A word on learned helplessness

A phrase I hear all too often is “you can’t make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do”. These words are appearing a lot in online discussions and it is quite often accompanied by statements claiming that those against a certain act or activity know “nothing about horses”. I, personally, take some offence to these claims and I am quite surprised at the lack of knowledge that equestrians have about their animals. I also find it astounding that they themselves believe their words, and think perhaps they are trying to convince themselves rather than convincing others.

Let me begin by describing a couple of situations that I’m sure we have all witnessed, or even been a part of. For the first example, you are watching someone jumping their horse and the horse stops at a fence, they try again but he refuses again. Now, if we had the decency to listen to the horse we would be able to hear him saying that this is something he does not want to do, for whatever reason and quite possibly self-preservation. Instead of taking a step back and assessing the situation in order to come to a solution suitable for all involved, the horse is labelled “naughty” and the rider approaches the fence again, one hand on the reins and the other smacking the horse with a whip. The horse, now more scared of the rider than the fence in front him, then jumps the fence. The horse had already made it clear that he did not want to do this, and the rider did not make an effort to encourage him to want to, so where does the statement “you can’t make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do” fit in here?

Another example is of course loading a horse into a horse box or trailer. I am sure many of us have been in the situation where a horse won’t load, the horse is saying he doesn’t want to go into that strange box and confined space, and this could be for a number of reasons. It is, of course, possible with time and patience to have a horse happily loading out of his own choice, however I am sure many of us have seen horses beaten into trailers where the horse’s only options are a. get in the trailer or b. receive punishment. Again, the human becomes a greater threat than the object in front of them.

Need another example? I can think of many. Just let your mind wonder and think about circus horses performing and horses in war. Are you sure those horses are only doing those things because they want to?

Something else I was told, by someone arguing that if a horse didn’t want to do something they wouldn’t, was that they are like humans in that respect and you can’t make a human do something they don’t want to do. This statement is pretty easy to pick apart and ignoring the other human examples such as emotional abuse, blackmail etc, how can we forget about the slavery that is a huge and awful part of our history?

If you truly believe that horses perform and do things for humans purely because they want to, then you might as well throw away your whips, bits and spurs, hang up your tack, get on your horse while he is free in the field and just ask for a ride…. Not that simple, huh? A problem within the horse world is that most people always tell their horse what to do, and rarely ask. It is quite possible to make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do, which poses the next question… just because we can, does that mean we should? My answer, on the most part, would be no.

Are we forgetting that these beautiful animals are flight animals? Are we exploiting their fear response in order to satisfy our own means?

So, having established that you can indeed make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do, let’s look at how that is possible.

We are looking at something called learned helplessness. If you think about those two words you can start to come to your own conclusions as to the meaning – a feeling of being helpless to avoid a negative situation because previous experience has shown that you have no control.

The term learned helplessness was devised in 1967 by Martin Seligman and Steve Maier and stemmed from an experiment with dogs. In the first experiment Seligman would ring a bell and then give a dog an electric shock. The dogs became conditioned to expect a shock whenever they heard a bell and therefore would start to react when they heard the bell, even before the shock was administered. The next experiment involved Seligman placing each dog into a large crate with a small barrier down the middle. The floor on one side of the barrier was electrified but on the other side was not. Seligman placed the dog on the electrified side and administered a shock, and although it was quite possible for the dog to jump the barrier to escape the shock they did not even try. The dogs would simply lie down and tolerate the shock. Seligman then tried this experiment with dogs that had not been shocked in the first experiment, and their reaction was to simply jump the barrier to the non-electrified side.

Seligman concluded that the dogs who lay down were exhibiting learned helplessness, and they had learned this helplessness from the first part of the experiment. They did not attempt to escape a negative situation because the past has taught them they are helpless, and they therefore just give up.

Sad really, isn’t it?

So how does this relate to our horses?

It is, sadly, fairly easy to shut a horse down and to make them feel helpless to a situation. By inciting fear and pain to our flight animals we can quickly put them into a state of learned helplessness. Let’s take rollkur, or even just forcing a neck position as an example here. The horse can be forced into a frame with the use of bits, gadgets and harsh hands. The horse will be experiencing a negative situation and to begin with may attempt to escape this through whatever means are possible. But if the hands just pull tighter, the spurs dig in and they receive a flick of a whip to make them oblige, they will soon learn there is nothing they can do to escape this situation. They have learned they are helpless, and are therefore now doing something that they do not want to do. However, because they have now given in, in certain situations it may look as though the horse is actually willing – as it would appear that the dogs were willing to accept electric shocks. When opportunities to escape the negative situation become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action. Their bodies are enduring something unpleasant but their minds feel unable to escape this.

So, finally… on a more positive note; do remember that horse training does not have to involve fear, pain or shutting horses down. Working with the horse rather than against, asking and listening, working on communication and respecting the animal for who they are produces more positive results – It may take more patience and a desire for understanding but it is worth the effort.

Remember – You can indeed make a horse do something that he doesn’t want to do, so be aware of this and consider your actions, are you encouraging a willingness or inducing learned helplessness?

misty at dawns

My thoughts written down. Ellen Cochrane – Gaia Horsemanship.

A word on learned helplessness

5 thoughts on “A word on learned helplessness

  1. Well done Ellen – erudite as always 🙂 It’s such a shame that some ‘horse riders’ cannot make the transition to become ‘horsemen/women’. I’ve always found it better to be patient rather than be a patient – trust me, the former is far better !!


  2. thank you so much for this article as your sentiments underpin all I do and discover as an Equine specialist healer and Communicator when working with horses and other performance ( or service ) animals and you are abs right the owners of so many horses WILL not accept this at all


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