Wednesday, 5 March 2014

An introduction to Constructional Approach Training for Horses (C.A.T. – H)

We are pleased to introduce a novel way to help our horses overcome fear. It is called Constructional Approach Training or CAT for horses (for short). My husband has a passionate dislike for the shortened name to CAT but I think it is actually very fitting because our felines love being around horses as a rule and mine are a very good at letting me know if a horse is in fear because they will not hang around. CAT for horses is modelled from Kelly Snider’s original Constructional Aggression Treatment for dogs by Dolores Arste in the USA.  Kelly, while working on her master’s thesis under the supervision of Professor Rosales-Ruiz, discovered that when dogs are truly in fear, their fear may not always be overcome by positive reinforcement protocols such as Clicker Training or negative reinforcement protocols such as systematic desensitisation or approach and retreat.  I was informed recently that the original CAT model is to be noted in the 2013 edition of A. Charles Catania’s Learning

Back to horses… might come across a horse who is so truly afraid and standard protocols might look like they are working, only for us to discover down the track that all they did was delay the inevitable. We often find this out too late, when our horse has injured themselves or someone else has been injured. The reasons why the standard protocols that we all know may not be as effective as we think is because in order to overcome fear we have to give our horse the reinforcement that our horse desires. We think we do this for the most part, but we may not be offering the reinforcer on our horse’s terms. In other words we need to give control over to our horse.

What is CAT for Horses and why it is different to what you may already know

It is important to say upfront what CAT for horses is not. I have hinted that it is not Clicker training, nor is it what we commonly use as approach and retreat. Here is an extract from our CAT DVD that might help:

CAT for horses is negative reinforcement in its purist form. You might remember that by giving our horse a reinforcer it will signal to our horse that we would like them to repeat the behaviour that they had given immediately prior. So we can give positive reinforcement (the giving of something – for example a treat or a rub), or we can give negative reinforcement (the taking away of something) which might encourage our horse to repeat the behaviour. Riders could equate this to a slight pressure from our leg (for example). CAT for horses makes us better at reading what reinforcer our horse wants most from us in any moment in time and this makes it easier (with practice) to give the right reinforcer to our horse. 

When our horse is in fear they would usually want to flee from the trigger of their fear. So the reinforcer that they want most in fear situations is distance from that trigger. Although most people recognise this need, many believe that the only way to give our horse this reinforcer (distance) is by either by making a horse face up to the pressure or by systematically presenting pressure (in our case presenting the trigger of fear). In both cases, when our horse stands still or relaxes, the pressure would go away (our horse would get distance). In both of these cases we have taken the control away from our horse, because it is we who have determined that our horse can cope with some anxiety and at what level. Some even think our horses would understand that these methods teach our horse that if they only just would stand still they would realise that the trigger (whatever it was) would not hurt them, as it would go away. This does not always help a horse who has true fear issues, as may lead to learned helplessness. Not only does our horse suffer emotionally, but our horse could be a ticking time bomb.

When in CAT for horses our horse has the control

CAT for horses is complicated in its simplicity. The difference is in the control – in CAT for horses we remain below our horse’s anxiety at all times. We present the trigger of fear to our horse under our horse’s level of anxiety – in other words at a distance where our horse is aware of its presence but does feel the need to leave in order to attain greater distance between themselves and the object (or person). The beauty here is that we never elevate our horses’ anxiety levels. By remaining below the threshold of anxiety and reinforcing a calm behaviour by giving the horse distance by walking away when our horse offers a calming behaviour it gives our horse the control they need to ensure that they remain calm at every step of the process. A calm signal can be anything from swatting a fly from their skin to lowering their head on presentation of the object or person they are afraid of.

Distance is the reinforcer for calm
Let me show you what I mean by our horse having control – this is one of the approach bloopers we show in our CAT DVD. What you are about to see is not CAT done correctly but it is a good example of how quickly our horse can learn about control.

Now let me know you a good trial

So our horse’s anxiety is not raised and our horse, by offering a calm sign, makes the trigger leave. Most importantly we are giving our horse the opportunity to control the distance and how quickly or slowly things progress.

Fear then turns into curiosity and we begin to see our horses’ approach what was once a fearful object, with a new outlook. It is at this time that our horse will no longer need distance as a reinforcer, but will want positive reinforcers to let them know that their curiosity is to be repeated.


Steps to CAT for Horses

There are five steps to CAT for horses.

1.      We set the threshold

We start at a place where our horse can cope with seeing the trigger but not enough to make our horse anxious or offer the behaviour that we want to extinguish. The beauty of this technique is that we never elevate our horse’s anxiety levels. We then move a step closer to see where our horse is most comfortable in the presence of the object. What we are looking for is that place where our horse can cope comfortably & not show any behaviour that suggests he is afraid and will flee or attack. This is our threshold – our place to begin.

2.      Approach

We take a couple of steps towards our horse with the trigger and wait for the horse to show us a calm behaviour. We then turn around and walk back, giving the horse distance from the trigger - this is the reinforcer that the horse wants from us. We wait 10-15 seconds and then step forward again, wait for a behaviour we want to reinforce in the presence of the trigger and then step back again. After a couple of trials take a further step forward when approaching your horse with the trigger, wait as you have done previously and then step back a step less than you did previously.

3.      Switchover

This is when our horse is showing more behaviours we want to reinforce and very little fear or anxiety when presented with the trigger. We would be quite close to our horse at this stage. It really just means that at the be­ginning of this stage our horse does not need as much distance from the trigger anymore - IT DOES NOT MEAN there is no fear. From a behavioural perspective; behaviour comes before emotion­al change - so at this stage you will see that your horse’s behaviour is STARTING to change. You will still be in CAT-H here and will still be reinforcing your horse’s calm behaviours by giving distance. You will no­tice that your horse’s behaviour is starting to change but his body language might still be showing some signs of anxiety such as stretched hind legs, head held high, hesitation etc.

4.      Interaction

You will notice that at this stage your horse will want to interact with the trigger. You are now leaving CAT-H (but be prepared to go back into it & give distance if your horse shows a behaviour that is not conducive to calm). If your horse shows it wants to interact it is likely it will appreciate positive reinforce­ment (the giving of something). At this stage if your horse does not find distance reinforcing (because he does not need it any longer), giving distance (going back) is going to pun­ish him.

5.      Generalisation

This is where you will test and retest in different environ­ments. Some horses could generalise this new found safe behaviour quickly and some may not. It is important that the horse experience the trigger in different (and safe) environments.

In our DVD’s we show you how to begin; we detail each step in a number of different ways; show common mistakes that are made and present the theory behind CAT. We show two horses – Star; a wonderful Standie who was afraid of an object and Dorado; a Brumby who was afraid of people. CAT for horses is a wonderful tool that you can have in your training toolbox. You don’t need to wait till you come across a horse who has fear issues. Here is the introduction to Dorado’s journey from the DVD…all was achieved through CAT for Horses.

CAT for Horses double DVD set is available through us at Equilog and the Australian Clicker Connection at You can also find more information about CAT for horses here as well and on our facebook page at