Learned Helplessness - The Horse Forum
LinkBack Thread Tools
post #1 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 10:28 AM Thread Starter
Join Date: Mar 2014
Location: South Louisiana
Posts: 382
• Horses: 1
Learned Helplessness

Another past blog

Recently, I was watching a video on YouTube of a very well known and respected Horseman and clinician of International repute. I’ll call him Tuck Tannaman. He was doing groundwork with a rather troubled horse. As this horse was fairly pushy and disrespectful, Tuck was applying the escalation of aids by whacking the horse repeatedly with his flag to get him to change directions, stay out of Tuck’s space, and move his feet. Eventually, the horse relaxed, his head lowered, his feet freed up, and he began to take the signals much more readily and with a lot less pressure. In essence, Timing, Feel, and the proper use of Escalating Pressure worked just as they should, and the result was just what most of us would want. As usual, some keyboard commando with just enough understanding of behavioral conditioning to be really dangerous made some disparaging comments and claimed that the horse had been driven into, dunt dunt duuuhhhh, LEARNED HELPLESSNESS!!

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. Learned helplessness is a state in which a person, or animal learns that no matter what it does, it can neither avoid an uncomfortable outcome, nor earn a positive reward. In essence, the subject has been trained to cease trying. This outcome is always the fault of the trainer.

There have been many experiments proving that Learned Helplessness exists. A video is posted on the Dauphin Horsemanship Facebook page, which gives a very good example of trained Learned Helplessness. Needless to say, a willing and responsive animal is not an example of what Learned Helplessness really is.

In this experiment, a fish is put into a tank, which has a glass partition in the center. Minnows, which are this fish’s main food source, are put on the opposite side of the partition. The fish repeatedly goes after the minnows, only to slam itself into the partition. Eventually, the fish ceases to try. At this point, the partition can be removed, allowing the minnows to swim all around the fish. Despite having access to food, the fish, now trained to the point of helplessness, will starve.

Different animals will reach Learned Helplessness at different points. Mules and donkeys, for example, are famous for sulling up and ceasing to try with very little provocation. An animal with modern bloodlines known for being very trainable might take a lot more mishandling before being driven to a state of Learned Helplessness.

People using the term Learned Helplessness incorrectly will usually say something like, “That horse has had too much pressure put on him. He’s scared. Now, he’ll do anything that guy wants to avoid the pressure!” In reality, a horse which has been incorrectly trained and exhibits learned helplessness has ceased trying at all. They have been taught that no matter what they do, the outcome is the same, so why bother? A good leader is a good motivator. A poor leader removes all motivation. We’ve all worked with/for examples of both, I’m sure.

The proper use of escalation of aids as motivation, and a well timed release of pressure for the proper response (negative reinforcement) is the most common way we avoid taking a horse to a state of Learned Helplessness. This topic ties in well with my common theme of “What’s the real point of groundwork?” The point of all of that work is to establish the frame of mind. The softness and willingness are the goals. Getting them tired is not. Once you achieve this frame of mind, QUIT! Move On! Ride him already. Do something fun. Don’t continue to drag his nose through a monotonous toil.

Continuing to work the snot out of a horse, once he is really trying is a fantastic way to discourage his efforts. The absolute best rides that I have with my horses are very, very short. Like 5-10 minutes. If I get on him and begin to put him through his paces and he comes right along and does everything that I ask of him, I’d better find a place to quit before it goes south. My “big picture” message to the horse is “If you try hard, I’ll accept that and reward your effort.”

Repetitiously grinding on a horse over, and over, and over, may get him to turn around a bit better today, but getting him to try harder will pay dividends for the rest of his life.

One of my least favorite parts of training Cutting Horse Futurity Prospects was getting in the professionally fitted futurity sale long yearlings and early two-year olds. These horses have been mindlessly exercised extensively while being fitted. When you put them in a round pen or on a lunge line, they expect to be run around for 20 minutes or so, and then be washed, groomed, and put away. Their brains are turned Off. Unfortunately, this means that they are no longer looking for a release from the running. Regrettably, many people unknowingly incorporate similar methods in their “warm-up routine.” We all know someone who regularly runs their horse around for 20 minutes until they are lathered and tired, and then pronounce them “too tired to buck” and they are now “ready to ride.”

In fact, because that animal is bored to tears, and well practiced at ignoring the handler, this animal is much more likely to get out of our control. If you took just a few minutes and worked on getting your horse’s attention. And getting them under control and waiting on you for the next signal. And getting them trying to follow your lead, you’d be far safer. After all, that lathered up horse will cool down and catch his breath in just a few minutes and his mind still won’t be with you…

So, remember, a well trained animal in a good frame of mind will try anything you ask. An animal who exhibits learned helplessness will try nothing you ask. I want them to learn that their actions and attitude dictate how hard they’ll have to work.

Work with me. Work very little.

Work against me, or for yourself. Work hard.

Make the Right Thing Easy, and the Wrong Thing Difficult.

Live Long and Prosper.
DanielDauphin is offline  
Sponsored Links
post #2 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 04:51 PM
Join Date: Aug 2011
Posts: 956
• Horses: 0
I think I've seen that video you mentioned. I believe it was "Tuck and Chief".
DanielDauphin likes this.
Ian McDonald is offline  
post #3 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 06:59 PM
Join Date: Jan 2014
Location: Ontario Canada
Posts: 1,745
• Horses: 0
Very interesting, I'm wondering if this is similar to what people describe their horse as "shutting down".
I don't think I have run across this with any of my horses. I do try to make schooling ever changing and interesting for them. Work on something and if it goes well, change to something else and always mix in some hacking or trail riding to give a variety. Schooling can be very rewarding if you and your horse are working together.
One person said to me and I remember it, "if you are bored, so is your horse" ( I realize you are not talking about bored horses)
I always enjoy reading your posts.
DanielDauphin likes this.
Woodhaven is online now  
post #4 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 07:28 PM
Join Date: Feb 2013
Location: Kentucky
Posts: 5,682
• Horses: 0
I see the learned helplessness at shows all the time. Trainers who do not have any idea what they are really asking for, they just keep pushing, (actually pulling), jerking, sawing, spurring, popping with a crop, until the horse gives up, or the trainer gives up, because he or she has made a wreck of the horse with only two classes to go.
greentree is offline  
post #5 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 08:10 PM
Super Moderator
Join Date: Oct 2009
Location: Seattle, WA
Posts: 40,786
• Horses: 2
Well said. the part about the shut down horse being the most dangerous, especially.

and, the purpose of ground work is:

The point of all of that work is to establish the frame of mind. The softness and willingness are the goals.
DanielDauphin likes this.
tinyliny is offline  
post #6 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 09:12 PM
Join Date: Jan 2012
Location: A good place
Posts: 5,960
• Horses: 0
I like your explanation of the how and why of Mr. Tannaman's approach.

Howsomeever: Learned helplessness in humans is when they have had too much done for them. They never get the chance to "rise to the occasion." Never overcome a challenge. Never get the chance to develop that "internal locus of control." Never develop resiliency. Never get to grow a true self confidence learning that they can "probably" do whatever and if they fail, it's okay, they can learn from it.

I'm sure Tuck will appreciate you protecting his identity. I saw him earlier this evening. Wish I had known. :)
boots is offline  
post #7 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 09:35 PM Thread Starter
Join Date: Mar 2014
Location: South Louisiana
Posts: 382
• Horses: 1
I would say that learned helplessness is a TRAINED behavior, albeit accidentally, we hope.
So, my example would be the child with a highly successful parent who can never seem to measure up and receive the approval they desperately need , so they give up and stop trying.

Forrest vs tree
Rewarding the try vs waiting for finished perfection
Foxhunter and Woodhaven like this.
DanielDauphin is offline  
post #8 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 09:36 PM Thread Starter
Join Date: Mar 2014
Location: South Louisiana
Posts: 382
• Horses: 1
Go to any kid's soccer or baseball game and you can witness this training in action...
Chasin Ponies likes this.
DanielDauphin is offline  
post #9 of 28 Old 06-20-2014, 10:07 PM
Join Date: May 2014
Location: South Louisiana
Posts: 210
• Horses: 1
In humans, I think it can also apply because of the parent that doesn't let the kid do anything. Not always because things are done for them, but because the parent doesn't think whatever activity is worth it. This costs too much, that is stupid, no time to drive there for this.... etc. The kid gets told to go watch tv and shut up, so that's what they learn to do. Leaving the kid crippled in a way.
anndankev and DanielDauphin like this.
Sony is offline  
post #10 of 28 Old 06-21-2014, 06:21 AM
Super Moderator
Join Date: Feb 2012
Location: SW UK
Posts: 10,821
• Horses: 0
One school teacher once told me "It is impossible to teach anything, if the recipient does not want to learn."

This is so true, animal or human. So many times I have seen horses try but not really understand. The reward should come with the try, even if it is not exactly right.

See a small child struggling to put a shovel of droppings into a wheelbarrow, making more than enough mess because it is to much for them, reward that effort with thanks, ignore the mess, clear it up later, and thank the child for being such a big help and they will puff up with pride. Later when they are bigger and stronger they will be able to do the job correctly and willingly. Put them down just by saying "You are to little to do that!" And they will stop trying.
Foxhunter is offline  

Quick Reply

Register Now

In order to be able to post messages on the The Horse Forum forums, you must first register.

Already have a Horse Forum account?
Members are allowed only one account per person at the Horse Forum, so if you've made an account here in the past you'll need to continue using that account. Please do not create a new account or you may lose access to the Horse Forum. If you need help recovering your existing account, please Contact Us. We'll be glad to help!

New to the Horse Forum?
Please choose a username you will be satisfied with using for the duration of your membership at the Horse Forum. We do not change members' usernames upon request because that would make it difficult for everyone to keep track of who is who on the forum. For that reason, please do not incorporate your horse's name into your username so that you are not stuck with a username related to a horse you may no longer have some day, or use any other username you may no longer identify with or care for in the future.

User Name:
Please enter a password for your user account. Note that passwords are case-sensitive.


Confirm Password:
Email Address
Please enter a valid email address for yourself.

Email Address:


Human Verification

In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.

Old Thread Warning
This thread is more than 90 days old. When a thread is this old, it is often better to start a new thread rather than post to it. However, If you feel you have something of value to add to this particular thread, you can do so by checking the box below before submitting your post.

Thread Tools
Show Printable Version Show Printable Version
Email this Page Email this Page

Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
I learned something new.. Skyseternalangel Gaited Horses 14 07-03-2012 10:49 PM
What have you learned lately? yadlim Horse Talk 51 03-15-2012 02:40 PM
Because I learned how!! BansheeGirl Horse Pictures 5 01-02-2011 06:11 PM
Look what I learned :P HorseOfCourse Horse Riding 3 08-14-2009 10:57 PM
blondie learned something new! farmpony84 Horse Health 12 07-08-2008 01:29 PM

Posting Rules  
You may post new threads
You may post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Trackbacks are On
Pingbacks are On
Refbacks are On

For the best viewing experience please update your browser to Google Chrome