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Thoughts on Learned Helplessness

“Learned Helplessness.”

We’ve all heard this term by now, and I wanted to offer a more behavioral insight as to what it is and where it comes from.

I was flipping through horse training videos on YouTube yesterday, getting a feel for what kind of education is out there, and I kept coming across this widely popular belief.

One that I’ve trained for years, especially because I was raised with Monty Roberts.

“If you want to control a horses mind, control their feet.”

We see this at ground 0 during roundpenning techniques.

Run them and change their direction until you break that mental barrier, and then the horse will magically join up with you.

When you’re under saddle, move their feet, back them up and change direction so they know you’re still in control.

Run them anytime they respond differently than what you desire.

It works.

And so it continues.

But I’m not here to talk about colt starting methods.

I’m here to talk about why this happens and how this bleeds over into the rest of the industry to create learned helplessness and to hopefully give you another lens to look through.

At the end of they day, horses can be prey and are adept at hiding their vulnerabilities from watchful predators.

They have a fierce sense of self-preservation and are arguably the most highly adaptable being that we will ever encounter.

That becomes obvious when you put a wild mustang in a round pen, and within a small amount of time of convincing them that they have no way out and you’re in control of their movement, they will “give it up” and allow you to be their leader.

As if to say -

“This is my last and hopefully best shot, so here we go.”

This does not stop in a roundpen.

This continues throughout training tactics that come out “successful” even though they load the horses body incorrectly.

This continues throughout competing successfully on a horse, who when checked by a bodyworker is in awful pain but never misses a step.

There is rarely a time where I check out a horse who doesn’t have some kind of nerve fire in their thoracic sling or otherwise moderate-chronic discomfort going on.

And the rider has absolutely no idea.

Not because they’re abusive or untalented.

Heavens no.

But because of their self-preservation instincts.

Because they will do whatever it takes to hide their vulnerabilities and have come to understand that their highest form of self-preservation will be by following their leader.

So they will continue doing whatever exercise you ask of them, despite what discomfort it causes them, and 9/10 times, you won’t be able to feel it because they’re THAT good.

(Unless you get one of my favorite ones - The gifted ones that don’t fall under the learned helplessness and will always tell you just how displeased they are.)

And it breaks my heart how guilty my owners feel when they watch me find the holdings and then release them, so I feel like this is something I need to scream from the rooftops.

We are all just taught from the very beginning to take their willingness as acceptance instead of looking at all of the layers under the “Why?”

After all, attaching human emotion to horses is frowned upon in the majority of the industry.

But as a trauma-informed coach, I will tell you that it is a very real and necessary thing.

So if you take anything from this, I hope that it is to stay open minded about what things your horse might be dealing with that they are keeping from you and that you never stop trying to listen and learn and speak Equus.

Because, they are highly adaptable and fiercely intelligent.

And they figure out faster than most that it’s best to just “shut up and listen” and go to work.

As a foster kid, I know how this works.

As a foster kid with a defiance switch, I know what happens when you don’t.

There’s a better way.


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