An Alternative to Learned Helpessness

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As we continue this discussion about the possibility of Learned Helplessness (LH) in horses (please see the first article here), it seems like some folks kind of feel like LH should be eradicated in the horse world, and others feel like it’s inevitable in the horse world. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle there, because while I would love for LH to be eradicated in the horse world, I also know that there are MANY, MANY much crueler practices going on in the horse world that I’d like to see eradicated first. I know that the only horses that I have full control of, MY horses, are going to see as little LH as I can manage, and that’s a personal, ethical choice I have the privilege to make, since I am their trainer and their guardian.

So let’s say you’re in that boat too, and are now wondering, “What are some alternatives to LH?” There are many alternatives to LH, and I am not going to try to be an expert in all those alternatives here in a short blog. Another disclaimer is that I’m not some high-powered academic or “ethologist”. I’m a fairly smart person who loves horses and has been working horses professionally for well over 30 years. I could call myself a semi-academic. I like observing what happens in the real world and I like trying things. So what I will do here is to speak from my own practical experience with horses since I first learned about LH.

It’s also worth mentioning that my goal when it comes to developing a horse is to bring a horse along so that he becomes a safe, confident and useful horse in a variety of jobs, and he can do those jobs in a healthy, fairly correct classical form. I am looking for a dance and a work partner. My interest in alternatives to LH is pretty practical.

Let’s go back to the article from Martin Black’s website called “Learning to Learn” and look at this excerpt:

“A horse’s ability to learn is largely dictated by his past experiences. Has your horse been able to explore, with or without a rider, circumstances to find a right answer, or has it been micromanaged and forced into a specific answer?

     Horses that have had the opportunity to explore solutions and make mistakes are the better learners, the pair [Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black] says. These horses have “learned to learn.”

     Dr. Peters explains that a horse that’s exposed to a myriad of experiences has extensive dendritic fields (neuron-to-neuron connections in the brain), therefore increasing decision-making and learning capabilities.” ~excerpt from the article “Learning to Learn” by Martin Black (

Any alternative to LH must be choice-based. Remember the description of the initial experiment done by Seligman, where he put the dogs in the study into the box and shocked them. The dogs who had been able to turn off the shock with a foot pedal jumped right out of the box. A percentage (not all, mind you) of the dogs who were not able to help themselves just laid down and took the shocks. That’s learned helplessness, in a nutshell. What I also choose to take away from this is that putting pressure (in the form of the shocks, in the case of the experiment) on the dogs didn’t damage them, as long as they could do something to make it stop. What’s damaging is when we put pressure on and there’s nothing the human or animal can do to make it stop, or if the cessation of the pressure is random.

So what are some things that an average horse person can do to reduce the chances that they’re employing a LH-based learning system with their horse? First and foremost, we could look at using a pressure-and-release based learning system. Simply put, we would put “pressure” on a horse, and keep that pressure on until we got a “try” or an attempt at the desired behavior/skill/movement/whatever, and then we would “release” or stop/take away that pressure.

What is “pressure”? Well, it really can be anything. Your very presence in the proximity of a horse could be considered “pressure”. A look or a glance can be pressure. Energy can be pressure. Various physical taps, contact, bumps or swats could be considered pressure.

Now, it’s worth noting here that depending on a person’s skill level, their level of awareness and their plain-old experience level, their application of this idea might be pretty crude, or it might be so sophisticated and subtle as to be invisible to any onlooker. We all have to start somewhere, so don’t throw out this idea if you’ve only seen crude examples of it, if you see what I mean. There are a few important details in relation to this, that come from masters in the application of this idea, and I’ll mention a few of them here.

  • “As little as possible, but as much as necessary.” We often mis-apply this idea in that generally speaking, the average horse person does not start with LITTLE enough pressure, and they usually don’t end up “big” enough to be effective and clear to the horse. The end result of this misapplication would be a dull horse who sees humans as confusing and ineffective.
  • “Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.” We often mis-apply this idea too, in that we accidentally (or on purpose) make the wrong thing IMPOSSIBLE, or we don’t make the right thing easy ENOUGH for clarity. There has to be enough contrast that the horse is motivated to make a choice, but not so much contrast that the horse actually has no choice, practically speaking. Applying this concept well is an impressive feat for a horseman, so again, don’t throw out the idea because you’ve only seen it crudely interpreted. To see a horseman tactfully apply the subtle shades of this idea is a nearly magical experience.
  • “Release, release, release!!!!!!!!” Yes, we must release, but just because we released doesn’t mean the horse is feeling RELIEF. We need to be able to arrange things so that doing what we suggest FEELS GOOD TO THE HORSE, and in order to do that, we need to know what feels good to a horse as opposed to what feels good to a human, because they’re not necessarily the same thing. That feeling of relief needs to be tangible enough to the horse that he will “pay” for it with mental and physical effort (try).


Another thing I think is important, along with a non-LH based learning system is a healthy, horsey lifestyle. Now, I know many horse people must keep their horses in less than horse-friendly situations, and to those folks, I’d simply encourage them to get creative and find ways to mitigate the negative effects of less-than-horse-friendly lifestyles. A horse-friendly lifestyle is one that has plenty of the “three Fs”: Forage, Freedom and Friends. Horses are designed to graze 18 hours a day, they’re designed to roam miles and miles finding that grazing, and they’re designed to live in bands or herds of usually 6 or more horses. I wonder (and I haven’t run across any documentation about this) if being in a stall 23 hours a day in itself can cause some LH in horses.

A horse who is foraging, who is in a larger area, and who is living with other horses has questions to navigate daily. Where to graze? Sun or shade? How deep is that puddle? Will this horse groom with me? How many of us can drink out of that tank at the same time? How fast can I turn that corner? Who will run with me?

Please don’t get me wrong. I know that keeping horses in bigger spaces, with forage and friends has inherent risks. I hate that part of it. If you look at my horse expenses at the end of the year, at the top are feed and vet bills. If you look at the feed, it starts with quality forage, weed control, etc, and if you look at the vet bills, most of them have to do with horses being horses out in the fields. Me personally, I’m willing to pay those expenses so my horses can have those “three Fs” and thereby give us all a good starting point for keeping the LH at bay. And again, I know many people can’t provide their horses with those “three Fs”. Just remember that there will be a cost to that, and that some horses will absorb the lack of those “three Fs” better than others.

Now, the last point I want to make here is more big-picture. I think we can agree that IF learned helplessness occurs in horses, and IF common training techniques do indeed cause LH in horses, then how do we get a horse so he can do things while he’s “checked in”?

By using progressive preparation, by building skills pieces at a time and by increasing difficulty and sophistication incrementally. We need to repeat familiar skills in different places and in different circumstances so those skills can become “solid” and generalized.

And the problem with this solution is that in order to build a horse’s skills progressively and incrementally, you need to know not just how to ride an already-trained horse, but you kind of need to know how to train a horse “from scratch”. If we don’t know how to train a horse from scratch, then we need to work with someone who knows how to teach a horse incrementally and can help us. And if that’s the case, we need to be willing to slow down, put long-range goals aside, and settle into the work it takes to teach a horse progressively. Doing things in smaller pieces takes time.

Here is an example of teaching something progressively. Let’s say I want to be able to rope a cow off my horse. If I’m going to teach this progressively, when he’s a youngster, we could pony him out in the cows with an older, experienced horse. We can let him explore the cows and let them touch him and sniff him. We can trot and canter in among the cows. Then, I would get him good with ropes all around him. On the ground, in the air, on his body, around his feet. Then I’d get so I could ride him, and then ride him carrying and then swinging a rope. I’d rope a dummy, I’d drag a log and a tire. I’d throw a rope at a colt or a friend’s horse, and they’d throw a rope at me. The rope would just become part of what we do. Then I’d ride him in the cows, maybe some quiet cows I keep for roping practice. I’d start with my breakaway honda and I’d rope a cow and let him track it and then break away. I’d do that until he understood it and was relaxed about it. THEN I’d rope a cow.

Or, as was suggested to me once, I could, “Just git yer horse there, and git one of them yearlin calves, put them in your arena. You rope that there cow, tie him off to yer horn and go have lunch. By the time you get back, that colt’ll damn near have that figgered out!”

There is a big difference between what I would call “progressive preparation” and what I call “on the job training.” Progressive preparation takes a lot more time, obviously. But I like riding and working with horses, and I like studying that process, so it doesn’t bother me. I also think that progressive preparation yields a better quality product (horse) in the end, so the time is worth it to me.

LH is out there in the horse world because it works, and because people demand it. How else are you going to get an unhandled colt riding in 30 days or less? Either you’re going to use LH or you’re going to skip a lot of stuff (and I want a list of what you skipped before I try to ride that thing!). How else are you going to get a show horse to perform absolutely consistently in different venues in a short period of time? How else are you going to make horses safe for people who don’t want to spend the time and energy learning how to ride and getting a good seat? How else are you going to guarantee that a horse will “never” spook? What keeps LH alive in the horse world is the consumer’s demand for it, unfortunately.

And that, my friends, is why I have taken the time to write this stuff down. You are the consumer and your money and your time is very powerful. As long as we pay for LH techniques, and we hold horses created by LH up as the epitome of a discipline or a breed, we perpetuate the practice. WE cause it. But when we become more educated, we gain the ability to make more discerning choices and ask more revealing questions.

I don’t want my dance and work partner to be looking for ways to say, “No,” or to disagree with me. But I do want him to have a voice of some sort, because what I do know for sure is that together, we can do way more fabulous things than either of us can do apart. And that’s the art, not the science of this thing. How do we get a horse to say “yes” with as much of his free will as possible?

Learned Helplessness


Quite a few years ago, I was idling away some time reading the then-current issue of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine (a weekly sport-horse publication). While skimming a pretty dry article about the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) annual convention, I ran across a mention of a guy named Andrew McLean who had been invited to speak to the attendees about the possibility that a thing called “learned helplessness” might be causing “dullness in dressage horses.” I didn’t think another thing of it, skimmed the rest of the magazine and threw it out.

A year later, I found myself in much the same position, at the same time of year, skimming articles in The Chronicle. There was another article about that year’s USDF convention, and another mention of Andrew McLean. But this time, reading between the lines, it sounded like they’d invited him back to take back what he’d said the year before about learned helplessness in dressage horses. NOW they had my attention!

I spent that weekend madly Googling learned helplessness (LH) and Andrew McLean (he’s from Australia). Once I’d gotten a handle on that, I continued to read about LH and think about how it might or might not relate to hundreds of horses I’d seen over the years. I did more research, and more reading.

Now, according to an equine behaviorist I consulted, it is not necessarily scientifically sound to assume that LH occurs in horses. This has not been scientifically proven by scientists, in studies. The seminal studies on LH were done with dogs, and scientists agree it occurs in humans, so scientists would agree that it can occur in dogs and humans. But studies on horses have NOT been done. So strictly speaking, we are going out on a bit of a limb assuming that horses can experience LH. Even so, I think it’s a useful exercise.

So before we can go any further, it’s best if you go read the Wikipedia entry on Learned Helplessness, which is still about the most efficient and succinct definition that I have found so far. If you skip this step, none of the rest of this article will make any sense, so please now read this:

Okay, you’re back! So basically, when a being is in a state of LH, they feel like there is nothing they can do to improve their situation in the moment or “make it stop”. So they give up. Like the dogs in the study, they figuratively and literally lay down and take it. They don’t fight, they don’t try to escape, they surrender, which can look like “agreement” or “submission” or “obedience” to some folks.

Whether the science is there or not, I think good horsemen I’ve worked with have seen horses with LH. They’ve called them “checked out”, “tuned out”, “shut down”, “gone internal”, “withdrawn”, “mechanical”, “robotic”, and dare I say it, the classic “bombproof”. I’ve heard horsemen talk about horses who are “dead inside”, have “dead eyes” or sucked-in “shark eyes.” Nowadays I think that these are all different ways of describing learned helplessness.

What sucks about using LH to train a horse is IT WORKS. A horse in a state of learned helplessness is really consistent. He never expresses an opinion, he never objects. He doesn’t fight, he doesn’t try new things for the heck of it. He’s “bombproof” and “a campaigner”. He goes through his life in a fog, not really looking at anything, asking no questions, just mindlessly putting one foot in front of the other. They make awesome, consistent show horses. They can go from venue to venue and don’t really see their surroundings. So they don’t spook, they don’t bobble, they don’t struggle with the differences in the venues. It wouldn’t matter if they did, so they don’t.

I have come to believe that once a horse is in a state of learned helplessness, that state must be maintained. Using my own experience as an example, in the hunter-jumper business we did this by putting horses in bitting rigs (side reins) in their stalls and then riding them in draw reins. We routinely put the horses in a position where there was nothing they could do to get relief from some sort of pressure. In order to maintain a state of LH, it seems like the helplessness must be reinforced regularly for the state to be maintained. Tying a horse’s head into a fixed position for long periods of time seems to be a common technique that can create and maintain LH. And the horses who object to being put in a state of LH? We called them “rogues.”

I have come to believe that many if not most mainstream training programs rely on LH to some extent. Loping horses to exhaustion, tying heads down and/or around, lunging horses to exhaustion, drilling and mindless repetition, the repetition of patterns, all these things could cause learned helplessness if performed the “right” way with the “right” horse.

All this said, I don’t know that LH isn’t the best way to produce a show horse or any other kind of horse who has to perform something repetitive consistently. Like I said, it works. Once we start to allow the horse to be “present” and rely on him to think through organic situations, he might not be as consistent as a LH horse. I don’t know.So, let’s look at the alternative to learned helplessness. Take a moment and go read this article:

Ah, so this is “The Ray Hunt Affect”, as I call it in my mind. This is about training the horse in a way where he is allowed to make choices, and neurologists tell us that this actually GROWS his neurology. Training him in a way where he’s NOT allowed to make choices actually kills brain cells. So this is the purpose of the release – to enable us to set up training in a way that the horse is making choices (often cycling through the “wrong” choices) and we can use pressure and release to guide him to the “right” choice.

A horse developed this way may not perform as consistently as a horse developed with LH. A horse developed with releases may notice more of the changes in his surroundings, and he may respond to inconsistencies in his rider or handler. If he’s “checked in” rather than “checked out”, there are a lot more factors and variables at play in his responses.

Over the years, I believe that Glenn and I have bought many horses with LH. As a rule, when we looked at the horses, they were calm, easy to ride and easy to get along with. But once we got them home, things would slowly start to change. See, we work with horses using releases, not LH. So these horses would slowly come out of the “haze” of LH. They might start to spook, they might develop certain worries or anxieties. They might appear to deteriorate in their training. They might start to refuse to do things.

One of our very typical LH horses was a ranch horse when we bought him. He was working on a big outfit out west every day and the only reason he was for sale was because his owner wanted to bring another young horse along. We got him home and he was truly “bombproof” and absolutely perfect in every way. Then one day he started spooking at things that he’d been by many times in the past. And he started getting worried about COWS. Really? Worried about COWS??? He’d see a cow and get diarrhea.

One of our other LH horses was sound when I bought him. He rode great, he had been working full time as a ranch horse, and he seemed willing to work for us. But six months in, I began to increase what I was asking of him where his balance and posture was concerned. This is when he started refusing. He seemed to be willing to do what I asked, but only if he could figure out how to arrange himself. Then one day he came out of the pasture lame on the left front. A week later, it was the left hind. Then the right hind. Week by week, he began to physically struggle more and more.

I decided to go ahead and x-ray his front feet, hocks and hind fetlocks. The x-rays showed that he had arthritis and bone spurs in his hocks, arthritis and bone chips in his hind fetlocks, and navicular changes in his front feet. Basically, he was lame on all four legs.

So why did he ride sound at first? Obviously, all those bony changes didn’t just HAPPEN, they were there when we bought him. I believe that as this horse “woke up” from his state of LH, he began to feel his pain. I believe that when he “checked out” in learned helplessness, he stopped responding to his own pain, maybe blocking it out. Heartbreakingly, we put this horse down at 10 years old because we could no longer keep him comfortable as a pasture ornament.

Though I regret to say it, I’m sure I’ll have more opportunities to study this further. But here are some things I’ve noticed that might be useful to other folks sailing in the same boat.

  1. LH is established by making a horse “give up”. Then that state must be maintained. If all you do is turn a horse out in the pasture, he may start to “come out” of the state of LH. If you work with him and give releases, he may start to “come out” of it. Once he’s “woken up”, we can fill in the blanks and carry on with the horse.
  2. If we buy a horse with LH, we really don’t know what we’ve got. We don’t know who or what he’ll be when he “wakes up”. He might be something we can use, he might not. It’s kind of a crap shoot, as they say.
  3. In my experience, it’s taken horses six months to a year (approximately) to “wake up”.
  4. “Standing scared” is a good example of LH. This is when a horse stands still and “takes” a stimulus, even though he’s scared inside and really, he should be fleeing. I believe a lot of LH starts with standing scared and expands from there. And here’s a mindbender – standing scared is useful in some situations, like with vet visits.
  5. There is an ethical dilemma here. We might think that every horse with LH needs to be “woken up” and needs to “come out of it.” But if it’s the LH that makes him safe and useful and purposeful in the world he lives in, might it be more fair to leave him that way? I don’t know. There are lots of ethical questions here.

Horses are herd and prey animals by nature. Unfortunately, it’s their nature as a herd and a prey animal that gets in our way as we try to do things with them. But all those things we want to do with them, trail rides, parades, barrel races, flat races, steeplechases, reining patterns, jumping, roping, performing tricks, rail classes, pulling carriages, whatever, are not ever the horse’s idea. Those are our ideas. What makes those things hard to do or troublesome to do is the horse’s nature as a herd and prey animal. Everything in him is taking him away from us and what we want to do with him. That’s the trick. Learned helplessness is one way to deal with that problem. An alternative to learned helplessness is “getting our idea to be the horse’s idea” to some extent, and that, my friends, takes way more time, expertise, feel, timing, experience, patience, money, blood, sweat and tears than tying a horse’s head around or throwing him on the ground and covering him with a tarp while we tap dance on him.

There will probably always be a place for learned helplessness in the horse world. As long as we need horses to do things “no matter what” and we cannot accept any variations in their performances, there will be learned helplessness. But what’s more interesting to me is getting a horse “with me”, developing his skill set progressively and seeing how well prepared I can have him while still able to think through organic situations. This horse’s performances may not be as consistent as the horses trained with learned helplessness, but I personally enjoy reaching for a horse and feeling him reach back to me, and figuring out what that feel means between us.