Equine Behaviour Term of the Week: Learned Helplessness

Individuals learn to be helpless to avoid a negative experience.
They believe they have no control over their unpleasant or harmful conditions, and their actions are futile, so they lose motivation or their “want to".
Have you ever seen this happen to a horse being trained for the show ring?
Do you think people can experience situations where they feel helpless too?

“Let’s be thinking riders!”


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Yes, people experience learned helplessness, especially abused people and people in war zones.

I've been thinking about this for a long time.  In the bad old days the learned helplessness in Western riding was often introduced by "riding the buck out".  Now it seems to me that the learned helplessness occurs when riders teach their horses to keep their heads down--control the neck and you "break" the horse.  I started noticing this in Rollkur first (especially in dressage) and then after learning about Rollkur the modern Western practice of "peanut rolling" in WP made more sense.  If the horse's nose is below the bottom of his breast he is pretty helpless against a predator until he raises his head so he can run off.  Since the rider actively discourages the horse from ever raising his head the horses learn to give up, essentially offering themselves to the predator.  This is just my opinion.

Sorry to pick on Western Pleasure, but when I see these horses perform it looks like they are a few steps away from dying.  I find it extremely distressing.

The problem with the low head is that when the horse gets his head up he or she is not trained to obey the aids with his head up.  Then the horse gets punished for acting up instead of being trained to obey aids no matter the position of the head and neck.  It ends up that the only safe place from rider nagging is head down, which really leaves the horse as ready prey for any predator that comes along (and horses always seem to think there is a predator around!)  Eventually the horse "shuts down" and is called "broke".

I ride Forward Seat.  My horses decide where and how they carry their heads and necks.  When I start riding a new horse I often have some problems with him until I teach the aids when the horse carries his head higher.  I have to teach the horse to obey me even if his head is up.  As the horses get used to the new freedom of their heads and necks they start thinking, and if I ride well enough the horses often start to actively cooperate with me which is great since I am disabled from MS and I need all the help I can get.  But then they don't just stand there, they are always observant, looking around, hinting to me that it is time to get moving!  So what, they tend to take care of me since I "un-break" their necks.

I hope this makes sense!  It is hot and I am tired. 

Think about it.   A great majority of competitive horses are in some state of learned helplessness, especially the dressage horse.  Modern horse training does not consist of 'ask and allow' but rather consists of 'demand and force'.

Today it really is manhorseship, not horsemanship.

I agree about the show horses Allan.  I don't know of a single show performance class (except show jumping) that does not have stringent requirements of the "proper" head and neck carriage. 

It used to be in America that people would put "dumb jockeys" or bitting rigs on their horses at breaking in order to "teach" the horse "proper" head carriage for saddle or harness.  Trainers still do, it saves them time.  This is one of the reasons I went to Forward Seat, we don't use side reins when doing ground training.  Every one else seemed to back then (a lot of Western trainers back then recommended tying the reins behind the cantle.)  And halter horses?  They have to do an "ideal profile" with strictly limited neck placement too. 


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