“Why do you do all that head-lowering relaxation posture stuff? It seems unnatural. Why don’t you just let the horse relax on his own time? Why don’t you use straight positive reinforcement to fix the mental state instead of fixating on posture? Looks like learned helplessness.”
Because horses aren’t built to self-regulate; they are built to co-regulate one another in a herd.
Because a lifetime of practicing hypervigilance and reactivity – flight responses or displaced flight responses – is highly self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating, and if we don’t interrupt those habitual patterns, they can continue for the horse’s entire lifetime.
Particularly, with horses with a learned behavior of hypervigilance and reactivity, even putting them out to pasture does not necessarily put them at ease. The patterns are already set, and even a balanced herd may not be able to help them come back into a balanced state.
Hypervigilance and reactivity function much like worrying or even anxiety in humans.
It doesn’t go away just because nothing bad happens.
These behaviors are highly self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating, because the individual feels like they have ‘done something’ to avoid what it is they’re worrying about, even if that fear has no basis in reality.
Every time an individual exhibits hypervigilance or reactivity, and nothing bad happens, they are convinced that their behavior is ‘working.’ It’s almost superstitious.
The only way to overcome this pattern and replace it, is to interrupt it, and have the individual observe that the moment passes without harm even if they don’t exhibit the behavior.
I think this is a lot easier to approach if we stay under the threshold of the flight response, and approach this pattern by addressing postural tension.
This is why I like to have a way to communicate to the horse to stay present and grounded, and ‘get back to grazing.’ It’s why I do tapping, and it’s why I put a relaxation posture on cue. It’s also why I use CAT-H.
Constructional Approach Training for Horses is operant counterconditioning, where we ‘construct’ a behavior that is incompatible with the behavior we want to reduce, and which changes the emotional association.
In this case, a relaxation posture replaces tension, hypervigilance, or reactivity.
The key is having the discernment to recognize a scenario where control of stressors is more reinforcing to the animal than positive reinforcement, and the limitations of attempting to classically condition an operant behavior which has high-value self-reinforcement.
In behavioral science, we see that classically conditioned associations can lead to operant behavior that continues even when the original stressor is no longer present.
This has been particularly well observed with the CAT and BAT approaches to hypervigilance and reactivity in dogs, (dog to dog as well as dog to human), and more recently, the CAT-H approach to hypervigilance and reactivity in horses.
What behaviorists are finding, is that we have to turn to operant counterconditioning, instead of classical counterconditioning, to overcome these patterns.
Behaviorist specializing in hypervigilant and reactive animals have realized that positive reinforcement doesn’t work when it’s more reinforcing for the animals to practice behaviors that are ‘superstitious,’ and operant rather than respondent.
Horse training is often one step behind the advances we’ve made in dog training.
In layman’s terms, this means that we have to interrupt and change the behavioral pattern, we can’t just try to do good things and provide good experiences and hope the behavior goes away.
Sometimes it does, often times it doesn’t.
For those who are struggling to see progress with their hypervigilant or reactive horses, this may be particularly enlightening.