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?

7 thoughts on “An Alternative to Learned Helpessness

  1. Auriol November 21, 2018 / 9:20 pm

    Absolutely wonderful article Kathleen!!! you ROCK!!! xxx


  2. Linda Alldredge November 22, 2018 / 5:30 am

    I like it! Much more of a partnership than a master/slave relationship. And I would suppose it is much easier to walk that fine line with some horses than others.


  3. Carolyn Marshall November 22, 2018 / 12:22 pm

    Wikipedia’s learned helplessness page was edited 6 days ago. I want to know what was changed.


    • greyhorsellc November 23, 2018 / 11:10 pm

      Carolyn – I went back and read the Wikipedia page, as I hadn’t read it in a while, and I noticed a couple changes. The bit about repeating the experiment with some of the dogs treated with curare is new, as is the part where they talk about the finding that the only way to break the LH dogs out of their apathy was to pick them up and physically help them make the movements they would make to escape. But it also said later on that LH would “wear off” over time, so to speak, so that was a little confusing. I also think the article used to state an actual percentage of the dogs that in the final phase of the experiment DID jump out. So I perceived quite a few changes since I read it last. Thanks for mentioning it!


  4. Linda Alldredge November 23, 2018 / 3:42 pm

    I wanted to add… your horsemanship improves, then you should be able to walk that fine line with other horses who are inherently a little more difficult because of their past experiences or who perhaps just have different personalities.


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