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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In my experience, it’s taken horses six months to a year (approximately) to “wake up”.
- “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.
- 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.