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Teaching your horse lunging with mats

When we work with positive reinforcement we often have to think a little bit out of the box in how to set up the exercises we want. Traditionally lunging is using pressure and release to teach the horse, end goal for me is pretty much the same when it comes to forming a circle and teaching the horse to "hold" it but the road to that looks different.

a horse being lunged in liberty
Liberty lunging. Me asking for haunches in in trot.

I start as always from a strong basics. Here the foundation behaviors would be "free walk" and "standing on a mat". Meaning a horse that can walk next to me in liberty, starting from shoulder position.

Then we have the mat behavior where I always start from a solid parking in the mat. So the horse can stand at least 15-20 sec without offering other behaviors in between.

And checking that I can send my horse over to the mat by pointing at it or saying a verbal cue.

If we got that, the rest is much easier :)

Here I'm teaching Frodi by using old door mats to create a lunging circle setup. We started in liberty and are now on about adding tack, which for him is the bigger challenge. But this is how it can look when we are somewhere in the middle of the process before fading the mats out again. I'm not in a hurry doing this but I do start rather quickly experimenting with fewer mats and different gaits in between them. An important thing to note here is that I use mats for several reasons. One is to help the horse understand the concept of a circle. By giving the horse a direction. A circle is a rather diffuse concept for most horses and falling in on the circle can be because the horse isn't yet sure where to go.

But we also have to take strength and laterality in to the mix. Many horses fall in on one circle while the other one gets bigger. That because the horse is left or right handed to various degrees, just like us. The mats helps with this too and are great to straighten them up by giving them this direction.

Here's how I typically introduce this:

  1. Initial Liberty Work: Start by working with your basics at liberty, allowing them to explore and guide them with your basics where they need it. Here I am clicking for moments TOWARDS the mat rather than going to it and stand on it.

  2. Setting Up the Mats: Place a series of old door mats on the ground in a circular pattern. The goal is to create a clear and defined circle that your horse can move within. Initially, use a sufficient number of mats to provide guidance for your horse.

  3. Adjusting Distance: Experiment with the distance between the mats and your horse. You want the circle to be a true circle, so adjust the spacing as needed to achieve this shape. Start with a relatively small circle and gradually increase the size as your horse becomes more comfortable.

  4. Gradual Progression: Don't be in a rush to remove the mats. They are there to assist and guide your horse. As your horse gains confidence and understanding, you can work on making your body position the primary cue for them. This will involve less reliance on the mats over time.

  5. Building Distance: Teaching the reward based horse to work on a distance is an important skill. We often work very close to our horses and being part of the reward procedure our horses often like to be close to us so practicing the opposite is often important: that our cues and communication actually work from a distance.

  6. Gradual Introduction of Tack: Once your horse is comfortable in a liberty setting, begin introducing tack. This is an important part (for us). I want all the traditional aids as an option. And I often teach halts via the mats and then transfer it to the rein aids keeping it simple in the beginning: walk and halt.

Overall, this set up focuses on gradual progression and clear communication with your horse. A horse that can use the environment to figure out what we are doing. The door mats serve as a helpful tool in the early stages, or as long as the horse needs it. Yes I do want versions without the mats in the end but I am in no rush to get there as long as the horse keeps getting more strong, more straight and more confident.

horse in a reversed round pen
Protected contact is also a great way to build up distance

We can of course also use a reversed round pen to get there but it is more set up time so I tend to often end up with the mats instead. It's an important behavior in my system and I really love how very many behaviors we can use them for. Happy lunging!

shetlandspony positive reinforcement
Once our horse, or pony (!) knows the direction we can start playing around with body part targets.


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