose before we get to the entrance and following him, letting him choose where he wants to go. This might sound ridiculous, but I promise that it is the truth.

People reported that some of their horses preferred a noisy mat, such as a piece of wood, and that their horse would jump onto it to make as much noise as possible, as if they found the noise reassuring. I have tried a sheet of plywood and a railway sleeper, and Jack loves standing on all of them, but, left to his own devices, he still heads for his ‘sniff’ mat first.

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I am a clicker training addict and there is no cure - thank goodness!!!