Clicker Training Horses – My Horse is Strong Willed !

Clicker Training Horses

The Strong Willed Horse !

Books and Post It Notes

There are so many interesting books out there that it can be hard to find the real gems.  Often the books I read are about human insights, physiology, the brain and so on.  However I tend to find so many things that are relevant for our horses in each of these books that I have pages and pages marked with post it notes.  The book I am reading just now is one of those books that is full of gems; it has post it notes all over it; the sign of a book I have thoroughly enjoyed.

One section of this book in particular jumped out to me as it is so relevant to our horses answering a question where the answer seems to be a mystery to many people.  This section, for me, answered the question; “Why do some horses comply and others don’t?”.

This is different to the horse who is stubborn, dead to the leg etc, that is another concept (learned helplessness) going on.  Instead this is about the horses who are prepared to fight back, seem to have a mind of their own and so on.  The ones who do not go in to a state of learned helplessness no matter what happens to them.  When I think of horses like this I often think of the horse who is traditionally round penned for hours and still won’t succumb to the wishes of the handler.  Why do they not just give in and get it over with ?

Hopefully what I have been reading in this book can start to unravel some of the mystery and make us view our horses a little differently.

Learned Helplessness

All species have some sort of state of learned helplessness that is defined.  We definitely see it in horses and I often see it in people as well.  Think of someone who is bullied and the state they go in to when the bully appears, that is learned helplessness.  They don’t fight back, they just let it happen (they have learned to be helpless).  Horses are the same and can go in to state of learned helplessness, yet appear to function perfectly well day-to-day.  What has happened is that they have realised that life is easier if they just succumb to their handlers wishes, they learn to be helpless.

Now I should stress here that it is not my belief that all horses who appear to be compliant are in this state.  Many are not.  To know if a horse is in this state needs careful observation and assessment.  I see many ‘compliant’ horses who are definitely not in a state of learned helplessness, their handlers have found the way to communicate well and reinforce the wanted behaviours.

This section of the book is looking at the outliers when it comes to learned helplessness…why are some animals resistant to the phenomenon of learned helplessness ?

“This is awful, but it isn’t the entire world”

It would seem these animals are resistant due to their state of mind.  That state of mind is to do with past learning.  The past learning is about the world and what they know of the world.  If they have experienced a world in which they were happy then they know there is a better world out there and they can hang on to that idea.  As such they are less likely to accept anything less.

The author likens this to people who are help captive in hostage situations.  Some come out of the situation a mental wreck, yet others seem to come out better for the experience.  The ones who came out better for the experience have control over much of their life.  They know what it feels like to be in control of their own destiny and so they know that this is just a moment in time, it will end.  As the author puts it, they seem to think; “this is awful, but it isn’t the entire world”.

Its Just a Temporary Blip

He also uses a reference to dogs who are caught and put in to the pound.  Some seem to sit at the back of the kennels looking miserable, and others are at the front getting everyone’s attention and being a bit noisy.  The ones who seem bold are the ones who have experienced a lot of life on the street, coping, being in control…they may believe that this current situation is just a blip.

It seems perfectly reasonable that many horses could feel the same way.  If they have experience of a world where they were either wild or even if they were in captivity but had a voice (such as clicker trained horses) then they are less likely to succumb to the phenomenon that is learned helplessness.  They know that the whole world is not like this, that there is a better life out there so why should they succumb to this one.

One thing I am sure of is that horses who are in the hands of good clicker trainers are neither in the state of learned helplessness, nor are they even asked to consider it as an option.

If you would like to find out more about clicker training contact Amanda, or visit our web site.

What is this book……Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky.  A great read indeed.  Check back next week for more gems from this book.


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One Response to Clicker Training Horses – My Horse is Strong Willed !

  1. My son falls into that category…learned helplessness….it is interesting to see that in the written word. Twas the Navy that did it to him, but now at 35 he has not gone past it. Sad that.

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