The Slippery Slope to Learned Helplessness in Horses

Many training styles and riding mistakes can make a horse less responsive to cues, pressure, and even pain—and that’s often the early stages of learned helplessness. Learn how to identify and prevent this negative mental state.

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The Slippery Slope to Learned Helplessness in Horses
The LH horse is essentially 'turned off.' He seems to be uninterested in most things, unmotivated, and generally apathetic. | Photo: iStock

Learn to identify and prevent this negative mental state

Je M’en Fous is a French racehorse whose name didn’t go over well in the U.K. Bothered by the vulgarity of the expression—essentially a rude way of saying “I don’t care,” akin to “I don’t give a damn”—­British racing authorities required the 3-year-old filly’s owners to change the name to something less offensive. For the rest of the 2019 racing season, the bay Thoroughbred has gone by Je M’en Fiche, a similar expression that’s closer to “I don’t give a hoot.”

While it was the expression’s rudeness that upset officials, who seek to keep racing fans happy and spectators engaged, perhaps its meaning heralds a cause. Going by “I don’t care” or “I don’t give a hoot” or “I don’t give a damn,” Je M’en Fiche could be seen as spotlighting a serious, and seriously misunderstood, problem affecting domestic horses around the world.

It’s the problem of learned helplessness—a mental state in which individuals have learned that no matter what they do, they can’t stop or control the bad things that happen to them. They tend to give up the fight, so to speak, and they learn to “not care” about pain or pressure or deprivation or any other negative event, because they can’t reverse it. In a way, those suffering from learned helplessness are saying “there’s no point” or even “je m’en fous

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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