In Seligman’s experiments they set up various situations where the stimulus (signal) was applied but the animals were not offered a way of avoiding the negative outcome. So the bell would be followed by an electric shock regardless of any action (more here). Animals (and humans) subjected to these unavoidable negative outcomes learn that they are helpless. Even if the situation changes, and there arises an opportunity to avoid the negative outcome, many of these animals don’t even try as they have come to believe that any action is futile. In humans this is sometimes seen in victims of repeated abuse and also in some who are clinically depressed. Animals and people suffering from learned helplessness are usually very withdrawn and non-responsive: they feel powerless to change their situations.
Let’s go back to the Dressage horse and look at jaw flexion. The usual sequence is: rider places light pressure on the jaw via the bit – horse flexes jaw – rider eases rein pressure. If the horse doesn’t yield then the rider may increase the pressure. So the horse is offered the option of avoiding the stronger pressure by relaxing its jaw. Result = happy horse, light in the rein.
Just a bit more...
There have been suggestions that there are grades of learned helplessness, or that it may be context specific. An example could be a riding school horse that is dull to the aids, but a different ride altogether if taken out of the school environment. Another suggestion is that horses can cope with learned helplessness in a certain situation if they ‘know’ that this is not permanent. So a horse that may feel ‘helpless’ while ridden may be able to cope if the rest of its daily routine is stable and allows self-expression. At the 2011 Global Dressage Forum, Richard Davison light- heartedeadly likened this to girls at the supermarket checkout who look thoroughly bored but can cope because they know that at the end of the shift they can go out clubbing! These are nice ideas, but the whole point about learned helplessness is that it becomes overwhelming and the feeling of helplessness tends to be extrapolated to all situations. Horses in true learned helplessness would probably not be trainable, or even rideable. They would be withdrawn, unresponsive and unthrifty. They would certainly not go out and perform expressive tests at Grand Prix level!I hope this post has clarified that whatever your opinions about hyperflexion and its physical effects on the horse’s way of going (I have mine, but will keep them to myself!), successful dressage horses trained by this method are not in learned helplessness.
Please feel free to post comments or questions below. If you’d like to read a longer and more scientific discussion of learned helplessness in horses, you can access a review article here.