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.
Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.
Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.
A therapist might ask some questions of your horse, to determine if he was mentally healthy: “Do you feel like eating all the time? Do you feel fearful, but you can’t figure out why? Do you find it hard to focus?” If your horse answered yes to any of these questions, then he’d be a normal, healthy horse.
There are not many horse bad behaviors, and probably no bad behaviors that can’t be easily cured in a mentally healthy horse. Not all horses are mentally healthy, unfortunately. Common manifestations of mental illness include cribbing, wind sucking, pacing, and stereotypic movement disorders.