Avoiding Learned Helplessness

The scientific definition of Learned Helplessness is as follows: Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

Many traditional and “natural” horsemanship approaches intentionally or unintentionally can put a horse into a state of learned helplessness. There is a reason why our traditional vernacular refers to a trained horse as “broke” – a horse who no longer reacts or “fights back” is considered broken. An apt term, actually.

Luckily today we know better, and have many more progressive techniques to allow our horses to learn without fear, and to be engaged and willing participants.

But the use of aversive tools, escalating pressure, and the fact that Miniature Horses are small enough that they CAN be physically moved and restrained can all combine to mean that we could, unintentionally, place our horse into a state of learned helplessness.

This is bad, not just from an ethical standpoint, but also safety. Their “bubble” of learned helplessness isn’t going to last forever. Someday something will wake them up again, and the reaction could be very dangerous for themselves and the humans around them.

So what can we do to avoid it?

  1. Avoid using tools that intentionally cause pain or distress to get a response. Things like rope or “control” halters, whips and sticks, “flags” or bags to chase. Can these things be used without causing distress? Of course. But they aren’t necessary, and their for potential misuse, especially with uneducated hands, is high.
  2. Never escalate pressure. If the smallest aversive doesn’t work, escalating it isn’t going to make your horse more likely to understand, it’s just going to make them more confused, and now scared too.
  3. Avoid restraint. Horses are flight animals – let them move their feet and they’ll be so much more confident and willing to try what you’re asking of them
  4. Give your horse choices. Reinforce the choices you want to see them make again. Ignore the choices you’d rather not see repeated.
  5. Listen to your horse. Watch for the tiny signs they’re uncomfortable with what you’re doing. Make adjustments before they ever feel like they need to escalate. Let them know they DO have a voice.
  6. Remember that behaviour is communication. Horses don’t misbehave to ruin your day or try to boss you around. Their behaviour is trying to tell you something – it’s your job to figure out what they’re trying to say.
  7. Thin slice each skill to teach in successive steps. The bigger the step, the more likely you are to confuse your horse and run into conflict. Make the steps so small the horse learns new skills without even noticing that they’re new.
  8. If at first you don’t succeed – STOP! Think about what you did, how your horse responded, and how you can make changes to help your horse to succeed on the next attempt.

Have fun, and make sure your horse is always having fun too!

You can learn more about Learned Helplessness in my Understanding Your Miniature Horse ebook!


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