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.