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  • Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Learned Helplessness

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

The theory of learned helplessness was originally devised by Martin Seligman in 1967. It is a psychological condition where individuals learn they have no control over painful or aversive conditions, that their actions are futile and that they are helpless to change the situation. When events are uncontrollable the individual learns that its behaviour and outcomes are independent. In humans this may result in clinical depression and related mental illness. The state may also result in an unwillingness to avoid subsequent encounters with the aversive stimuli, even if escapable; as individuals learn they can’t control the situation and give up.

Uncontrollable events can significantly debilitate individuals, producing passivity in the face of trauma, the inability to learn and emotional stress. When training and management procedures are repeatedly unpleasant for the horse and there is no clear association between behaviour and outcome, learning and performance are likely to be interfered with, in addition to compromising welfare.

Horses learn they are unable to help themselves when the responses they use to relieve pain or discomfort are unsuccessful. When a horse has no consistent way to find a reward, it learns it has no control over its environment and may give up trying to do anything. Such horses may become unresponsive to stimuli such as the aids and be reluctant to work. They are often then described as ‘stale’, ‘sour’, ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’, ‘stubborn’ or ‘sluggish’.

Learned helplessness may occur in the ridden horse which is constantly being jabbed in the mouth by the bit. If the horse doesn’t habituate to random tugs on its sensitive mouth, it may give up trying to respond to any amount of bit pressure. Humans call this a ‘hard-mouth’ and blame the problem on the horse. The normal solution is to get a harsher, more painful bit. People may fail to examine their own role in the problem or to realise that it is in fact ‘learned helplessness’ not a hard mouth. No horse has a hard mouth. The mouth is a soft, wet, sensitive area of the body with many nerve endings that remains sensitive regardless of what humans do with bits.

The same thing will happen if you are leading your horse and apply pressure with the lead rope, then don’t release when the horse moves forward. After a while the horse will just stand there and not move when asked forward. Another example is when a rider ends up kicking a horse to make it move. This situation begins way earlier when the rider didn’t release the leg pressure as the horse moved forward. Over time the horse learns that moving forward doesn’t stop the irritation of the humans’ legs so it just stands there and doesn’t move. The rider gets stronger and stronger with their legs and the horse learns to tune out the rider more and more. As you can imagine the examples are endless as this principle applies to much of our horse handling.

It is in our own best interests to be aware of and avoid learned helplessness in our horses. It may seriously affect their ability to learn in training and reduce their ability to perform. It is definitely in the interests of the horse to avoid it with a host of welfare issues associated with it. Learned helplessness in horses may cause an inability to learn, emotional stress, passivity, depression, mental illness and social anxiety. Unfortunately in some situations such horses are actually admired for their passivity and acceptance of whatever humans do to them and the true nature of what is occurring is not understood. Horse carers everywhere have a responsibility to the individuals in their care and a moral requirement to ensure that no horses suffer from this debilitating syndrome.

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