Recently, Apollo and I have been practicing standing on mats. This is a seemingly simple training exercise that has many practical uses.
A mat can give a horse a concrete place to stay during other activities, such as grooming, saddling, or veterinary procedures. Mats can also be used to direct a horse to go to a certain location, and they are used in some exercises to help the horse improve his balance and coordination.
I initially used Alexandra Kurland’s runway lesson to introduce Apollo to mats. In this exercise, the trainer practices cuing the horse to take one step forward and one step back. This builds a communication system that the trainer can use to get the horse on and off the mat.
Recently, I introduced Apollo to a new mat. It was a piece of cardboard that was brown on one side and blue and white on the other side. (It’s interesting to note that blue is one color that horses see quite well. You can read more about a horse’s color vision in this post.)
We started with the brown side. This was no problem. Apollo eagerly approached the mat and stood on it.
Then, I switched to the blue and white side. The first time we walked up to the mat, Apollo snorted and made a wide arc around it. This clearly was a completely different piece of cardboard! After a bit of work in the vicinity of the mat, Apollo was willing to approach it and stand on it again.
Finally, I switched back to the brown side. Apollo walked right up to the mat.
Then, however, he stopped in front of it and pawed it several times before standing on it.
This training session was a great reminder to me that our animals are always noticing changes in the environment. I didn’t expect Apollo to paw at the cardboard when I switched back to the brown side. But, he noticed that it was different.
We have only worked with a limited number of mats so far. It will take more practice for Apollo to understand that mats can be many different colors and that mats can even change colors during a training session!
During our next few training sessions, Apollo and I will be experimenting with mats that vary in color, texture, and size. Our goal is that, eventually, when a strange-looking mat appears, Apollo will be able to walk up to it without hesitation and stand on it with confidence.