Griffin and Stan have never experienced learned helplessness. Stan was brought along slowly after he entered his former owners' lives as a 4 year old. I was the one who rode him the most; we figured the world out together. It was easy and full of options to make mistakes and learn from them. Additionally, Griffin has most certainly never experienced learned helplessness. He had a rough start after weaning, but was within care of those who knew how to properly care for him in a short couple of months. He entered my life in January 2012 as a long-yearling. From there he and I learned the ins and outs of groundwork and finding a common ground for communication based on body language and, later, vocal cues. He had, and continues to have, every opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.
|I always forget she used to have this horrible habit of spinning and screaming when tied until I look back and find this photo.|
Q though? Q has absolutely experienced learned helplessness. The cowboy who "trained" her was the kind that pushed a horse to exhaustion. Pushed them to a point where they gave up. As an Arabian x Morgan, Q had more "fight" to her than the usual quarter horses he was accustomed to, so I anticipate he really ramped up his typical round penning, flag waving, and exhaustive tying techniques (head tied so she couldn't move about and a hind leg trussed up so she had to stand for long periods on three legs). He forced her to comply with his wishes and, largely, she did.
He told me during our clinic that she would be really good. She was. She didn't put a single hoof out of line. When it came time to do some backing exercises, he told me she'd be one of the best there. She was. He told me she didn't come to him that way. He told me she hated backing up and used to fight him over it. You'd have never guessed. She lowered her head and backed up as fast as a reining horse in competition. And when we enjoyed trail time the next day? She didn't spook a single time. She did everything asked of her on cue. She was a dream!
|Totally chill and completely relaxed with the task of "learning to jump" a week or two after coming home with me.|
The only thing that cowboy did right by her was not stalling her (or any of his horses). She at least had some time to interact with others in a healthy way, which I imagine saved her from the worst of things. However, what this turnout situation did do for her was ingrain herd boundness - and for some very justified reasons! Overall, it wasn't a great situation.
In hindsight, she was rather listless about the world during that clinic. In hindsight, she was, as mugs put it in her post, shut down. She had learned helplessness. It wasn't until I brought her home, into a situation where she had choices and could make mistakes without a huge drag-out, beat-down fight that she slowly "woke up" out of it.
|Ugh, I remember having THE WORST TIME with her leading up to this day. On this day, she was AMAZING.|
It totally makes sense now why I struggled for so very long to get a good "feel" for her temperament and personality. She had shut herself off to people. It also explains why I began to struggle with her when I did. I complained that she hadn't "been this way" when I brought her home. And she wasn't. She was waking up out of the dark place she had been. But I didn't know that then. All I knew was that I was increasingly encountering a completely different horse than I'd had and it confused me to no end.
Unfortunately for us both, I didn't know about learned helplessness at the time nor did I have the tools in my toolkit at that point to help her through that transition period in a graceful, kind way. We fought a lot. Especially after I ruled out medical reasons for her behavior time and time again. I'm not proud of how I handled things, but I am grateful that I continued to explore many options for working through our issues instead of becoming stagnated in a bad place.
|One of many failed (rightly fucking so!) attempts to resolve her issues? Add a kimberwicke and martingale.|
My crash vest also speaks volumes as to the magnitude of our problems and my distrust in her. Sigh.
|Slowing down and starting again. The western saddle gave me the security I needed in those beginning days.|
When Q sustained her suspensory injury in late-August 2016, all work halted for nearly a year. We were forced to slow the fuck down, and it was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship. Bringing her back slowly following that injury has allowed us both to meet in the middle and come to a better understanding. Slowing down helped me to better understand the horse she was, for better or worse, and find a common understanding within that knowledge. It allowed her to realize that the monkey on her back could really be trusted and allowed her to build confidence.
Slowing down and starting again helped me to finally learn what kind of temperament and personality Q had. She's a sensitive, smart, quick-thinking horse. She is often suspicious of the world around her and has a hard time focusing on work until she feels secure and safe, some of which is absolutely due to humans but not all of it. She reacts quickly and instinctually when she is afraid. When she wants to get out of work she won't rear or buck (she has never executed either of these behaviors in my 6½ years of owning her), but she will initiate her horizontal teleport maneuver to express her opinion. Additionally, she loves her herd mates very much.
Understanding all of this has helped me build trust with her that I didn't have before. Now we don't fight, we banter. And 95% of the time it's absolutely comical. On the ground, when she's a shit, she knows it and she knows I know it. So when I shout at her and wave a finger or knock her on her shoulder and tell her to cut it out, she doesn't freak out and take offense. She stands there, as only a mare can, and grumps at me with her body language. And I laugh. Under saddle, I'm more forgiving of her "spooking" and use that behavior to recognize when she's struggling with an exercise. I can then break the exercise down more for her to digest or, if I know damn well it's something she knows damn well, I can continue to push her forward and ask again.
|Beating Grif and Stan to the gate to greet me. And this was after a gnarly 30-mile ride the day before!|
Her herd boundness is a tougher nut to crack, especially under saddle, but I'm seeing some progress. The more I work with her and provide positive experiences and fair leadership, the more interested she is in the work. Toward the end of her time in Canaan this summer, she was often the first horse to approach and greet me - even before Griffin who has made it his trademark to be the first to say "hi". It's a small step, but for her it's a big one. Working her in areas adjacent to the herd at home is still a feat, but maybe it won't be forever.
Beyond the increased quiet moments of understanding we have though, the biggest evidence of the increased trust we've built in one another shows up in those times when her instincts override her mind/body and she reacts with a startle/spook. Now, instead of running from the perceived danger and ditching me to do so, she does so in a way that is infinitely easier to ride - she essentially picks me up and takes me with her. Instead of reacting in a, "YIKES! Fuck this and you, I'm gone!" she reacts in more of a, "NOPE! Let's get out of here! Come ON!"
|Another of many rides Q led this past summer. And one of my favorite photos of the place I get to call home.|
Q has been the biggest struggle for me these past few years. Even though we have made so much progress this summer, there was something niggling the back of my mind asking questions and wondering why the train went off the tracks to begin with. The realization that she experienced learned helplessness feels like the final puzzle piece to understanding her; everything fits so neatly into place in my mind now.
I hate that Q had to be pushed to a point of learned helplessness before she entered my life. I am sad that I didn't handle things better with her as she "woke up" from it. But I am so very grateful that I now understand more and that we have had success moving past it. While I have every intention of bringing all of my future horses along in the way I did with Griffin, being aware of learned helplessness will help me in my journey with horses into the future whether the horses are mine or not.
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I'm curious - have any of you had experiences with learned helplessness in your horses or horses you've worked closely with?