Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards.

Learned helplessness is not nice. The experiments that defined and described the condition are revolting, but…………………………

I use it, you use it, we all use it. Like so much of life, learned helplessness is part of a continuum.

You shut the field gate, your pony knows it is trapped, shut the stable door, your pony knows it is trapped, tie your pony into a webbing harness and administer electric shocks, your pony knows it is trapped. Learned helplessness describes all theses scenarios. Two of them you see as the actions of a good responsible pony owner, the third is the action of a sick pervert.

Yet your pony can jump the gate. Many of you will have bought animals on the guarantee that they can jump over a gate that high. You know they can jump that high, even they know they can jump that high, they stay in the field even when there is attractive grass, or an attractive pony, the other side of the gate. The same is true of the stable. I have seen a 9” block stable wall after a Suffolk Punch rubbed against it. Most small ponies can break the doors just by leaning on them and any horse can kick its way out. But they don’t. That is learned helplessness. You use it, I use it, we all use it.Henry in escape mode

So is learned helplessness bad?

One of my definitions of a workable animal is one that respects the headcollar, ie that doesn’t just use its muscle power to amble off with me dangling helplessly on the end of the lead rope. I am acquainted with two animals that apparently at random, decide to go home. Both are large animals, neither shows any sign of fear. They just decide “enough is enough” and head off. For my purposes they are untrainable. I need to be able to lead an animal which believes it is powerless to resist a head collar. I need learned helplessness on this issue.

If an animal panics and rips the head collar out of my hands, that is a separate issue. I know I can’t stop a panicking horse. I don’t think learned helplessness operates when panic cuts in. It may stop panic cutting in, but once panic cuts in, it is my impression that panic overrides everything. Anyone who knows better, please get in touch.

We want learned helplessness with field gates, with fences, with stables, with lead ropes, but then we want them to be brave with traffic, plastic bags and jumps, or at least jumps that we want them to jump. We want them to respond to the leg, to the hand, seat, to the whip, to the voice, but not to the horse coming the other the way or the dog barking at the gate. I’m confused already and I’m writing this. How does the horse feel? Helpless? And who taught him.

This doesn’t refer to Obama. He doesn’t respond to the leg for the simple reason that he hates the idea of being ridden, and while it is perfectly acceptable to kick a horse when you are sitting on top of it, it is considered frightfully vulgar to do it from the ground. He doesn’t respond much to the hand because I drive him on ultra floppy reins using a bitless bridle with all operational parts removed, ie pretty much a headcollar. The seat is remarakbly ineffective when driving though I love watching horsey types the first time they drive the Saddlehariot. They climb on, sort out the reins and squeeze with their legs. After a bit they realise that this is unlikely to work.

I NEVER use a whip. Try this link to see why. I use my voice but mostly I make a silly kissing noise which means “go forward” “right a bit” “left a lot” “back you idiot” “stand still” or whatever.

This system is clearly confusing but at least you don’t get learned helplessness, you can’t, Obama has to work out what I want by looking at his surroundings and working out what we are doing. If we are doing rowcrop work, hoeing vegetables, he knows he stays on the tram lines. Logging, he heads for the log pile when I hitch something on, and heads for the location of the last log when I drop the log off. Working with the disabled, he actually watches me, and helps, shifting his bum across if I haven’t got the vehicle straight, walking slowly on the same course as last time and generally giving everyone an easy time.

Most driving animals treat their vehicle they way they treat a stable, they can’t get out. Until they start kicking, that is. Using the iBex or Saddlechariot they don’t need to learn helplessness. The instant release is for the pony’s peace of mind, just as much as yours. They get scared, they can walk out. In some ways this complicates training. I can’t use the “because I say so” argument if I am going to let the pony out the minute he is upset. I have to teach them to like it, not teach them they can’t get out of it. That would be really stupid, to build the only vehicle with instant release systems, then teach the animals they were helpless to escape.

Learned helplessness is part of everyone, just don’t make it a bigger part than it has to be. Which means letting the animal be involved. Obama and I work as a team. He has learned the job, not to be helpless while I make him do the job. Forget teaching obedience because when you teach obedience, they learn helplessness.

3 Responses to Learned Helplessness

  1. ahorsegirld says:

    “For my purposes they are untrainable. I need to be able to lead an animal which believes it is powerless to resist a head collar. I need learned helplessness on this issue.”

    There is no such thing as an untrainable horse. Only people who don’t care enough to train them.

  2. ahorsegirld says:

    My horse knows he is not helpless. If he wants to rip off his halter, he knows he can. But he also knows that if he does, he gets followed by ME and worked vigorously until the lesson sinks in that sure, he can be naughty, but if he does, he has to pay for it in sweat. He isn’t helpless. He is well-trained and has good manners.

  3. ahorsegirld says:

    “We want them to respond to the leg, to the hand, seat, to the whip, to the voice, but not to the horse coming the other the way or the dog barking at the gate. I’m confused already and I’m writing this. How does the horse feel? Helpless? And who taught him.”

    Because the horse coming the other way or the dog barking are NOT the ones calling the shots, my hands, legs, seat, bit, spurs, and voice are. Sure, he can tilt his head, snort and prance all he wants, but if he spooks, he gets reprimanded because he knows better.

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