Lions and tigers and working over threshold, oh my!

Two hands for first touch…


Lions and tigers and working over threshold, oh my!


How do I tell the difference between approach and retreat and CAT-H?

Mary Kitzmiller is also the horsewoman who inspired me to try clicker training.

Little tricks like this are great when we’re working with a lot of unhandled horses, because it really adds up to be more efficient.

Many horses struggle with the first touch, especially on the face, and we often get issues with one-sidedness when we start trying to touch behind the face. Whether we are training with negative reinforcement, or positive reinforcement, we’re going to experience this during initial stages, as the novelty and unknown competes with our reinforcer.

This had a surprisingly calming effect compared to first touch with one hand, and was quicker.
I think it has to do with bilaterality and not trying to approach first touch in their blind spot or off to one side.

Now, let’s move on to the subject of working over threshold…

Years ago, at the beginning of my horsemanship journey, I used a lot of round penning and join-up techniques.

I shifted away from that into natural horsemanship, and then into positive reinforcement, and nowadays I find myself trying to stay under threshold as much as possible – underneath reactivity fight/flight thresholds, as well as emotional stress thresholds.
I find this allows things to be much safer and less stressful for both myself and the horse, and allows us to build positive associations instead of negative expectations of our time together.

But yesterday, I found myself revisiting some of those join-up techniques, but through the filter of CAT-H and the Polyvagal Theory.

CAT-H is very similar to approach and retreat, but it allows the animal to control the stimulus, and acts as a form of counterconditioning, so it changes emotional associations from negative to positive, instead of just desensitizing or using approach and retreat of aversives to create a ‘shut-down’ state where the animal tolerates.

Polyvagal Theory is used to address human trauma and promote emotional regulation and resilience and broaden the window of tolerance.

Broadening the window of tolerance ideally happens ‘under threshold,’ with small titrations, or approaches and retreats. Of course, technically, we are actually pushing the threshold with each titration, so to call it ‘staying under threshold’ is a bit of a misnomer.

A common theme of my blog is that we have to get away from either/or thinking.
You’re not either under threshold or over threshold when working on expanding resilience; it’s more like a spectrum, the degree to which you are pushing the threshold, from small amounts of emotional activation, to outright stress, all the way up to physical reactivity.

Working over threshold is generally not ideal, because we can further reinforce negative associations, or get into flooding, and the animal can shut down and go into learned helplessness.

There are some exceptions to this. A tactful ‘accelerated’ application of CAT-H seems to be one.

This new pair of unhandled colts have been super reactive, crashing into panels whenever I feed or have to fill their tank.
Generally, they settle down after a few days, but these guys just weren’t, and every time I was doing chores, it was reinforcing their reactivity, so I decided it would be in their best interest to do an accelerated CAT-H intervention.

If I had a larger pen where they could get away from me, I probably wouldn’t have needed to do this, but there’s a real risk in them harming themselves when I do chores.

I chose to start over reactivity threshold, because they are already going over threshold when I do chores, and had I tried to work under threshold by somehow working outside the enclosure, and not achieved the progress they needed, doing chores would’ve erased all that progress anyways. Sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got.

My goal was to empower them. They needed to feel like they could control the situation and my proximity, instead of feeling powerless and panicking.

I was hoping for a simple improvement for their welfare, but I was surprised when things started progressing very quickly, and they started really wanting to engage with me, and it ended very positively, instead of just a more neutral result.

The criteria here is simply me walking in like I would to get their hay bag, and retreating when they look at me. I did have to be a little proactive and block forward movement so they didn’t crash into their feed tank and water tank.

Not much different than the familiar ideas of join-up/approach and retreat/pressure and release/ negative reinforcement.

The difference is, instead of me staying aversive and maintaining this new ‘look at me’ behavior with proximity pressure, leading to tolerance, something else starts to emerge…

First, the empowered feeling of having control over me, then, curiosity starts to be a ’functional reward.’

What makes CAT-H different is that the original stimulus (my proximity) goes from being aversive, to positively reinforcing. Then distance from me is no longer reinforcing, closeness is.
You can see scratching also becomes a great positive reinforcer…

This is what makes it Operant Counterconditioning (building behavior which changes the emotional association) – with a switchover into positive reinforcement as the behavior becomes maintained by a stimulus that was originally aversive but which becomes appetitive – and not negative reinforcement (building behavior through pressure and release that has to be maintained by pressure and release).

That might seem like a technicality, but the emotionality is completely different, and the animal definitely appreciates the difference.

As you can see, the curiosity and interaction is a lot different than the often shut down responses we get with negative reinforcement alone.

I think the difference is that we are engaging the ventral vagal brake (social engagement) and getting true calm, instead of the ‘looking calm’ that comes from the dorsal vagal brake when the animal has to tolerate aversives.

Dissociation, submission, stoicism, and shutdown may ’look calm’ on the surface, but are really a sign of the high tone dorsal brake being on to try to control the undercurrents of overwhelm or flooding. ‘True calm’ comes from the low tone dorsal brake (rest and digest) or the ventral vagal brake (social engagement), which are at the bottom of the graph and occur following deactivation or ’discharge’ of the higher states of arousal or activation.

Sarah Schlote

The Polyvagal Theory and Horses: An Introduction

I would’ve thought this was wrong a few years ago, but now I can see that it actually helped me avoid stressing these animals when I am doing chores, and even as I prepare for clicker training, since that would’ve stressed them anyways because they would have found control of my proximity more reinforcing than food reinforcers.

Granted, this is an accelerated look at the process, and we can do things much slower if we have a larger enclosure and a different set-up and less time constraints.

I think this is a good example of how we can adapt our approach when we don’t have full control of all variables like facility set-up and the time period within which we have to work.

I don’t think it’s helpful to avoid sharing how we might approach these situations.

I don’t mind putting myself out there, even though it invites criticism sharing solutions that work for the animals who I have chosen to serve as a professional trainer, given the constraints that often entail.

A lot of trainers aren’t willing to show what it looks like when we have to approach situations that aren’t ideal.
Some trainers have never been in that situation.
Some are positioned within a niche in the industry where they don’t have to experience those situations, and that’s great, but it’s important not to allow that encapsulation to create a myopia.

I’m sure these babies, had they the understanding of the options, would appreciate there’s an alternative to getting roped, cornered, or round penned.

Final note, someone asked me how we can tell if we’re just doing approach and retreat, or if we’re doing CAT-H?

The answer is, in approach and retreat, the animal just experiences relief when they get a release. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we do have to understand that we are, at best, getting neutral results with desensitization, and at worst, if what we are doing is actually aversive to the horse, they may end up tolerating and shutting down and later blowing up, or developing a negative association that might lead to avoidance behaviors.

For it to be CAT-H, there has to be something positive that the animal is working for.

In this case, it’s curiosity, and then scratches, and I’ll be using clicker training as well.

The engagement and interaction from the animal is much different…

Every day, I have to ask myself the question, do I want compliance, or do I want connection?

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