Horse training approaches should involve the principles of learning theory (the principles of how all organisms learn), and consider motivation, associative learning, reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and habituation. In addition, horse training should consider equine ethology (the study of the horse’s natural behavior), so that we use stimuli similar to those that horses naturally respond to, and reinforcers that they find reinforcing. This seems needlessly complicated, but that’s how the world works. In fact, basing our training on learning theory and ethology simplifies everything. Without understanding these fundamentals, we enter a world of accidental results and mythological explanations of those results. And that is today’s world of equestrian coaching.

An Unhealthy Mind

Once upon a time, someone captured a wild horse and succeeded in riding her or milking her. Eventually, humans figured out how to breed horses. The horses that prospered in the relationship were those who were quickest at habituation — the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response through repeated exposure. Over generations with humans, the horses that survived were successively less skittish, less nervous, more relaxed when confronting new sights and sounds. These horses were the bravest of the band. Today’s horses can handle scary stuff a lot better than yesterday’s. In fact, they seem to be able to endure almost anything. Perhaps, though, our breeding has gone too far. No one who climbed on a feral mustang would claim that it was lazy. Only the dull horses at the barn, those who’ve had the shit kicked out of them again and again, are called lazy.

Much of what we demand of our horses is challenging, running counter to their natural behavior. The challenges of unnatural horsemanship affect all ridden horses, regardless of setting: trail ride, obstacle course, eventing.

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.