Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Learned helplessness

I rode a friends horse a wile back that was so obedient under saddle. She would react however you wanted making you look like the next Olympic gold medallist. However she responded without enthusiasm for the job. She was almost dull and listless except for the fact that she responded to you right on cue, every time. Everyone loves to ride her but I got off with a feeling of guilt. I felt like I used the mare and that she did not enjoy the ride even though she responded to me perfectly. She Jumped a few grids and cantered four figure eights, changed leads not a second after I asked her and even did a canter pirouette as if she read my mind. I tried her bitless and she gave me the exact same results with a little quicker stop. Why? Well I’m just getting to that.

A thought I often get with riders reluctant to listen to what their bits when they say “my horse loves his bit” and indeed the horse may respond to the bit. What he may be responding to is a condition known as “learned helplessness”

Learned helplessness is a condition in animals and humans where it learns to act helplessly to certain stimulus or situations, even when the chance to avoid harmful or unpleasant circumstances arises. Basically the subject feels he/she/it has no control over the situations outcome and just gives up.

Studies were done in the sixties on dogs. The dogs were experimented on with electric shocks. Some dogs could avoid the shocks and would do so every time. Other dogs were not allowed to avoid the uncomfortable shocks. The dogs receiving the unavoidable shocks learned to become helpless and did not attempt to avoid the situation, even when given the opportunity to do so in further tests. The first group of dogs learned quickly how to avoid the shocks wile the dogs that had learned in the first tests the shocks were unavoidable and simply did not try to even attempt to figure out how to avoid them.

This is also seen in humans displaying the mental illness known as chronic depression. As far as I have seen it has not been studied in horses but it should be, especially with certain training methods and equipment. The equipment I am going to focus on is bits.

Although bitless is my main pursuit bits are my main topic. I don’t think I can accurately describe the benefits of bitless without fully understanding bits and their use (or misuse most of the time). I study the kinds, sizes, weights, textures and shapes when I go into tack stores. I simply cannot get enough of bits yet I promised Indigo so long as she is in my care she will never have a bit in her mouth again. Don’t get me wrong she was wonderful with a bit in her mouth I just wanted a better relationship with my horse.

Lets face it, there is no nice thing about bits. I have yet to find one scientifically backed up article on why I should stick a bit in my horses mouth yet there are an increasing, and alarming number of articles on why I shouldn’t. I think I like to stick on science’s side. A horse was not designed to be controlled, ridden or even have a length of anything in it’s mouth. It engages the need to salivate, and when a rider asks that horse to work he has to breathe. Excess salivation that is not natural and the need to breathe when running is. There is no way you can breathe and swallow all that excess saliva at the same time. So we get drooling. Frothy spit strings from our horses mouths, lands on their chest, legs and the ground. But that is a mild result.

I have yet to see a horse that has had a bit in it’s mouth for the first time react without head tossing, chomping, head shaking etc to contact on the reins. Weather it be to turn the horse or stop him he fights it that very first time. After prolonged exposure and a good trainer that is consistent in his or her hand cues and training the horse accepts the bit as part of work and goes about with little or no fuss, most of the time. The annoyance lessens if they can figure out what cues mean but the stimulation (contact) never goes away 100% because we hold the reins attached to the bit. Those that don’t? Well they are the dogs that have learned they can avoid the shock. They rear, poke their noses out, buck, spook violently all in attempt to find that golden door to freedom.

This explains a lot to me and I hope to you. It can be related especially to the use of rollkur in English riding.

Feel free to discuss I would love to hear everyones input.

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