CAT for Horses

Photo: Laurel and Jedda, her incredibly fearful arabian mare who is teaching her how to be a better horseperson every day, enjoys a good itch.

While working on her Master’s thesis, behavioural science student Kellie Snyder noticed that positive reinforcement methods like clicker training, or giving food treats, didn’t work so well on animals when there was a lot of fear involved. With the help of her professor Dr Rosales-Ruiz, they devised a way to work with aggressive dogs who hadn’t responded to any amount of positive reinforcement training, and sometimes years of this and other training.

He called this idea CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment), but with his approval, for horses we have slightly changed the name to CAT-H (Constructional Approach Training for Horses.)

In the CAT treatment, they used the reinforcer (reward) which the dog was already working for. When the dog was aggressive, people or other dogs normally and not surprisingly moved away. This was his reward, because what he MOST wanted was distance from the object of his fear. However during CAT, the outcome he wanted was given only when he behaved in safe, friendly or calm ways. This meant his needs were still being met, but he wasn’t putting the lives of others or his own life at risk any more. In effect he was now in control of his environment, and this is very empowering for a fearful animal.

But a funny thing happens in the treatment. He learns to LIKE being calm and friendly.

The experimental question asked whether aggression could be reduced by taking away something the dog didn’t like, another dog or a person, called a decoy, at a time when he was not being aggressive. This dog or person was introduced in a very non-confronting way, always trying to stay below the point where the animal reacted, and the decoy would move away as the reward, but only when the animal showed any sign of being more relaxed.

They found out more than their questions asked… that they not only ended up with animals that tolerated the strangers they were once aggressive toward, but ended up with them actually being friendly toward the strangers, and calm where they used to be scared. (This has been successfully replicated with feral cats, birds, llamas, cows, and now even reptiles too.)

Long time clicker trainer Dolores Arste thought this idea might be useful applied to “problem” horses, though horses are mainly presenting with fear rather than aggression. The sort of horse who goes in the horse float but then explodes for no apparent reason. Aggression, fear or over-excitement will cause animals to have a restricted life, or a life of fear and defensiveness. She wanted them to learn that the world isn’t such a bad place and that there are other ways for them to deal with new people/animals/things that are easier, more effective and produce better results.

By teaching horses to be “not aggressive”, “not fearful”, “not overly excited” by giving them food or other positive reinforcers, we don’t help them deal with the actual problem. In theory it sounds good–teach them to look to the owner– but what if you could teach the horse that he doesn’t have to turn away and hope his owner is on the ball, but instead simply not be afraid any more?

That’s what a group of horse lovers all around the world have repeatedly managed to accomplish through CAT-H, using “giving distance” (pure negative reinforcement), combined with a low stress approach. Sometimes people say, oh but this is just approach/retreat. It isn’t though, because of the retreat being given only when the animal shows calm. Also at the point where a lot of people doing approach/retreat would say, “they’re ok, so I’ll step in closer”, we would still step away to continue to reward the animal.

Though this is a science based idea, the more CAT we do, the better we get at SEEING and then FEELING the first TINY signs of fear. Very cool :-). And because the animal feels in control of the process, they even look completely different, they are no longer scared but alert and in self carriage. They look, as they say, Empowered.

By the way, another funny thing also happens, once the CAT-H has done it’s job, the horses actually ask when they’re ready to go back to clicker training, which is a great tool for general training.

There is a video now up on youtube showing the first stages of CAT-H, featuring Lynn’s beautiful brumby Sakima who for over a year resisted all attempts at interacting safely with him. Lynn came to CAT after suffering a broken leg when Sakima panicked. Edited and written by Julie Lannen, whose own CAT success Star also makes a brief heartwarming appearance.

For more information on this video contact Julie Lannen at & the Australian Clicker Connection

Article by Laurel Gordon Based on a definition of CAT-H by Dolores Arste and Kellie Snyder.

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