Learned Helplessness

Some horses who struggle with the task of avoiding unavoidable discomfort learn to give up and become mindlessly compliant, apathetic, dull and listless. Yank hard on the bit, and they won’t turn and bite you. They’ll just suffer. Kick them hard, and they won’t buck. They’ll just suffer. A horse who believes it has no control over painful stuff may give up trying to avoid the pain. It willingly does whatever nonsense their rider asks of them. It seems to tolerate everything without excitement. This condition is called learned helplessness. We have created a lesson horse. I have met many dull horses who seem to have no life left in them. I do not like those who made him this way. I do not want such a horse. Seeing them breaks my heart.

Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967 when researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to electric shocks that could neither be avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response; instead, it just sat passively. Dogs in a control group, who had not experienced uncontrollable shock or who experienced shocks which they could control, reacted vigorously to the shock and learned to turn it off.


The external ears of a horse or mule — the pinnae (singular: pinna) — are much larger than ours. And unlike ours, they can be turned to focus on the source of a sound. When your horse spooks on the trail and freezes, he will turn his ears toward the source of the alarming sound he just heard. Watch those ears, and you will know where the sound came from, even if you didn’t hear it yourself.

Horses differ in what they then do with the information in what they hear. Some “bombproof” horses may not change their behavior at all. Other more reactive horses may stop in the tracks, raise their heads, freeze their body position, and wait. On receipt of further alarming information, a reactive horse may turn and move in the opposite direction from the sound.