Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learned Helplessness in Horse Training

Black Elk, Shaman and Rascal Running Free!
The more I teach and train, the more I have come to question how we go about training and working with our horses. When I was young, I did as I saw people around me do with horses, althought I always was on the gentle end of the spectrum. Still there were plenty of times I was told: 'just kick 'em!' 'make him do it!' or 'show him who's boss!'.


Taking a green horse down the road with no thought to how the horse might be experiencing all the new sounds and sights, as well as the genuine fear about being separated from the herd, was something that we all did casually. When the horse balked,  the mantra was 'just keep 'em going forward'! Don't let him stop!  Barking dogs, traffic, flapping laundry, all this I expected my horse to take in stride. When he didn't I was surprised, when he bolted or froze, I got mad. Not much of a friend to my horse was I?

Polly and Shaman - Relaxed and Confident!

The term 'breaking a horse' always sent a shiver down my spine. I tried to tell myself, it didn't really mean how it sounded...who would want to do that to a horse? That and so many other abusive terms are so ingrained in our language around horses. Recently I read a blog post where the horse was lunged in deep sand until the horse was dripping wet (with a photo to prove it) prior to being ridden. Then the horse bolted in the very small round pen due to a small change in her surrondings. It made my heart pound to read this, and it was hard to fall asleep that night with that image of that amount of  fear. I wonder why the rider and trainer thought the horse had learned something good from that?  The horse was terrified for her very life! Yet, all the comments were about how 'brave' the rider was, and what a good job she did!  When does brave cross the line to stupidity and cruelty?

Black Elk having fun!

Don't get me wrong. We all make mistakes when training, well maybe Walter Zettle doesn't any more, but most of us are a work in progress. I look back at some of the things I did to and with horses in my youth and shudder. I am so ashamed, deeply ashamed. Yet, everyone around me did as much or more. Now, I am looking and exploring a different way of being with horses.

Rascal - Interested in Everything!

I think getting in a hurry gets us into more trouble than just about anything. Having a timeline dictate our 'success'. I am trying in my own way to change that. To put my horse's comfort and happiness in front of my ego. To teach my horses in a way that allows them a measure of choice. To use 'attraction' rather than force.  To judge my time with my horses with the measure of are they happier now than when I started, are they more relaxed?

Many of the ways of gentling a mustang and training horses in general, have to do with flooding the horse with sensations, pressure until the horse stops or gives up. With our first two mustangs, Ranger and Rascal we found that sharing space with them and allowing them to follow us and sniff our hair, graze on the lawn worked wonders. I discovered this when we put up electric fence across the driveway, so we had to walk through their space every time we went to the car or brought groceries home. They loved it! They were curious about us.. we were not focusing on them and they felt safe as a result. It was so easy! The gentling evolved at their pace. When I first went to back Rascal, he stood quietly as if to say: "wow, my girl is all over me now!"  He did not seem fearful and all I asked was that he stand, just stand, it was enough.

Black Elk, first week on Orcas
With Black Elk, it was winter and muddy, using the lawn and the driveway was not an option. So,  I tried Leslie Neuman's Bamboo Pole Method. (This involves putting a bamboo pole lightly on the horse's withers and removing it when he stops. It allows you to have contact with a wild horse) OH.... Black Elk was terrified and he was the calmest mustang I'd ever known! ( he ran in circles, obvously very frightened) It made me feel sick to try to conect with him this way, literally sick. I wrote pages and pages in my journal about it, and I only tried it for a few minutes!  So, instead I just hung out with him, feeding him handfuls of hay and eventually bites of apples. Then I started using the clicker and a language was created between us. He was completely at liberty to interact or to leave but he chose to stay almost always. If he left, then I left. If I left first, he'd often follow me around from the inside of his corral. It made me sad he had to be fenced in, and especialy in the corral that winter. But, I figured he'd trade running free for good grub, and he knew all about starvation in the mountains in the winter.

Ranger and Rascal making friends with Ina
There are lots of ways to flood or overwhelm your horse. Overwhelm means: " To be confronted with more than one can bear." 

Ranger greeting Ina
 This is a training method? Yes, this is a common training method. Look for it, and you will begin to see it many places in the training of horses. 

Ken asking Rascal to flex at the poll
What happens when the horse cannot bear what is happening? Well, they shut down, most of them go inside, they freeze. They may explode later, but for for right now they freeze, like when the know they cannot excape the lion and they are going to die. Is this how we want to train? Is this the relationship we are seeking with our horses? You know these horses.. you see them on Dude strings, Camp horses, you don't have to look far to find them, they look blank, shut down, depressed. They have lost what is the best in them. Their spirits. I realize that this method teaches the horse to be helpless. 

Niah and Kiatan teaching Ranger to drop his head

Learned Helplessness is what you see in abused children and women. It results in depression and a lack of ability to think and act proactively. It makes horses and people 'docile', and sad. It actually prevents learning.
Rascal is always interested and offering new ideas. He makes me laugh!

I think that's what many horse training techniques, including 'breaking a horse' rely on - learned helplessness. 

It's not how I want to teach or train.  I am after something completely different. How about you? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.