Learned Helplessness — Improper and Dangerous Horse Training Methods

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Ask yourself, what is the goal in training horses' Are we trying to create robots that do nothing unless directed by us, that respond dutifully, but with no enthusiasm, to our every command' Or are we trying to develop partners, animals who respond correctly to our aids, but who are able to think and to act and react with enthusiasm and who can cover up or even fix our miscues'

Horses don’t think like we do — they lack our reasoning capacity and our range of emotions. But they’re exponentially more instinctual and intuitive than we are. They’re motivated by three basic factors — they want to feel safe, comfortable and confident. But they have far quicker reflexes than we do, and they’re much stronger than we are. At its heart, training horses is about directing the horse’s motivations and strengths correctly, about using them to our advantage.

Training horses — teaching them to be safe and reliable, along with the particular skills our disciplines require — should not be about negating their reflexes and their power. Yet, that’s what a type of training that’s becoming distressingly popular in this country and in Europe attempts to do.

”Learned helplessness” is a methodology (often practiced by people who are unaware it’s what they’re doing when training) that punishes the horse for being a horse, that attempts to make horses calm (and, thus, trainable) but usually only succeeds in making them sour and, sometimes, belligerent or even dangerous.

It’s a methodology that relies on domination, punishment and exhaustion. They ”longe till dead” to tire the horses out; they ride them with their heads tucked in to their chests (with or without draw reins or other devices); they repeatedly drill the same exercises and forgive no error whatsoever; they ride their horses only on strong contact or in a collected attitude, never letting them stretch out, relax or look around; they reprimand them with a whip or other device every time they kick at a fly or hear a new sound; they use the bit and spurs only as a reprimand or punishment, instead of as a means of communication.

We’re not suggesting that the other extreme — letting horses behave however they want, as if they were wild — is correct either. In fact, letting stabled or working horses run rampant is even more dangerous, for everyone. Like so much in life, training horses is about finding a middle ground — rather like teaching children.

They Just Stop Trying

”Learned helplessness” is a condition first identified in humans in the mid 1960s, following research in which dogs experienced avoidable and unavoidable electric shocks. The researchers found that, if the dogs believed they could avoid the shocks, they did. But if the dogs had already experienced shocks from which they couldn’t escape, they didn’t even try to avoid them. They’d just lie there and accept the shocks, believing there was no point in moving.

Psychologists have since done numerous studies on children, finding that if children are constantly told that they’re doing something wrong or that they can’t accomplish a task, they stop trying. These children have learned that they have no control over their fate (whether it’s earning an A, riding a bicycle, making a sports team), so they don’t even try. And often they become rebellious or anti-social, because they’re seeking some means of self-esteem or recognition, a means that never results in happiness.

Humans, or horses, who’ve learned to be helpless have had their intrinsic motivation stolen from them. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something because you want to, because you enjoy it, because meeting the challenge provides you with fulfillment. Horses or humans who’ve lost that motivation do things only because they have to. They go to school or jump a jump because they have no choice, because all they’re trying to do is avoid punishment.

The trick to training horses is that they must respect us — a point we’ve made in several previous articles — but they shouldn’t fear us.

Dr. Andrew McLean, a neuroscientist and horse trainer from Australia who lectures around the world, writes that for horses to learn and perform, they must not be conflicted by such drives as hunger, thirst, extreme cold or heat, fear, or dominance over their rider or trainer. ”The last one is the greatest stumbling block for most inexperienced trainers. You must have the horse’s respect; he should be placidly obedient. Remember that the horse does not mind you being above him in the hierarchy. In fact, he is just as content as he would be if he were the dominant one,” McLean writes.

”The scariest thing for the horse is not to know who is the boss. Nature’s way of resolving the pecking order is to increase the level of rebellion, until somebody does something that finally sorts it out and restores the harmony in the pecking order,” he adds.

Enlightenment Leads To Partnership

Determining who’s the boss has been at the heart of our relationship with horses ever since humans began driving and riding them. Prior to the Renaissance, European horse training exclusively involved devices like huge curb bits and sharp, roweled spurs designed to manhandle unruly or resistant horses into submission. But during the enlightenment of the Renaissance, the French and Italian cavalry schools, harking back to Xenophon, showed that horses weren’t necessarily evil or bad, just misunderstood and mishandled.

It was the beginning of dressage (remember, the word means ”training”), and their school of thought is the basis of the widely read works of Englishman William Cavendish, who in the mid 18th century showed how horses could be progressively trained for a variety of tasks over a course of years, instead of just ”broken” in a few weeks.

The second critical moment in horse training came a century and a half later, when Capt. Federico Caprilli of Italy created the forward seat, a method of riding horses over fences and across country that allowed the horse to become a partner, responsible for his own balance. Wrote Caprilli, ”The horse should be made to proceed by the slightest possible application of the aids, only very gradually increased if and when necessary, and always with the utmost calmness until he has fallen into the required cadence. Sudden and violent application of the aids is only irritating.”

Caprilli demonstrated that the riding method of the time — riders in dressage-length stirrups, leaning far back to jump any kind of obstacle, on the theory that they had [capti on id="attachment_57180" align="alignright" width="288" caption=""]to collect the horse and physically raise his forehand to induce him to jump — was fundamentally flawed. He proved that shortening the stirrups, riding actively forward and allowing the horse to jump was much more effective for horse and rider.

Today, a century later, we see people trying to induce high-octane sporthorses, who often live in stalls or tiny corrals, to perform through the use of a gadgets and techniques that, once again, seek to make the horse a slave instead of a partner. These techniques require the horse to submit to control, often to give in to avoid punishment, resulting in learned helplessness as a means of coping.

The most common — and controversial — technique is called ”rollkur” or hyperflexion, in which the horse is ridden with his neck nearly bent double and his chin unrelentingly tucked to his chest, a position that prevents him from using his neck for balance or to see properly because his forehead is pointing toward the ground.

Rollkur was developed by European dressage riders in the mid ’90s to deal with high-energy, extremely athletic horses because it gave them a physical and psychological advantage.

Writes Dr. Ulrike Thiel, a German trainer and clinical psychologist, in the German magazine St. George, ”The rider dominates the horse like the predator that holds him on the ground. He is helpless.”

As a result, ”The horse learns that the rider does not respond to his signals, but that he must continue, whether he is in physical balance or not, whether he can see or not. In technical terminology, it is called 'learned helplessness,’ in which the horse must react with exaggerated movement, because not reacting means even more stress.”

But this isn’t a philosophical and physical issue limited to dressage. Some hunter riders longe their horses for hours to tire them out or bore them to death. Some show jumpers spend their lives in draw reins, their heads pulled to their chests.

Some event riders overuse their whips every time a horse looks at a jump. And the natural horsemanship program of desensitizing horses to stimuli, if overused, is akin to the dogs who didn’t move when shocked.

So, ponder again: Are we trying to create robots or develop partners'

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. John has decades of experience in horse sports and journalism. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training center in California.