Habituation vs. Learned Helplessness in Horses

Learn about a welfare-friendly way to desensitize horses.
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Done correctly, habituation can decrease a horse's response to exposure to a stimulus over time. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q.I saw a trainer “habituating” a mare to scary objects at a clinic last year. When he was done with the process, the mare looked as if she’d simply given up or zoned out about the tarp-flapping, etc., which to me looked a lot like the “learned helplessness” I’ve read about on TheHorse.com. Approaches that could lead to learned helplessness seem unethical. Is it possible to desensitize a horse in a welfare-friendly way?

—Carole, via e-mail

A.Unfortunately, in the dog and horse training worlds there has been a fair amount of misunderstanding and misapplication of the scientific principles and terminology of animal learning. So your question offers an opportunity to explain these very important principles and their implications

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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