The Slippery Slope to Learned Helplessness in Horses

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.”

While Je M’en Fiche herself might not have experienced learned helplessness or negative training techniques, her name raises an important message for horse trainers worldwide: “Make sure you care what happens to us.”

Dogs: The First Victims of Learned Helplessness

Controversial scientific research performed on dogs in the 1960s first shone a light on the theory of learned helplessness, says Carol Hall, PhD, senior visiting research fellow at Nottingham Trent University, in the U.K.

Scientists strapped laboratory dogs into hammocks and gave them up to 640 550-volt electric shocks without warning or any way to avoid it. Later, they put these same dogs, as well as other dogs that hadn’t received the shocks, in a two-part “shuttlebox” divided by a barrier they could jump over. The scientists would warn the dogs of an upcoming shock in one part of the box by dimming the light.

The dogs that hadn’t had previous shock treatments quickly learned to jump out of the part of the box that would shock them when they saw the dimming light, wrote Martin Seligman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Bruce Overmeier, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, in a 1967 published report. But those that had been subjected to relentless shocking didn’t even try. In fact, many would sit through up to 60 seconds of shocking without trying to jump away.

After failing to escape the voltage in the first part of the study, “they had learned that they were helpless, that there was nothing they could do to improve their situations,” Hall says.

Seligman and Overmeier coined the term “learned helplessness” (LH) in their research discussion. “Learned helplessness might well result from receiving aversive stimuli in a situation in which all instrumental responses or attempts to respond occur in the presence of the aversive stimuli and are of no avail in eliminating or reducing the severity of the trauma,” they wrote.

The Biology Behind the Condition

Logically, it makes sense that people or animals would learn there’s no point in trying when every effort always fails to stop the pain, says Natalie Waran, PhD, of the Eastern Institute of Technology, in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. But it’s not just a mental or emotional response. The brain undergoes physiological changes when learned helplessness occurs.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that scientists have linked to feelings of reward and motivation. Dopamine surges in different areas of the brain occur along with relief or pleasure, like the kind that goes along with making the right choice and getting rewarded for it. Stress also causes a dopamine release in certain areas of the brain, motivating the individual to find solutions to relieve that stress, says Waran, citing many studies, most led by Simona Cabib, PhD, of Sapienza University of Rome, in Italy.

When an animal has discovered it cannot predict or control a situation, learned helplessness can occur, stopping the release of stress-induced, problem-solving dopamine, she explains. Whereas dopamine can flood three or four lobe areas in a healthy individual, the brain of one experiencing learned helplessness essentially suffers a dopamine drought.

“Deprived of that dopamine, they lose motivation, and they don’t anticipate any sense of reward,” Waran says.

How it Happens in Horses

Animal behavior scientists consider LH to be an extreme state of negative welfare. Waran says we should be very concerned if animals in our care have reached this point; if it’s occurring in our own barns, it could be happening on a larger scale throughout the industry.

Traditional training techniques, especially as humans have found ways to control animals much bigger and stronger than themselves, have historically put horses at risk of learned helplessness, says Hayley Randle, PhD, of Charles Sturt University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Science, in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.

Across generations of horse training, humans have used methods that “break” the horse’s will, Randle says. These mainly include restraint systems that involve tying horses for long periods in ways they can’t escape. While that might seem extreme in most modern equitation programs, many riders continue to use restraint systems and devices that don’t allow the horse to find a way out. Or, techniques such as the “yank and crank” method—holding the reins tight while spurring hard into the sides—can be conflicting and confusing. “The horse can’t behave in a way that causes the pain to cease,” Randle says.

Unskilled riding can also create a state of LH, she adds. Riding school mounts deal with multiple riders who haven’t mastered negative ­reinforcement—the timely release of pressure acknowledging the horse’s response to a cue. And each student has a unique set of skills, along with mistakes they commonly make.

“Combined with a lack of contingency (in this case, the absence of certainty) between response and outcome, such horses may well be predisposed to giving up trying,” she says.

“It’s certainly an area in which we need a greater understanding of the behavioral indicators we can use reliably to ensure we avoid putting our horses in this state of poor welfare,” Waran says.

Lazy? Depressed? Pessimistic?

The LH horse is essentially “turned off,” our sources say. He seems to be uninterested in most things, unmotivated, and generally apathetic. Some people describe horses in a state of learned helplessness as lazy or stubborn. To others, they might seem depressed, hanging their heads and ears low and not responding to sights, noises, voices, or approaching people or animals.

“They get this way because learned helplessness is a passive coping strategy in which they get into a lowered blood pressure and lower heart rate,” says Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, Dipl. Ed, of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, in Victoria. “It’s a depressed state, and you can see that they just don’t seek pleasure anymore, and nothing interests them.”

Certain animal trainers—including elephant trainers—seek out this state in large animals because it makes them seem safer to work with, McLean says. But it can actually be dangerous because the animal can become untrainable. Above all, when humans purposefully work toward LH in horses, it’s unethical and even borders on abuse, he says.

“It’s a sad state to be in,” says McLean. “We see the same thing in people who’ve been tortured. And that’s what torture is, isn’t it? Constant pain and unending pain that has to be endured.”

What Learned Helplessness Is Not

Fortunately, the extreme state of LH is fairly rare in the modern world of equitation, says Hall. That doesn’t mean we don’t have horses dealing with bad riding or constant pain; it just means horses haven’t reached the extent of being in a true state of learned helplessness.

Sometimes people confuse signals or accidentally desensitize horses to cues like leg pressure by not releasing it, says Hall. “The horse ends up not responding to leg pressure anymore, but that’s … just desensitization, which is another kind of problem but not as extreme (as LH).”

Learned helplessness also gets confused with useful training techniques such as habituation (becoming accustomed to something), Randle says. That’s what we do when we train horses to not show a flight response when they see scary objects such as blowing flags, or when we train them to stand still while we spray them with fly spray or a hose.

“The term learned helplessness often gets overused, and it’s frustrating,” Randle says. “This means that LH becomes a blanket term and gets dumbed down. Without an accurate understanding of what LH is and how severe it is, horse welfare ultimately gets further ­compromised.”

Alternatives to Learned Helplessness

Although many things aren’t LH, an ongoing mix of improper riding and training methods can eventually lead to it, our sources agree. That’s why it’s critical we take steps to avoid what researchers call “the slippery slope to LH.” By getting informed and becoming better riders and more ethical trainers, we can avoid heading down that path, they say.

“Poor equitation can lead to a negative affective (relating to moods, feelings, and attitudes) state marked by pessimism, meaning the horse isn’t really interested in trying new things,” says McLean. “A combination of welfare invasions, including bad training, sends horses down that LH slippery slope.”

To help prevent this, make sure your horse always feels like he has a choice and that his choices have consequences that allow him to control what happens to him, says Hall. For instance, with the negative reinforcement example given earlier, if you ask the horse to leg yield, he knows he has the choice to continue moving off the leg pressure laterally, with the consequence of you releasing the pressure.

Understand learning theory, she says. Its main learning processes are habituation, sensitization, shaping, operant conditioning (positive and negative reinforcement), and classical conditioning (using predictable signals).

“Train horses according to what we already know about their cognition and learning,” Hall adds. “Pay attention to how we give cues, and how we release pressure. Keep training sessions short and interesting, where the horses can see that the choices they make matter.”

Groundwork can help prevent LH, as well, because it reveals our strengths and flaws as trainers better than ridden work, says Hall. “The people working the horse will understand better how the horse works when they’re on the same level, literally, as the horse,” she says.

Of course, there are ways to improve our riding to reduce the chances of causing LH. One way, is with “simulators, simulators, simulators!” says Hall. “When you ride a simulator, you can develop better balance, core strength, and familiarization with movement patterns, without causing lasting harm to your horse.”

Not an embarrassment, a trick, or a tool reserved for novices, a riding simulator can improve welfare-critical skills for equestrians of all levels, she says. Several types are available commercially.

Can it be Undone?

While the slope to learned ­helplessness is a dangerous one, you might be able to halt its progress by using the learning-theory-based techniques described, our sources say. Once a horse reaches a true state of LH, however, there’s little you can do to bring him back, says Hall.

“I bought a mare once who suffered from LH,” she recalls. “She was very happy to be handled from the ground but unresponsive when ridden. I tried everything I could to bring her out of it. I spent many long hours working with her, trying to show her that she could have control over various situations. But it was too late. Under saddle she had lost all hope, all motivation. We had back checks, tack checks, teeth checks, and more. But nothing untoward was ever found. She felt like an unresponsive ‘riding school’ horse whom we couldn’t reverse. By then, the only thing anyone could do for her was offer her a happy pasture for the rest of her life.”

Take-Home Message

Does your horse care what happens to him? Does he actively try to avoid pain, pressure, or negative stimuli? If he does, it’s up to you to keep him responding. 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.

You might need to work with a professional to make sure you’re training your horse in a way that teaches him he has a choice (and that not responding to something frightening, or moving away from leg pressure, for example, is the best choice). When horses end up not responding to stimuli because they think nothing they do will make the pain or fear go away, they’ve hit rock bottom. Avoid this irreversible state through sound, science-based training principles and effective riding skills. And above all, make sure none of your horses ever have reason to say, “Je m’en fiche.”