Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Learned Helplessness: Ours or Theirs?

     Holy smokes, Mugs has risen from the dead, whacked me awake and told me to git to writin'.
An article shared with me by an old time reader (I think?) and FB friend, Laurie Herzig, got my motor running.
Read this excellent article first, then I'll come in behind it.


    This article refers to a state the author identifies as learned helplessness.  I have always called this sorry mess "shut down," and will continue to through my post. Beckham brings up some interesting points about how we create a shut down horse, where it shows up, and how a shut down horse can bite a rider in the butt when it comes out of it.

   If you walk through the stalls at a major equine event, dressage, reining, reined cow horse, hunter/jumper, any of them, you can find a shut down horse, maybe several, depending on the discipline.

   The shut down horse is the one with his head jammed low in the corner and his butt to the door. Every time you pass by, the horse will be in the same spot. If he's eating, it's listless, just an uninterested nibble. You can talk and coo all you want, this horse doesn't respond.

   In my world, I observed this state, for the most part, in pleasure horses and, I'm sad to say, reining horses. I would see them here and there elsewhere, but those were the horses who seemed to give it up the most.

   The best dude and children's lesson horses spend a lot of their life shut down. I boarded at a roping barn with a very successful trainer on site. Although we all agreed a one armed "lady" roper would be a sight to see, I saw too many dead-eyed horses to be willing to spend much time with them and, truth be told I value my remaining thumb too much.

   Beckham discusses ways to shut horses down. Tying their heads around, tarping, tying them down, endless drills, running them to exhaustion, I think that's most of them.
   Here is where I'd like to push some.

   Running a horse to exhaustion will cripple your horse, blow up the blood vessels in their lungs and all kinds of other delightful things, but unless you kill them, once they air up, they'll go again. Endless circles, again, having been there, done that, is only boring to us, and then, only if we quit working the horse. A perfect circle is about so much more than mindless loping, the only time it's boring for horse and rider is if the rider makes it that way.

   These activities are about movement. They make sense to the horse, even when pushed to exhaustion. Could you break them down? I guess, but it would be physical more than mental. Horses get running, it's what they do.

   Shut down happens when there is no escape. No chance for flight and too much punishment to fight. Shut down happens from brutal treatment, from a trainer or the guy on five acres who is going to show the world he's in charge.

   Not all pleasure or reining horses are surviving through learned helplessness. It's the ones who spend hours with their heads tied up to make them so sore they won't lift them. It's the horses who are ridden with their mouths tied shut, their heads trapped by draw reins and sometimes a little something across their poll, to complement the twisted wire snaffle in their mouth. Add that to constant pressure from spur and leg to drive those hind legs deeper and you've got a recipe for a horse just giving up. It's never offering a true release. If and when the horse fights back, then they are torn a new one until they comply. It's called shit training. Anybody can do it.

   If you want to add to the stress and feelings of never being able to escape, keep them in a box stall. Only bring them out to train on, then put them back. Never give them down time. If you have to go out of town for two weeks, leave strict orders to leave them in their stalls. Then, if they're restive, beat them some more and tie them close without food or water until they're ready to work.

   Even then, horses, being the rock stars that they are, will still try, will still carry a spark. It's hurting them for no reason. It's creating a world with no sun, no time with other horses, no place to stretch out and run, or play. or sleep. It's using pain as a training method, more pain for discipline and more pain just because.

   Let's go to my favorite activity to hate. Mustang makeovers. Trainers have 100 days to train their mustang and then compete for who's mustang will do the most useless shit in an arena full of screaming spectators.
   The horses that win are the ones who are already dead. At least in their mind. They will do anything that's asked of them, just so they aren't hurt any more. The announcer will talk about the love between the horse and trainer. What an amazing crock of crap.
   A healthy mustang is not, I repeat not, going to ride in a car, carry a flag, and kiss his trainer after 100 days without making a deal with the devil in order to survive.
   Then, the horses are auctioned off to people green enough to think this is a good idea. They get the horse home and BAM! two months, two weeks or two days later, the 'stang comes back to life, and boy, is he pissed. See, he was never trained, he went away into his head, waited to die, then got brought back by the kindly new owner. Except, now that he can think again, well, he's not impressed.
   There will be some good ones there, I'd be looking at the losers horses. The ones with an alert expression, a little jumpy, but manageable, the one with a nice walk, trot, lope, and stop. The one that will travel a straight line and hold a circle. Because that's the horse that was started right. That's the horse who thinks life on the domestic side is pretty damn interesting.
   Finally, I can see "my horse was shut down," becoming the new, "my horse as abused," excuse for bad behavior. This concerns me.
   When someone buys a well-trained horse that begins to act the shit after a few months, it's probably not because the horse was abused before. It's more likely you didn't take the five free lessons the trainer offered when you bought the horse. Or because you're not quite there when it comes to feel and you missed that stuck out rib as you came into your lead change. Or, you toss him out on forty acres and assume the horse has enough round pen reasoning to let you walk right up and slap a halter on them.
   A shut down horse can't learn. They're gone. The rider can force it through the motions, but it will never have the spark of a champion. It won't offer a perfect circle that took hours to create and intense communication between horse and rider. Shut down horses don't communicate. Judges don't reward the broken, spiritless horse. They can see it from the stands and hate it as much as we do. Good trainers will tell you to turn a shut down horse out for six months, then bring them back, because they can't fix broken.
   As a buyer, there are signs you can look for. The horse is dull eyed, and doesn't acknowledge or move away from you. He is dull to handle and ride. Doesn't look around when outside, or leading to the tie rail. Doesn't show interest in anything, but is still obedient in all ways. Don't buy that one.

That's all I got.


  1. While I understand that LH might be a good tool in some circumstances and may be never go away, I do find it extremely depressing and sad. I am not a horse woman by any means, probably even afraid of them, but the thing that is best about horses as a species is their spirit. To kill that off is such poor husbandry of these spirited creatures. I love the idea of training which allows them to be part of the decision process and collaborate with the trainer and thereby grow their neurons and personality.

    Thanks for such interesting and revealing material...good for all to read.

  2. This topic hits close to home for me. I inadvertently purchased just such a horse last year. I thought he was the calm, spook free unicorn, but 24 hours after i brought him home i realized he was both drugged and terrified of human intreraction. Once haltered, he shut down and was a dead eyed automaton. The only reaction you got was flinching every time you moved a hand or arm. I pretty much had to start from square one with him. Luckily he loves praise and getting rewarded for even the slightest try and we had all the time in the world to do this at his pace. He's come a long way, is now happy to approach me, happy to be ridden and learn. He will always need each new thing broken down into small steps or he will shut down if he gets confused or frustrated. I think the LH is deeply embedded in his brain, and will always factor into his ability to take pressure from humans. Now that this horse has a chance to act normally, he's turned out to have all the clichés of the Appy breed - smart, stubborn, opinionated and sensitive. I can see why he got in trouble somewhere in his past. I have never worked so hard to remain calm, soft, consistent with a horse, but he's wonderful and worth the effort.

  3. Mo, sounds like you found the perfect teacher for where you are in your horsemanship leaning. Bravo. Like hearing how you have handled this situation.

  4. Thanks for coming back. I’ve missed your insights.

  5. Brilliant. For sure we see it in reining. Block that tail and drop your head and lope and don’t lift your head til we’re done. The panic in some of those poor horses as they RUN in their back up. As they spin themselves off their hind ends. Not everyone, no. And i like to think I saw a little difference in futurity this year of a more natural headset but...my gosh does this make sense.