Learned Helplessness—The Dark Side of 21st Century Horse Training

The trick to training horses is that they must respect us, but they shouldn’t fear us.
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The trick to training horses is that they must respect us, but they shouldn’t fear us.

Ask yourself, what is our 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?

I don’t want to ride a robot around a cross-country course.

I don’t want to ride a robot around a cross-country course.

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, partners who can cover up or even fix our miscues?

This essential philosophic question returned front and center to my mind as we were preparing the Horse Journal’s 20th anniversary issue (the February issue). In thinking back over the last decade, and reading my collection of articles, I decided that the two most important products or trends I wrote about were the Game Ready cold-compression treatment system and a the training methodology described as “learned helplessness.” Game Ready was the best thing, and learned helplessness was, obviously, the worst.

I firmly believe that training horses—teaching them to be safe and reliable and to possess the particular skills your discipline requires—should not be about blindly 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 too attempts to do. Learned helplessness is a methodology (often practiced by people who are unaware it’s what they’re doing) 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 sore and, sometimes, belligerent and even dangerous.

It’s a methodology that relies on domination, punishment and exhaustion.

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. When horses or humans lose that motivation, they 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 I’ve made in numerous articles and blogs—but they shouldn’t fear us.

Our training of horses has to always consider that they don’t think like we do or have our motivations—they lack our reasoning capacity and our range of emotions, and they can’t set goals. But they’re exponentially more instinctual and intuitive than we are, and they’re very good at connecting cause and effect. They’re motivated by three basic factors—they want to feel safe, comfortable and confident. Plus, they have far quicker reflexes than we do, and they’re so much stronger than we are.

So, at its heart, training horses is about directing the horse’s motivations and strengths correctly, about convincing them to use their strengths to our advantage. We have to teach them to be obedient to our aids, but to be obedient because they get rewarded for it. Several years ago, Dr. Ulrike Thiel, a German trainer and clinical psychologist, wrote about learned helplessness in the respected German magazine St. George. He said that in this system, “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.”

Determining who’s the boss has been at the heart of our relationship with horses ever since humans began driving and riding them centuries ago. 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 on 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 was the basis of the widely read and highly influential 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.

Cavendish’s philosophy was a huge philosophical shift at the time, and well worth remembering in the rush of today’s equestrian culture.

The next critical moment in the philosophy of 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. Basically, he shortened riders’ stirrups, got them off the horse’s back, and let the horses jump instead of the riders lifting them over the jumps.

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.”

Today, more than a century later, we see people often training in largely the opposite way, most unfortunately in the world of dressage. They try to induce high-octane sporthorses, who usually live in stalls or tiny corrals, to perform through the use of a variety of gadgets and techniques that seek to make the horse a slave instead of a partner, rather like 400 years ago. These techniques require the horse to submit unthinkingly to human control, often to give in to avoid punishment, resulting in learned helplessness as a means of coping.

But this isn’t a philosophical issue limited to dressage. Many hunter riders longe their horses for hours to tire them out or bore them to death. Some show jumpers spend most of 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 research dogs who don’t move when they get shocked, because moving doesn’t make it stop.

So, ponder again, are we trying to create robots or to develop partners? To me, the answer has to be partners. I don’t want to ride a robot incapable of solving a problem around a cross-country course.