Learned helplessness in horses - Don Jessop

Learned helplessness in horses - Don Jessop

November 19, 2019 3 Comments

learned help·less·ness PSYCHIATRY
  1. a condition in which a person (or animal) suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.
     
IN OTHER WORDS: "I can't do anything about what's going on and I know it and I don't like it."

Can a horse experience learned helplessness? Answer... YES!

Horses, without any doubt experience emotion. They feel fear, doubt, anxiety, love, connection, determination. They feel loss, loneliness. They feel joy, and happiness and just about everything else. 

The emotions we're not sure about are the more complex emotions, like guilt or perhaps certain kinds of joy like excitement about a distant future event. These complex emotions require the ability to see into the distant future which horses seem to have a limited ability to do. They can do it, it's just limited. For instance, they can see the future feeding time and rush to the gate. They can see the way home and desire to be home. Without any doubt, we can read their impulsive behavior and understand where it comes from. In short, what I'm saying is, horses experience emotion just like you and me. So is it possible they experience learned helplessness? Yes it is.

All a horse owner has to do to make a horse feel "learned helplessness" is to put them in a position they cannot win, then berate them over and over for not getting it right and never reward them when they do get it right. Take lunging for instance. If you ask a horse to canter for circle after circle and you whack them on the butt if they break gate when you didn't want it, you are teaching a sense of learned helplessness. There is no win for the horse. He gives you everything he's got and when he needs to re-balance or reconnect with you, he gets whacked by the stick? It's not fair, and horses can most certainly read and comprehend fairness. 

I'm not saying lunging is bad, I'm saying not giving the horse clear, fair choices, then beating them up for not giving you what you want is bad. Horses struggle to understand what we want all the time. So feeling at a loss, or feeling confused is an easy emotion for horses to express. We need to be little bit more patient with horses that don't do what we want because they probably don't actually KNOW what we want. Even if they've done it before, you have to ask, how well they did it before? Did they score well? Would you give them an A+ for their understanding the last time they did it? If not, you don't have the right to say they know what you want?

So if confusion is easy for horses to feel, then helplessness is pretty easy to feel too. Imagine being owned by someone. Then that someone asks you for something, but you don't understand what they want, then they beat you over the head for not doing it? This would cause a sense of learned helplessness.

But learned helplessness could be defined differently. Some people would say a horse that gave up his spirit and just doesn't try to protest anymore is suffering from learned helplessness. Which means they can't do anything about what's going on and they've decided to quit. It would seem they just don't care. But if learned helplessness can lead to depression, you'd want to check the other signs from the horse. Is he lethargic, non-responsive, distant? Or is he willing and healthy? I have willing and healthy horses that do challenging jobs for me, even though they know they have to do those jobs. They stay willing and healthy and responsive because I balance rewards with effort.

If I didn't balance rewards with effort they would start to show signs of lethargy, fear, confusion, distant attitudes, and physical signs of deterioration too through muscle tension. So I have to be careful defining learned helplessness. 

For me, learned helplessness is a condition where the horse gives up trying because they know they can't get it right. When I see this in a horse I immediately ask for less effort and plugin huge rewards. When the try comes back, the horse makes a full recovery. 

There are jobs a horse does for humans that require their full compliance. Riding is one of those jobs. But the horse doesn't have to feel helpless about it. She can feel happy about it. It's all in the rewards and the attitude of the trainer.

It's a messy subject with lots of personal perspectives, I hope by sharing mine you see a little deeper into the meaning of learned helplessness. And in the future I hope it brings us closer together so we can chat about what to do when you see it.

Thanks for reading. Please share, subscribe and comment below!


3 Responses

Laura Fowler
Laura Fowler

November 26, 2019

I am a high school mathematics teacher – this is as relatable to my students as it is to horses! Great depth and insight.

Linda
Linda

November 20, 2019

Interesting…so if a horse has had some bad experiences in his past ~ this could contribute to their sense of helplessness while they adapt to a new person while you’re trying to work with them? And when you said huge reward – what is your idea of a huge reward for your horse? is it treats, is it rubs, is it stopping training, removing pressure?

Carolyn
Carolyn

November 20, 2019

Great article.

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