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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

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.


54 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness

  1. Laura Garretson Fitzgerald November 9, 2018 / 4:27 pm

    That was a fun read! Lots to think about.


    • paynefulponderings November 12, 2018 / 4:43 pm

      I feel a lot better about my curious “looky-loo” horse. Thank you for an excellent article and the links to other great pieces.


      • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 12:55 am

        I always say to myself, “If they’re looking, they’re aware. Help them figure out what to do with that.” The answer to THAT, is “Check in with me!” But boy, it’s a challenge!


    • Connie Balow November 13, 2018 / 4:46 am

      Wow, really feel great about how I treat my four OTTB’s! I think we are on the right track and no LH with my bunch but, then I have no aspirations for them other then continued bonds and communication. Couldn’t care a bit about ribbons:)


    • Jacqui Miller November 14, 2018 / 3:07 pm

      It is a terrible conundrum as trainers our job is to teach a horse to become useful, useful in a market where people want to buy a machine. Gone are the days of falling in love with horses and developing a horse taking it to a show and seeing how well you and he do in competition. People want a “fully loaded” pony for their kid. You want to see LH look at the pony ring. I started backing away from that part of the business about 20 years ago, slowly. I teach my horses they have a say, if they don’t want to bend when I ask, I ask again, then I ask why don’t you want to bend? I teach my riders that the horses have to find work fun or they will shut down, fun means like if you go to a work out class, you feel good when it is over (endorphins) but you knew at anytime you could say “heck with this trainer she’s too tough for me.” We have a conversation with our horses and they think, the more they think the more they know. It is like the difference between a robot and A.I. You can build on what they know, if they trust the rider will “listen” to them they will be more willing to communicate “something is scary ” or “something hurts” for instance. I have hundreds of examples of LH, fixing LH and the pitfalls of both sides of this argument. I love horses I think they are far smarter than we give them credit for, and yes I too am finally leaving “the business” I may keep my own horse but I believe the next “big movement” in mankind will be in learning to communicate and understand animals and that their intelligence is far greater than we have appreciated up until now. Animal rights and defining those rights is coming. Industries will collapse, look at Florida and grey hound racing. An interesting FYI it is illegal to operate on an octapus in France without anesthesia, because they believe and understand they can feel pain, the article I read indicated that is a new development. These are major break throughs in appreciation and understanding that there are different kinds of intelligence than ours. I am excited to see what is coming but afraid to learn that I have spent 40 years in an industry that may one day be seen with the same disgust as slavery.

      Liked by 1 person

      • greyhorsellc November 14, 2018 / 4:05 pm

        Thank you, Jacqui, for sharing your point of view with us and adding to the depth and breadth of this discussion. I sure hope you’ll find a way to have your own horses your own way and find satisfaction in that.


      • Susan Kauffmann November 14, 2018 / 5:39 pm

        Jacqui Miller, I hope you might reconsider leaving the horse industry: you are exactly the kind of trainer we need to at least give some horses a chance at having good training and a good life. Word IS spreading…my mentor, Canadian trainer Josh Nichol, addresses these issues deeply and thoroughly and he is starting to gain a following all over. When I was last at his ranch in Alberta, there were people there — not just from across Canada, but from Europe and the USA as well. This has made me realize what a hunger there is for training that is not the same old thing. Articles like this one help…but having more trainers out there showing what can be done when you keep the horse’s mind active, involved, and the highest priority is the best way to win people over. Please keep training!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Janet November 30, 2018 / 11:27 pm

        Wow Jacqui. I think your last statement is profound. Yes I think so too but you’ll not live to see it. And I do hope the world develops that much insight, compassion and understanding for species other than our own. What a wonderful world it would be. At least in part, as there will always be the closed minded, ego based humans out there using and doing to animals whatever to achieve their own goals… And plenty of them I’m afraid.


    • Mary November 17, 2018 / 6:58 pm

      There defintely is so much to think about, although I wouldn’t call it fun. Like slavery isny fun.

      I assume you meant the article
      was thought provoking and


    • Me December 3, 2018 / 4:15 am

      This was definitely my horse when we first got him. However he has, after almost a year, become what his true self is. And he actually enjoys his work and his time with me a thousand times more than before 💖💖💖


  2. Nancy Horne November 10, 2018 / 5:25 pm

    I’ve seen horses in this state – it breaks my heart.


  3. Cathrine November 11, 2018 / 4:38 pm

    This was heartbreaking and inspiring to read. I think that everyone who has trained horses and thought about it, can realte to this. Great blog, thank you!


  4. wildhorseguy November 11, 2018 / 5:21 pm

    Peters and Black have done a lot of relatively recent research that tends to explain what you are describing. We see somewhat similar behaviors with what we call “institutionalized” horses that have suffered long-term sensory deprivation and/or have been stuck in ritual-like routines where they haven’t been allowed to maintain the ability to process a variety of sensory inputs and actually make decisions in response to such inputs, rider’s cues, etc. I personally am not fond of riding a “zombie horse” in open country as I feel a whole lot safer on a horse that pays attention, reads the ground, is aware and is sure footed versus a sleep walker that stumbles and has a potential for falling. I have to add that the horse that is allowed to be interactive in his environment also appears to be happier. Thanks for bringing up this subject!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Paul Sherland November 11, 2018 / 7:47 pm

    As I read this article, I was looking for words like “connection” and “trust” but those words weren’t mentioned. I’m a recreational rider with a couple of years of riding and horse ownership as a child and then almost thirty years of experience as an adult. Based on my experience, the quality of the horse-human relationship has a huge impact on the performance of the horse and the rider.

    I’ve seen learned helplessness in horses in the dude strings of guest ranches. I also agree that too much desensitization work, endless drilling, and exhausting a horse as a training predicate can produce a shut-down horse. But I don’t believe that learned helplessness has an inevitable place in the horse world.

    I believe that building a relationship with your horse — a bond of trust — can result in a horse that’s capable of exceptional performance in formal competition and in everyday riding. A few weeks ago I watched the movie, Harry and Snowman, about Harry De Leyer and his $80 jumping champion Snowman. If you watch the video of Snowman jumping at Madison Square Garden and then watch the video of Snowman swimming with the De Leyer children in Long Island Sound, I think you’d agree that there’s no way that horse was shut-down or a victim of learned helplessness. Snowman was able to deliver consecutive Horse of the Year performances.

    I’ve recently read Denny Emerson’s book, “How Good Riders Get Good”, and he quotes Olympic dressage rider and trainer Anne Gribbons as saying:

    “It really makes a difference if a rider has a strong relationship with a horse. I can tell if there’s that kind of a bond when I’m judging.”

    In a way, a recreational rider might have an advantage over a professional in building trust and connection with a horse and that advantage is time. I don’t have to ration time with my horses in order to make a profit on their sale. Well-known horseman Buck Brannaman has said:

    “Time is the gift
    Give it freely to your horse
    And you will both be the better for it.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. MaryAnn Isaacson November 11, 2018 / 11:08 pm

    When I bought my gelding, he was so checked out that he could be truly dangerous to ride. He is by nature, timid, but had learn to sink inside himself when things got scary. Which was pretty much all the time. Sometimes, he just couldn’t avoid the situation, and the resulting explosion resulted in me getting hurt, more than once.
    A knowledgeable and sensitive trainer, helped me to help him to learn to react safely. I spent one year riding spooks from one side of the road to the other, as he experimented with his new found permission to react.
    We have recently started playing with Extreme Cowboy Trail. And because he knows it’s ok to say, “ I don’t think so”, he has blossomed in his willingness to try.


  7. Kris Hughes November 12, 2018 / 10:37 am

    A really honest piece of writing. However, the conundrum you admit to here, is the reason I won’t be riding or training any more horses. With great sadness, I’ve decided it isn’t really ethical.


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 1:06 am

      Kris – this makes me really sad, and you’re the second person since this blog came out who has mentioned that they’ve quit horses because of this issue. I hope in the future horses will be able to find their way back into your life, in a way that you feel good about.


    • Cheryl November 13, 2018 / 2:29 am

      Have you considered teaching rather than having a timed agenda???? I currently have a yearling TB stud cold that will willingly stand loose to bridle and saddle. Walks/trots both ways on the lungeline and as soon as the ground goes from mid to frozen over we’ll start ground driving. Never have used a whip or “made” him do this. Just showed it to him a piece at a time and let him get comfortable. Theaxhing a horse is not about force or making them do it it’s about them and you working together. Try it, you and your horse will be happier.


    • Susan Kauffmann November 13, 2018 / 3:40 am

      Kris Hughes, you might want to check out Canadian horseman/trainer Josh Nichol. He addresses the question of learned helplessness directly and goes to great lengths to prevent this from ever happening to a horse. His style of training, which he calls “Relational Horsemanship”, goes farther than any other I’ve ever seen to meet the horse’s needs, prioritize how they feel about what they are being asked to do, and build confidence, trust, and communication. His goal is to give as much benefit to the horse as they give to us, if not more, so the horses feel great about themselves and us. He is truly a revelation and might very well give you your joy of working with horses back. You can check him out at JoshNichol.com


    • Tina McCallum November 13, 2018 / 1:13 pm

      yes, I agree Kris the more we learn the more I realise what we call fun is actually abuse. the photos and clips I see people smiling and horses putting up with stuff they are not allowed to give feedback


    • Cheri Romain December 31, 2018 / 4:00 am

      You care, the horses need you! Look up Phillip Karl and the school of legerete.


  8. Pam Levy November 12, 2018 / 12:17 pm

    This is a great article! I thought for a long time that my spunky little Connemara mare should be quieter, and was dangerously close to going down the “make her bombproof” road. I’ve since been set straight (thank goodness), and it has changed everything. I’m never going to have that “bombproof” (read “shut down”) horse, and better still, I now understand why I wouldn’t want that for her. Again, great post! xx


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 1:04 am

      Thank you for your thoughts, Pam! I am so glad you and your mare have found some good help and are doing well!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. s roesler November 12, 2018 / 2:18 pm

    WOW…thanks for pursuing this, it explains so much for me. I was starting to wonder if I was doing something wrong when my horses would come to me “checked out” to a degree, not people friendly, dull, etc. but well behaved…and start expressing themselves more and more the longer I have them! Doing things I know are frowned on in the equine world, like “anticipating the bridle being taken off with head rubs so they can get a towel rub down instead of just waiting quietly” or having occasional resistance tantrums under saddle which makes me have to re-establish (I use release as reward) we are going to do it my way. Basically not just blind obedience, but each expressing their personality and opinion. I keep thinking I’m doing something wrong because they don’t get “bombproof” consistent, but keep me “actively riding” every time we go out. We have great rides, they have great manners, they just act like kids sometimes and I’m like “really”, we have to have this discussion again. Or I have to just overlook certain expressions, like my ex-2nd level dressage horse who gently bites and pins his ears when he’s bridled and girthed (took care of his ignored ulcers & back pain) now it’s more residual from 18 years of having his pain and stress ignored I think. It’s just how he expresses that he’s nervous, tense, unsure, stressed. we have an agreement, he can express himself, I’ll never hurt him, but he can’t hurt me either. He’s never bitten me in the 2 years I’ve had him! I feel so much better and can “relax” after reading this article…it makes total sense to me! Thanks


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 1:03 am

      This is very similar to the experiences I had buying horses who were in a state of LH at the time of purchase. When we began starting and developing our own horses, trying not to use LH, and instead relying on providing them with a good foundation and progressive training and experience, we started learning a lot. As you have found, s roesler, it’s sometimes difficult to completely undo what’s been done before we arrived. But with these horses we have started and developed, we get to experiment with how to create a willing, USEFUL partner, who understands and is SURE about his job and his place in the world. It is fascinating work.


  10. Jennifer November 12, 2018 / 2:37 pm

    Interesting read. I learned about LH when I was learning clicker training, the woman I learned from worked with non verbal people, not a horse person at all but she was incredible at reading the horses. I learned so much from that training.


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 12:57 am

      I can imagine that working with non-verbal humans would be a super preparation for working with horses! So much of this has to do with awareness and our ability to observe. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!


  11. Mary Bray November 12, 2018 / 2:51 pm

    Oh! I so agree with this article.


  12. Barb Blizzard-Henry November 12, 2018 / 7:25 pm

    WOW GREAT ARTICLE! My Hunting dog has this! As well as my new Mustang.


  13. Gabriele Neurohr November 12, 2018 / 7:41 pm

    wow, thank you! That was the best explanation of LH I ever read.


  14. Keatha Senyohl November 12, 2018 / 9:49 pm

    As a Natural Horse And Rider Bio Mechanics Instructor and trainer I believe there is no place for LH. Just because it has been the norm for ever does not mean it has to continue. We can and should be able to learn and evolve for the better ment of all equines.


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 12:52 am

      Thank you so much, Keatha, for your thoughts! Now that I know about LH, I certainly strive to irradicate it from my own work with my horses. I also know that before I knew about it, I didn’t know that what I was doing was causing LH. The question, for lots of folks in my business is, how do you reach those who don’t know what they don’t know?


  15. Cheryl November 13, 2018 / 2:22 am

    I believe as horse people it is our responsibility to eliminate the profitability of training horses to be L.H.
    When I started with horses I rode and saw lots of that. I do not train mine that way. I have trained show horses (hunter jumper and dressage) re-enactment horses as well as flat race horses. Lalley of them have been taught their job. They have been very consistent and reliable. The only issue is that some riders find it scary to be on a horse that does it because he wants to and not because he has to.
    Like I ask them, what’s the problem??? Je wants to so just go do it with him instead of to him.


  16. Laurie Herzig November 13, 2018 / 3:36 am

    Great read.
    I’ve always believed that excessive round pen work (especially the those three day colt-starting contests) is all about getting the horse to “give up.” When there’s no place to escape, and the human just keeps after you, why try?


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 1:04 pm

      I would agree with that observation, Laurie. I see the round pen maybe a little differently than some other folks. I see it as a classroom, where the horse and the person can safely make different choices and learn to seek each other and have conversations about things.


      • Jack Fritchie November 13, 2018 / 5:55 pm

        I view a round pen just like a bit. Not that many harsh bits, but there are a lot of harsh hands. All a round pen should do is give you a captive audience. Beats chasing them around the field. And they do have to realize who is the alpha. You are supposed to use that oppportunity to teach. If you have horse left and have completed your lesson, you probably had a productive lesson.
        Before anybody starts preaching, they need to watch the herd. What happens when a new horse arrives? It gets a little rough. But watch how quickly the horses back off (release) when the new horse leaves their space. Watch when a horse wants to come in ahead of old ms alpha. She quickly reinforces the rule. The lesson lasted seconds.
        We need to train using their language and master a timely release.


  17. Esther Boekel November 13, 2018 / 8:29 am

    Hi iteresting article, I only do think that making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult is in a way the same…. as LH. For example if this technic is used for horses to be trained at liberty. You see unnatural sticking to the human.. Making it look like they choose to stay with the human. But in reallity they gave up running away……. Does that make sense? The good thing is that we have acces to so much knowledge now and we can reconsider our own horsemanship. I love your blog keep up the good work!


    • greyhorsellc November 13, 2018 / 1:14 pm

      You make an interesting point, Esther, and I do hear that out and about, “by making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy, are we actually leaving the CHOICE intact?” I think about that every day in my work. I think that if we TRULY make the wrong thing THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF DIFFICULT, it leaves the choice intact. Ray Hunt said to make the wrong thing DIFFICULT, not IMPOSSIBLE. I do see this misapplied all the time because people make the wrong thing impossible. To see the light and shade of differing degrees of “difficult” is magical. I have only seen this in the work of true masters, as it is only the result of an extraordinary amount of thought, creativity, feel and timing.

      For example, and I will forever have this burned in my brain: A couple of years ago, Buck Brannaman was doing a clinic not far from our farm. He had his stallion Guapo with him, and he got off Guapo to help a student with their horse. Buck’s assistant, Nathan, held Guapo while Buck was busy. Guapo dropped his penis while he was standing there, and as I watched, Nathan started very gently working Guapo, asking for the left front to take one step back, the right hind to step under and across. The right front out and back. In about 20 seconds, Guapo had pulled his equipment back up, and Nathan left him alone. It was all done so quietly and softly that I bet I was the only person there who saw it. In this case, Nathan didn’t need the make the “wrong” thing very difficult at all to motivate Guapo to make a change. So I think of this every day – how “difficult” does this need to be to motivate a change?

      Thank you for bringing up this important point, and I’m so glad you’re here!


  18. karmen November 13, 2018 / 11:44 am

    Nice article. I agree that LH is not yet widely studied in horses. Having studied animal and equine behaviour myself, my understanding is that LH results from downright abuse (but like in serious abuse), for example “Phajaan”, when working elephants in training are “broken in” by being beaten until they give in and stop showing any kind of response, emotion or resistance. There is often pain and suffering involved with LH (either physical or emotional pain, or both.) That is true LH (and is also common in the dog training world, circuses, and with humans as well).
    With dressage (or other riding disciplines), there is more at play, e.g. desensitisation and adaptation. The horse has learned a specific routine and has a relationship with his rider/trainer and also often involves praise (positive reinforcement). This means the horse may just be executing trained commands because it is used to it, knows what it means, has become used to being transported etc.,all this without experiencing any type of suffering as such.


  19. Rosie November 13, 2018 / 1:25 pm

    All I can says is YES, I have had many clients come to me with the issues that the horse they brought is no longer the horse they have and have explained to them that is a horse has been trained under a lot of pressure they can be in the just do it and don’t argue state of mind similar to a person in a abusing relationship, and now in a new home with a new owner who doesn’t display some of the dominant behaviour of the previous owner the horse starts to try and regain some empowerment and sense of self it is interesting to read this in a in-depth article as it was only ever just my opinion from what these types of horses have shown me over the years.


  20. Bill Baehr November 13, 2018 / 9:04 pm

    LH is an inevitable part of the learning process for all animals including humans. Consider the habitual criminal that never learns that he is not helpless in breaking the law and repeatedly goes to prison. No one would own and be able to use any horses if the horse did not learn that it is helpless to escape from people whenever it wants. LH can be a very good thing or a very bad thing. It’s a tool that is subject to abuse.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Nicole C November 15, 2018 / 2:48 am

    This was a great articulation of something I had also noticed in the past. It breaks my heart to remember. It’s a tough topic and I appreciate that you managed to not point any fingers but rather shared valuable information.


  22. Jennifer Leslie November 16, 2018 / 2:20 am

    I have never had an LH, and I have never enjoyed riding them. There have been a few that have ‘woken up’ temporarily while I’ve ridden them because I ask their opinion. They’re always confused at first, but then they relax. It’s kind of like going out of the house for the first time in months and having coffee with friends because your abusive husband is out of town.

    My first horse was a…weird neglect case, I guess? He was spooky to high heavens, and it took 6 years but he turned into a really good lesson/child’s horse because that was what he enjoyed doing. It took a really long time to get him from “frightened of the world” to a place where he could assess whether or not he should freak out. Terrified of cows, but managed to chase one around an arena once. It was terrible to watch, but man I was happy. (He stopped being afraid of cows after that)

    My second was really helpful for the gelding. She was OPINIONATED. If she did not want to do something, it did not get done without negotiation. She loved playing pranks. She was steady, though, and would have done great in the show ring if I had gotten the chance. She loved cows. She loved loading herself in the trailer. She loved working.


  23. cheryl November 16, 2018 / 1:57 pm

    Who is the author of this article?


    • greyhorsellc November 23, 2018 / 11:12 pm

      Cheryl, the author of this piece is Kathleen Lindley Beckham.


  24. jp November 17, 2018 / 12:33 am

    The most shocking LH I’ve ever seen is in Third World countries, where the pain is so constant that the animals have just shut down. There are stallions tied next to each other, horses are hit to make them go; red, bloody marks on hind ends of cart horses. It’s dismal and depressing. What I see in the USA/Canadian/European show ring pales in comparison. Go to Mexico, South America or the Middle East where these poor animals work for a living.


  25. lytha November 27, 2018 / 6:49 pm

    My last time visiting America, my parents had a John Wayne film on the TV. I couldn’t believe it, I’d never noticed before, the dead look in all the horses’ eyes. ALL of them. They were being “cowboyed” around by actors/stunt riders, jerked on needlessly, and their eyes were just dead. I haven’t seen that degree of helplessness in current Hollywood films, I don’t think..


    • Janet December 31, 2018 / 3:24 pm

      Old westerns are PAINFUL to watch. What a shock from when I was a know nothing kid to an experienced aware adult horse person. Still most people watch those westerns and don’t see it. Horrible horrible horsemen. Terrible riders. Animal abuse really. But then again I’ll bet that was reality back then. That’s how it really was. Who said the Good old days were Good!? No we are evolving in to a better more humane and compassionate society. Doesn’t seem like it sometimes but we are.


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