In my training plan there are three features to mat training.
1) GETTING ON the mat
2) STAYING ON the mat
3) GETTING OFF of the mat
Each of the components needs to be trained. With getting ON the mat, you want lots of repetitions of stepping on the mat. I like to train the “GETTING ON” to include a range so that the horse can see the mat from 10 feet and still be drawn to it. So my GETTING ON training sessions involve paying in a position that allows the horse to go BACK to the mat, many times. I use the clicker extensively here because I’m marking the hoof touching the mat. Later I shape the behavior to have both front feet touch the mat. The key point of this element is returning to the mat, many times.
Mats and pedestals are all the same technique
STAYING ON the mat involves training duration. With this form of mat training I do not click. I just feed them in a position that maintains the behavior of staying on the mat. I might ask them to do a few static behaviors like smile, stand for brushing or wait in position while I leave the immediate area and get something from the nearby barn. It’s like being ground tied. It can also be generalized to stationing on a “virtual mat” meaning they have learned to stay put in one place, wherever they are parked. The key point of this element is staying on the mat once they’re there.
Staying on the mat means the person can move around
STAYING ON the mat is going to necessitate another step, which is GETTING OFF the mat. You haven’t lived until you realize that you have turned your horse into a statue because of an enthusiastic determination to train your horse to stay on a mat. It’s like a horse that can’t seem to walk by a target without bumping it, or won’t leave the target because the history of reinforcement is so rich.
Staying on is a key point in the training, but so is getting off
So while you begin to work with STAYING ON and GETTING ON, you will need to add balance by training and using some sort of cue that either releases them off of the mat or calls them off of the mat to do a different behavior (say touching a target for example). I approach this fairly soon after I see the horse is beginning to return to the mat easily and stand for at least 15 seconds. it’s a judgment call. The key element of this task is to leave the mat and move onto other tasks.
Oh, and these three principles are the same that I use when teaching trailer loading. It’s all the same concept rolled into one complete training plan.
Here is a video showing some relevant aspects of mat training.