Abuse in Training: Learned Helplessness

We had a discussion surrounding this video on the Equine Zooanthropology group I belong to, and I wanted to post it here for any further discussion and to call attention to it.  This video by a well-known “natural horsemanship” trainer is a prime example of both so-called natural horsemanship (NH) techniques and learned helplessness in horses.  Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape.  Sooner or later, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.  Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this condition will prevent any attempt to escape.

That unfortunately is the ultimate goal of the NH…a training methodology that has been lauded as safe, gentle, and natural for horses.  It is none of those.  It is every bit as abusive as blatant physical abuse…and perhaps even more so as this has long-term emotional affects.  It does not take someone trained in behavior science to see this.

I am not singling this person out for attack – he is nothing more than a representative example of many who adhere to this type of training philosophy (although I’m sure his ego is big enough he would say he is quite different…)

We bring horses into our world, the least we can do is respect them as sentient, biocentric beings, which this man – and many others like him – is doing neither.

6 thoughts on “Abuse in Training: Learned Helplessness

  1. I wonder how we could go so far from home, as we came to believe that these training methods were born for the good of the horse, which blindness has led people to make them so powerful, causing even more Learned Helplessness, in horses and in people too that applying them.


  2. I think this comes from a utilitarian view of the world. I am sure the proponents would say: “It works!”. I remember such conversations with my parents when it came to bringing up my children. They were basically on a power trip and used all sorts of double-speak to justify it. But surely, rarely is a fear based approach a good idea? That does not mean you should just let yourself be trampled on, but it is a question of the rightful maintenance of a boundary.
    My thought is the same here as it is for the children, if you do not care about de-sensitising a living being then you will not care about such techniques as NH. But it is like introducing a pathology into what could be a healthy being. Like putting a kink into the stalk of a plant by disturbing its growth when it is young. Sure, it will still grow, but it will always have a weak spot.
    Personally I don’t buy it, and it is all down to seeing the world as something to be controlled and subdued, rather than to participate and converse with.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was blind until one day I was doing this type of thing with my horse, and she came after me. Never had a horse warn me like that before, but I had never been so harsh and demanding as I was encouraged to be by the teacher and students of this type of work. Clearly my horse was trying to tell me she could not take this form of abuse any longer.I realized I was in the wrong and this beautiful mare was telling me so. As soon as I saw things from her point of view, I realized how wrong and abusive this kind of treatment was to the horse. Is it effective in the short term? Maybe. If it is not then the poor person is blamed and publicly scolded by the “Aw shuck’s Ma’m” ‘humble’ cowboy. It is just proof of his abusive way to the unknowing owner to blame them for his abuse not being effective without his expertise at applying it. History will point to these so called ‘NH’ trainers and they will be known for their abuse to horses and how much money and fame they got for it. I think many of them know it is wrong, but can’t be bothered to learn a new, better proven way of handling all animals.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am familiar with some of the training techniques of the featured trainer and have studied some of his methods. Although this video paints him in a rather unflattering light, I do not feel that he subscribes to a program of learned helplessness. When the horse expressed the desired response–focus and attention on the trainer, the flag flinging stopped which would indicate a negative reinforcement technique, not learned helplessness. Although, one could also argue that the horse just “gave up”, and no longer continued to react to the flailing flag, which would be an example of learned helplessness. I think the deciding factor would be the frame of mind of the horse after the change in behavior. In this case, the horse doesn’t appear to be broken or in distress at the end of the video. A lot of it depends on the temperament of the horse, so it’s important to read and gauge his response and feelings during the training activity. Sometimes something that barely phases one horse might blow the mind of another, and once the point of flooding occurs, the horse is past the point of learning, so it’s best to stop altogether.


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