Learned Helplessness and What It Taught Me About Training Horses

I recently read an article about learned helplessness and it got me thinking. Here is a basic description: “Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated aversive stimuli (painful or fearful) which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.”

Sadly, learned helplessness is quite common in the world of horses and horse training. How many times have you heard about someone having a horse on a lead rope and they keep stimulating them with, say, a bag on a stick? At first the horse is terrified and trying to get away. Pretty soon the horse is standing quietly. The horse has not decided the bag (or attached human) is safe, they have learned that they can’t get away from the terror. They have learned to give up. This serves our purpose as far as getting the horse to be still but it definitely does not serve the horse’s confidence or mental well-being. I have always felt like the purpose of training animals is to help them to thrive in their environment. So to use training methods that would cause mental or physical damage is clearly not contributing to the animal’s well-being.

As a very young child I experienced learned helplessness first hand. Being so young, I was without physical or psychological means to truly have a choice in my situation. As the years passed and I physically grew, the situation never changed. It was too late, my brain had already succumbed to the prison of learned helplessness.

Meanwhile, I would spend time with the horses at my grandfather’s hobby farm. When I was around 6 years old, I realized that these horses weren’t actually happy to see us. They were evasive when it came to catching them but once we caught them, they were totally safe and compliant. They were what many people deem as “good” horses. However, from my own experiences, I recognized what they were going through. I knew that we were imposing our will on them and that was a bit too familiar. Well, that was that, I never wanted to ride them again. It was at that point that I decided that I did not want to be a part of an human or animal’s life if I didn’t improve their quality of life in some way. Then I decided that humans have a choice to stay or go so they could decide for themselves whether they wanted me in their lives or not. But I knew that animals don’t really have a choice about where they live or who owns them so I was going to see to it that I was a good steward. Don’t get me wrong, I loved our horses and wanted to have a relationship with them…but not at their expense. If they came along and wanted to interact I would have been thrilled but the damage was done and they didn’t see humans as a source of good things. I see this type of horse all the time in my work, the shut down horses that silently endure their human encounters.

For me, the sad part is that the well-meaning humans that own them usually cannot recognize that the horse is shut down. Mostly, these are people who have done what they have been taught do in order to create an agreeable, safe horse. There was no malice or ill intentions. They simply didn’t know the damage that they were doing or that there was another way to do things. Up until recently, there wasn’t really another option readily available to horse people.

While in my twenties and pursuing my education, I discovered positive reinforcement training while training marine mammals. The dog community has more recently taken to using positive reinforcement training as well, but it was the marine mammal community that is responsible for taking the science out of the text books and putting it into use, over 50 years ago! I was blessed to be able to spend ten years being entrenched with the practical application of the techniques. It was an intense time and I was regularly given text books, engaged in deep discussions and even tested on the subject. I also had a world of experience all around me that I could draw on everyday. My understanding was not something that I took lightly…it was the only technique that we used with the marine mammals so there were no other options. I wanted to be sure that I gave them my best. We were expected to understand it inside and out and not just on paper. We needed to effectively use the training to create animals that happily engaged in the training. After all, they got all of their food each and every day regardless of what they did or didn’t do. Therefore, the onus of making the training fun for each individual was up to us trainers.

When I looked back into horses and their training, I was now an adult and thoroughly understood positive reinforcement training better than most people. So to me, it was an obvious and simple solution to avoid the potential pitfalls of Pressure/release and the more traditional training methods. I thought the horse world would be tickled to learn about this simple and effective training. HA!! Over 20 years later and I am still climbing a pretty big hill.

Fortunately, times are changing and positive reinforcement is becoming much more understood. Resources are popping up all over the place to help people not only understand the science behind it but to help folks put it into use in the real world. Understanding the theory is terrific but it doesn’t do you any good unless you can see where to begin and how to incorporate it into your training program. I have been practicing and teaching positive reinforcement training to people for over 30 years. I can tell you that once people get a taste of the training and see the results they yearn for more and begin integrate it on an ever-broadening scale.

I have long related to horses because of my similar experiences with learned helplessness. On the other hand, I am careful not to pass judgment on the people who have unintentionally imposed themselves on their horses in the name of training. As with me, the humans in my life were doing the best they could with what they knew. Now that we have a new awareness and more information available to us, it is time that we do better.

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