I’ve been talking a lot about CAT-H and Tapping this past year.
Safe to say, I’ve done more than just fall down the rabbit hole… I’m a permanent resident of Wonderland at this point.
After experimenting with dozens of horses, from feral to unhandled domestics, from phobic and hypervigilant, to shutdown saddle horses, I think I’m finally starting to understand what’s going on.
Honestly, I am starting to see that CAT-H and Tapping are the same.
Both appear to be Operant Counterconditioning techniques that empower the horse by using control over the stimulus and relaxation as primary reinforcers.
I use the term Operant Counterconditioning instead of Operant Habituation, because we aren’t just desensitizing to a neutral feeling state, we are actually building a positive association, as it appears the control over the stimulus and the Relaxation Posture that forms the operant part of the equation are themselves primary reinforcers.
WAIT, WHAT? AREN’T CAT-H AND TAPPING NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT?
There are those, including myself when I first started, who have viewed both CAT-H and Tapping as versions of Negative Reinforcement, because we have focused on the observation of behavior being reinforced by the removal of a stimulus, instead of the emotionality that is happening with the Counterconditioning, and the fact that when that Counterconditioning occurs, the stimulus no longer functions as an aversive antecedent.
This is the difference between perceived aversives that habituate or countercondition, and the absolute aversives that are present in Negative Reinforcement.
TAPPING SEEMS TO BE A LITTLE DIFFERENT
Tapping is a little different than CAT-H, because, in addition to having the qualities of CAT-H where the control of the stimulus and the Relaxation Posture function as primary reinforcers to countercondition, we also see some sort of somatic effect going on.
During my experimentation with Tapping with dozens of horses, I have observed that Tapping makes horses want to lay down.
These aren’t just my observations, either.
The originators and proponents of Tapping, and many people who have experimented with it, including many of my students and clients, have observed this as well.
I’ve never had a horse want to lay down with any CAT-H work, but they do with Tapping.
I don’t know why.
My best bet is there is some sort of somatic effect. The emotionality of calm and a deep state of relaxation happens before any lay down behavior occurs, and the lay down or attempts are spontaneous, with no successive approximation.
THE PROBLEM WITH CAT-H AND TAPPING
If we know that, technically, CAT-H and Tapping don’t fit into the quadrant of Negative Reinforcement, why are we still eschewing them?
Frankly, many of us may have good reason to.
Like any approach, CAT-H and Tapping are open to individual interpretation and application, and just like habituation, CAT-H and Tapping can be approached on a spectrum ranging from incremental and low-stress Systematic Desensitization, to the intense use of Flooding.
While it may not be prudent for us as observers to pass judgment on the suitability of choosing a point on that spectrum to apply to each horse, handler, and situation, it can certainly leave us a little skeptical if we see something we aren’t comfortable with.
There are plenty of examples in both CAT-H and Tapping of flooding, or even an application that would be more accurately described as Operant Habituation, because the approach doesn’t allow enough control of the stimulus or relaxation for reinforcement.
There are also examples where the stimuli used in CAT-H and Tapping aren’t just perceived aversives that can habituate or even eventually countercondition, but actually aversive to the horse, in which case we do observe Learned Helplessness.
I think it is those things, and those variations and misapplications, that make it so CAT-H and Tapping aren’t more widely accepted and implemented.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE SKINNER BOX
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…
The horse is not just an operant being, but a cognitive, limbic, somatic being.
The evolution of horsemanship is mirroring the evolution that is already occurring with more holistic support for people, where we have evolved away from the idea that we can rely strictly on Behavioral Modification techniques.
I observed this evolution first-hand when facilitating equine therapy in a correctional setting with inmates.
Modern Trauma-Informed approaches include cognitive mindfulness practices, limbic Polvagal Theory, and somatic body-based work.
What’s fascinating to me is, the people who brought Tapping and CAT-H into the horse world are coming to these consilient conclusions simultaneously yet independently.
First, they knew it worked. It was effective. Now, they are starting to uncover the cognitive, polyvagal, and somatic components that cause it to work.
WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM WITH CAT-H AND TAPPING?
The real problem is, they aren’t getting the recognition they deserve and the implementation the horses need.
I’m really excited that we saw CAT discussed at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference this year.
Maybe we aren’t all on the same page yet, but let’s look at what’s really important here…
The conversation is happening.
Now let’s get talking, because the horses are counting on us.