Our Readers Agree: Learned Helplessness Is Harmful

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The hardest decisions for anyone who trains horses — whether a professional with numerous horses or an owner with one horse — involve when to push, when to back off, when to discipline and when to forgive.

There is no single standard or rule of thumb. And perhaps that’s why our March article ”Learned Helplessness — A Dangerous Method” caused an unprecedented amount of reader response. Some congratulated us for publishing the article, some took issue with certain observations, and some asked for advice on redeeming horses who’ve been ruined by trainers who implement learned helplessness. In this month’s article we’ll address some of those questions and objections.

”Thank you for the article on learned helplessness,” wrote reader Sue Stimson. ”I have been horrified for years seeing horses with noses forced behind vertical, whether it is in performance like dressage or jumping or in breeds like Arabian. I am also depressed to see America’s Quarter Horse made into a robot. I long for more horses like eventers galloping happily forward on interesting courses, reiners executing wonderful spins and circles, Lipizzaners floating softly across the arena, all with heads at comfortable, balanced positions and attitudes looking forward to what’s next!”

Equine vs. Human Thinking. A few readers disagreed with our statements regarding how horses think and, thus, act and react. Reader Carole Francis-Swayze was one. She objected to our assertion that ”horses don’t think like we do — they lack our reasoning capacity and our range of emotions.”

Ms. Francis-Swayze wrote: ”The implication here is that because horses don’t reason like we do, they don’t reason at all and they, thus, lack conscious thought. This is absolutely wrong. It would be much more accurate to say that horses lack human language; yet they are capable of understanding us. And I don’t know how the author figured out that horses don’t have the range of emotions that we do. Gosh, I experience all kinds of emotions in them. It would be far more accurate and better to say they lack human ego and greed.”

We didn’t write, or imply, that horses lack conscious thought. They most certainly do think, and the reason we can train them to the highest levels of any discipline is their incredible ability to associate our aids with the reactions we seek, and to remember that association.

But horses do not reason like humans. And one factor, as Ms. Francis-Swayze suggests, is that they lack human language. They don’t have names for abstract thoughts, concepts or objects, plus they lack most human motivations. They need to feel safe, comfortable and confident, and their primary (but not only) mental and emotional motivations relate to those needs.

And we agree that horses have emotions, although their ability to express those emotions is much more limited than ours, mostly because they don’t have a complex language to express them. For one, they don’t feel or understand love exactly like humans do. Do they feel attachment to other horses and to humans they know and trust' Absolutely. Do they crave companionship' Absolutely. Are attachment and companionship essential to feeling safe and confident' Absolutely.

And they likely have emotions we can only barely comprehend. Consequently we, as riders or as trainers, do them a great disservice to treat them as giant-sized people with fur. It’s up to us to do our best to recognize their equine thought patterns and motivations and to adapt our actions and their actions accordingly.

That’s why using learned helplessness as a training method is so unfair to horses. Learned helplessness seeks to remove the horse’s horseness, to make him a robot without thoughts or reactions to stimuli. And when you do that, they simply stop reacting at all.

Natural Horsemanship. Several readers took issue with our assertion that ”the natural horsemanship program of desensitizing horses to stimuli, if overused, is akin to the dogs who didn’t move when shocked.”

Reader Marcy Koch wrote: ”People who turn to [natural-horsemanship] programs are looking for answers. If a natural horsemanship clinic keeps one person or horse from getting hurt or allows one person to ask for further help, it is certainly worth the chance that some scared or overzealous rider will overuse a desensitizing exercise. As a trainer, I’m willing to take that risk. These programs are not making trainers who will go out and spread the gospel of the program to the unenlightened; they are trying to make safer riders and safer horses.”

Certainly, the leading practitioners of the natural-horsemanship methodology have succeeded in allowing many people to have an enjoyable relationship with their horses. We applaud them for that.

However, we believe that some (not all) of these practitioners have neither the experience nor the horse sense to evaluate all horses’ reactions to their practices — just as some dressage riders deleteriously use rollkur or some hunter riders longe their horses for far too long a time.

The result of each of these activities is that the horse becomes desensitized and passive, dull and unresponsive — but, apparently, ”quiet and safe.” However, we don’t think that riders or horses are made safer by horses who don’t respond at all to stimuli.

We believe a main reason for the misuse of these and other training methods — all of which do have their proper use and place — is that a large percentage of the American horse-owning and ???riding public has never accepted the fact that horses are a lifetime avocation or vocation.

You, as a Horse Journal reader, know that you can spend your entire life studying, observing, riding and training horses, and you still do won’t know it all. A true horseman learns something new about the way they act and react and live every day, if he or she pays attention. Horsemanship is a lifetime pursuit, and there is no ”magic methodology” behind it.

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor.