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Opinions on the idea of "learned helplessness"

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  • Opinions on the idea of "learned helplessness"

    The idea of learned helplessness was apparently discussed at the recent Global Dressage Forum (and was last year as well). It's described as "all about long-term stress, when animals are in one of the following situations: a state of sustained pain or are exposed to aversive stimuli that are unpredictable, uncontrollable and/or inescapable. In studies, animals developed motivational, emotional and cognitive deficits resulting in despair and anhedonia--they stopped striving for pleasure and failed to respond to outside stimuli--and they never recovered." (from GDF article in the January Dressage Today). Horses have not specifically been studied for this issue, only dogs, rats and humans (this from the Chronicle article on the GDF).

    What are your thoughts about this topic and its appearance at the GDF? Or in relation to dressage training systems at all?

    My initial thoughts are that, given that the equivalent of "learned helplessness" is essentially a cornerstone of certain low-level western pleasure training systems, I find it somewhat disturbing that it's even mentioned in relation to dressage training. But I have no doubt that it IS an issue for horses.
    "One person's cowboy is another person's blooming idiot" -- katarine

    Spay and neuter. Please.

  • #2
    that's interesting. in what context did they mention this topic or how did they bring it up? what parallels to dressage did they draw or allude to?

    Comment


    • #3
      Very interesting question. I second ride-n-tx's comments and what do they mean by "never recovered"?

      Scary thought.

      Good article: http://http://horsesforlife.com/LearnedHelplessness
      Last edited by ms raven; Dec. 29, 2007, 04:22 AM. Reason: found an article

      Comment


      • #4
        I've read about horses that when routinely "laid down" in the course of their training seemed to lose all sparkle and interest in their surrounding and never recovered. Maybe that's what they mean?
        Where's the glamour? You promised me glamour!

        Comment


        • #5
          i've seen horses like this...school horses, trail horses, performance horses.

          They are found throughout all disciplines.

          I think that it is the owner's/trainer's responsibility to manage thier training in a way that the horse always has the opportunity to be a horse.

          I know of a horse that was 'thrown down'...the trainer got him as a last resort in an effort to rehab him. It took this method to get the horse to stop fighting anyone that came at him. he is now a happy horse...he is still with that trainer and he has a purposeful life and trusts this man.

          Comment

          • Original Poster

            #6
            From the DT article: "So, what is its relevance to dressage? The common dressage concerns of short necks and tight nosebands open the possibility of unrelenting pressure for the horse. Dressage, we all agree, is not all about riding on a loose rein; it is about contact and collection, so the use of uberstreichen to release the pressure to prove that the horse retains his outline and balance is a wonderful technique."

            Apparently, uberstreichen has recently been incorporated into some of the higher level tests, so I guess that's where this comment is directed.

            The article in the Chronicle has the comments "Learned helplessness in horses remains unresearched and speculative at this stage. However, many researchers have identified the possibility, and I have seen it in trail horses. But, when a horse shows the LH syndrome, it's not able to react anymore, nearly dead. Therefore, it seems unlikely that dressage horses are experiencing learned helplessness. But on the way to [learned helplessness], there are many different stages, which can be caused through contradictory stimuli like the harsh use of the double bit and the bending of the head to the chest on one side and the strong use of spurs on the other side at the same time" This is a quote from the presenter, Australian scientist and former international rider Andrew McLean. It seems in the Chronicle article that his talk this year was backing down a bit from whatever he said last year. It is pointed out that aids must be clear to the horse or confusion results, and that prolonged confusion could be the top of this slippery slope.

            Part of my interest is in finding out how this topic arose in the first place. I did not read about this in reports of last year's GDF, tho I admit I didn't follow that closely, and it was someone else who called my attention to it this year. But I have a horse that I have long believed does suffer from the "on the way to ..." version of this phenomenon (I speculate it's from some bad WP training in his past, both having his head tied and spur stop training), so it is very interesting to me to see it named and addressed.
            "One person's cowboy is another person's blooming idiot" -- katarine

            Spay and neuter. Please.

            Comment


            • #7
              Just my 50 cents

              The words "learned helplessness" came out of the mouth of the attackers of the RK/Hyperflexion trainingsystem. When scientific studies, which where done some years ago, about this RK/Hyperflexion trainingsystem proved that horses didn't developed any stress-hormoon under these conditions, these people came with these words.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by FS2Music
                The words "learned helplessness" came out of the mouth of the attackers of the RK/Hyperflexion trainingsystem. When scientific studies, which where done some years ago, about this RK/Hyperflexion trainingsystem proved that horses didn't developed any stress-hormoon under these conditions, these people came with these words
                Very interesting thought. Thank you for that bit of politic, Theo. I have read those stress/RK studies as well. Weren't they Dutch? *


                The theory of learned helplessness is 50 years old in modern psychology, was demonstrated in animals and in humans long ago: the Wikipedia article is a reasonable synopsis. The idea has been used to explain the passive/neglectful behavior of some humans in overwhelming circumstances like domestic abuse, concentration camps. It was less succesfully applied to a theory of depression, to which general stress build up theory applies to a greater degree. And there are animal models of "depression" showing the same sorts of behaviors and chemical changes as people, it is reasonable to think that horses experience this to some degree and I believe I have observed clinical depression in horses.

                What is interesting is that it is not a universal effect- some individuals display the behavior pattern, and others do not.

                I have not read the Dressage Today article. Perhaps the quotes supplied in this thread are out of context, misunderstood or maybe the author misread the original research if it says the animals never recovered. The research trials were relatively short. Most did not even examine the issue of recovery and some sacrificed their research animals shortly after. Those that did, equated recovery with return to a previous behavior pattern within short order of the trials. Like a matter of days or weeks. In some cases, the research was done on baby monkeys, whose behavior was being shaped by the research. How does one "recover" if it was not ever in a state of emotional health?

                I would suggest that any animal rescue can supply you with stories where the theory of learned helplessness explains a great deal of the animal's initial behavior, and where, the animal did recover given the right care and environment.

                As for dressage training (not ill-used devices) causing learned helplessness?

                Perhaps poor training of any sort will do this to some individuals, but, not the art and relationship that most of us aspire to.

                * It also occurred to me at the time, that in chronic states of depression or "learned helplessness", there is a constant high cycling of the stress related hormones, therefore, no change is observed in response to different situations, like rest versus rollkur. The hormone result might remain high the whole time. Also as I said, there are resilient individuals who will not show LH in response to the same situation as another. Therefore I was not impressed with the quality of research, which sampled over a short period of time and with a small number of horses who were already used to the method.
                Last edited by CatOnLap; Dec. 29, 2007, 11:00 AM.
                "The Threat of Internet Ignorance: ... we are witnessing the rise of an age of equestrian disinformation, one where a trusting public can graze on nonsense packaged to look like fact."-LRG-AF

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by freestyle2music View Post
                  The words "learned helplessness" came out of the mouth of the attackers of the RK/Hyperflexion trainingsystem. When scientific studies, which where done some years ago, about this RK/Hyperflexion trainingsystem proved that horses didn't developed any stress-hormoon under these conditions, these people came with these words.
                  Well, this is actually what I study - not so much learned helplessness, but neuronal circuits in the brain and stress, and the interactions of hormones.

                  I can assure you there is nothing in the literature that would allow you to measure specific hormones and thus state, there is no stress here. Especially because we don't know basal levels in horses, which would vary according to breed (genetics plays a major part), sex, reproductive status, environment, fetal environment, and age. You'd first need to assess those levels in a "stress free environment."

                  Learned helplessness is a very real observation, it is used in rodent models especially for studying depressive states.

                  And I would say that, as has been stated before, it can be found in all horses and in all disciplines. But often, what is construed as stress by one individual does not always elicit a response from another.

                  If such a study was done with rollkur, please cite the journal reference. I'd be happy to go look it up on pub med and read it for everyone here. And of course, that would have to be a legitimate, peer-reviewed journal.
                  www.specialhorses.org
                  a 501(c)3 organization helping 501(c)3 equine rescues

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    What a shame...

                    that animals and humans were put thru inescapable pain and adverse stimuli in the name of research on learned helplessness on purpose Sorry, couldn't help going here.

                    Stacy

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by DressageGeek "Ribbon Ho" View Post
                      Well, this is actually what I study - not so much learned helplessness, but neuronal circuits in the brain and stress, and the interactions of hormones.

                      I can assure you there is nothing in the literature that would allow you to measure specific hormones and thus state, there is no stress here. Especially because we don't know basal levels in horses, which would vary according to breed (genetics plays a major part), sex, reproductive status, environment, fetal environment, and age. You'd first need to assess those levels in a "stress free environment."

                      Learned helplessness is a very real observation, it is used in rodent models especially for studying depressive states.

                      And I would say that, as has been stated before, it can be found in all horses and in all disciplines. But often, what is construed as stress by one individual does not always elicit a response from another.

                      If such a study was done with rollkur, please cite the journal reference. I'd be happy to go look it up on pub med and read it for everyone here. And of course, that would have to be a legitimate, peer-reviewed journal.
                      The study was done by Dr. Stoet and Professor van Breda and mentioned (á decharge) in the recent courtcase against Coby van Baalen in the Power and Paint case.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        "along came rollkur, and along came 'learned helplessness' after

                        I don't think there is any relation between depression (as a human disease of neruotransmitters) and situational unhappiness and 'life problems'. I think there's even LESS correlation between the mechanism of depression or life problems, and a rat that, when put in a tub of water and not provided with any escape, stops swimming sooner than a rat given a raft.

                        The original study showed that rats when put in a tub of water and provided a time or two with a raft to climb up on, kept swimming for a very long time in subsequent trials, the amount of time was longer than the rats swim time who hadn't been provided with a raft, the untrained rats stopped swimming and went under the water. presumably being rescued, but point in fact they stopped swimming sooner than the raft-trained rats.

                        I think the way the study has been applied to all sorts of unrelated situations is extremely absurd and very unscientific.

                        Not that that hasn't happened before, but USUALLY...USUALLY it isn't the scientists themselves that are running around suggesting all these ridiculous connections - THAT is the popular press' job!

                        In the wild, if rats fell in water, they would most likely 'learn' to keep swimming, scrambling aggressively for a hold on anything for a very long time, because most likely, anywhere they'd fall into water in the wild, would have a rough surface, a slanted surface, roots, masonry joints, all sorts of pawholds for them. They would 'learn' after many trials, to struggle out of any water, to struggle probablty for hours, in fact. Not only that, they're actually very strong swimmers in the wild, and great climbers. They will do amazing things, quite normally.

                        The lab rats had no experience like that. Most likely, being given a raft was very much like their wild experience. might be I think the rats that swam for a very long time were behaving more 'normally'. Lab rats don't get the exercise or trials in swimming except for very limited experiments, so their behavior in experiments like this can't be drawn out too far to make a lot of conclusions.

                        They have learned, very simply, to swim longer than a lab rat normally would. There's a pay off, so they KEEP swimming longer than normal. The way the study is interpreted, the animals without the raft training swim LESS than a normal length of time. That wasn't what the study showed. The trained rats swam LONGER than normal untrained lab rats. The study may have reinforced the behavior more than they intended or documented, as well. That was an early study. They weren't always terribly well designed.

                        The only real general application I think that can logically be applied to the results is that an animal, perhaps even a human animal, can learn to perform complicated behavior under complex circumstances, and perform an activity for LONGER than normal, if there is a reward in the end for the activity.

                        I think there is no justification, from that study, for a concept of 'learned helplessness' to exist.

                        The persitence of people to stay in an abusive situation is unbelievably more complicated than that - the abuser SEEKS OUT specific people, courts them, draws them in, then spends a great deal of time conditioning them and brain washing them, then spends MORE effort and time controlling and shaping their actions and one by one stripping every possible response but the desired one, away.

                        The mechanism is much more like complex multi- step cult psychology, and is far more multi layered than any thing like 'learned helplessness', which suggests that the problems of violent, abusive and destructive human behavior, as well as sadness and grief, life problems and disease of the brain like depression, are relatively simple to solve, and extremely simplistic. They are not.

                        It's the most ridiculous 'snake oil concept' I've ever heard when overused to that extent.

                        People DO see a sort of dispirited, inactive behavior in school horses (and, coincidentally, they see the same thing in any horse trained in a way they don't happen to like - and what is popularly 'disliked' changes over time).

                        I think in the quiet school horse this is a combination of things - no one is making the horse do anything that gets its blood up, it's perhaps a little stiff and old and conservative movements are more comfortable for it, or frankly, it's just taking it easy because no one is making it go forward and work actively. Many hot blooded, restless horses get nutty in situations where they are confided, but quite a few other horses just get quiet and sleepy and inactive.

                        Furthermore, the 'quiet' horse's behavior may actually represent an extremely happy and content animal, putting out a minimum of energy in simple work, enjoying its quiet routine and gentle exercise, and perfectly - happy. I always thought my horse was supremely happy when he was at his most 'unattractive' - standing still, head down, ears lopped over, weiner hanging out, one hind leg cocked....now to many people, a horse is 'happy' when he is running around screaming in the paddock, holding his tail up in the air and prancing.

                        To equate such frantic herd activity with 'happiness' - I don't understand how people think sometimes.

                        There are also those who say Lingh has 'lost his spark' and 'looks horrible' with Karen riding him. I look at him and see a happy, healthy horse enjoying his new rider, being ridden quietly, conservatively, with somewhat less impulsion and energy than Edward rode him, being ridden by a rider who is far more concerned about a quiet, relaxed and correct performance, developing herself as a rider, fulfilling intelligent and appropriate goals, and enjoying her new equine partner, as she should be.

                        And so many value judgements are put forth to explain what someone thinks they see, one gal I know who strongly opined that fly masks were 'abusive', treated me to endlness tirades about how my horses were 'depressed' because they were 'forced to have those horrible things over their eyes'. She ALSO used the term 'learned helplessness' - to describe my horses dozing in the pasture in the shade with their fly masks on.

                        People see what they want to see, and they think what they want to think.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Sabby
                          that animals and humans were put thru inescapable pain and adverse stimuli in the name of research on learned helplessness on purpose Sorry, couldn't help going here.
                          Seligman's original study was on a dog in 1965- the rats came later.
                          Unfortunately, College students are still replicating his research- pub 2007, Univ of Nebraska. Rats forced to swim 48 hours until they drown...
                          http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/me...ct/21/6/A779-a
                          "The Threat of Internet Ignorance: ... we are witnessing the rise of an age of equestrian disinformation, one where a trusting public can graze on nonsense packaged to look like fact."-LRG-AF

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            slc2 - Well said. Thank You.
                            \"Enlightenment is like moonlight reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet nor is the water broken.\"

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              I did not read the article. I became aware of it through reading behavioral science articles. The concept has been out there since the 1950s but we're just now thinking about what it means to horses (or people). I believe there is a counterpart in humans as well which is linked to long-term depression.

                              I see this in some of the horses coming into our shelter. Another way to put it is the horse has "given up" or "had their spirit broken". In my local area the biggest source is probably Amish workhorses, but you'll see it in other breeds. I can see where it could happen in any discipline or kind of horse under the right conditions. [Not trying to pick on the Amish; it's just that we get lots of ex-amish horses here and some were trained very harshly]

                              When these horses arrive, we cannot go back to the traditional methods (i.e. punishment/correction based) if there's any hope to have the horse come back to life. The horse might begrudgingly move his feet, but he's dead inside. It makes it harder to find a trainer. The best chance is when he's never hit/punished and we can slowly regain trust. This area still has trainers whose philosophy centers on "force him to respect me" or "showing who is boss". Things that DO work are lots of time & patience, positive-based training methods (eg. Clicker training), and handlers that a fair & consistent. The hope is that the shut-down horse has not generalized his helplessness to ALL humans and ALL enviroments; we try to convince him the bad rules no longer apply in this new environment.

                              There is alot of debate about if throwing a horse to the ground (cowboy "lying down") might be stressful enough to trigger it, at least in some horses especially if done repeatedly. It's done to create submission, but in some horses perhaps it does alot more? I don't know the answer to that. It would be a good topic for more study.

                              One might ask "who cares how the horse feels as long as he does what people ask without arguement?" My question to your dressage people: We look for submission in our horses. Is it really willing submission if the horse is permanently shut down inside?

                              Lots of good questions! Thanks for bringing up this topic, monstrpony.
                              Veterinarians for Equine Welfare

                              Comment


                              • #16
                                Zen and horses, do you have an interest in zen buddhism?

                                As far as 'throwing' horses, I think it is a VERY stupid practice that does NOTHING for horses. The only thing it does is increase the possibility of injury of the animal during training, and line someone's wallet.

                                When a horse is put down on the ground and held there, instinct takes over. It is no longer thinking or learning. It's on autopilot. All prey animals have a kind of switch that switches on when they are held down in a certain way. When thet scenario is created, they stop struggling.

                                Horses often do the same when they get caught in something - mud, a bog, etc. They get to a point where that switch goes on and they lie there and quietly put up with whatever is going on around them.

                                They are not in shock, and frankly, no, I don't think some great change happens in them. I don't think they think about it like people say AT ALL.

                                Horses have a strong instinct to stay on their feet - everything they do - yeah, nearly everything anyway - is tied up with not wanting to feel like they're going to fall.

                                When they get up, I believe they are the same horse they were before this happened. I don't think they 'learn' anything from it. I don't think horses think that way. At all.

                                At one barn I was at, a mare was very hot and nervous, and she was very difficult to ride and work with. She was both stubborn and hot, much like her GP jumper sire.

                                The owner, somewhat desperate, had a guy come and throw her.

                                Three years later, that trainer walked into the barn, and she was climbing the back wall of her stall trying to get away from him with her eyes bugging out of her head.

                                That's what she learned.

                                "Don't go near that guy...somehow, bad stuff happens when he's around".

                                Her personality did not change. She did not become more compliant. She was not any less hot or nervous. IT did not make her 'think'. She did get paired up with a rider that understood her well, and she performed well for that rider. But that was happening BEFORE she was thrown.

                                People want to imagine they think that way, because it does something for th= person's ego - makes them feel like they understand some great mystery, makes them feel clever - whatever.

                                Hungarian horses are taught to lie down, cavalry horses were taught to lie down, circus horses are taught to lie down - with no breaking of their spirit, no significant affect on their psyche - it's just something they learn to do. The routine in teaching them is just about identical to what the 'thrower' people do. The only difference is the speech the trainer makes to the audience...and that there IS an audience, LOL!

                                I don't think they particularly enjoy it the first couple times (hungarian, circus horses, etc), but they can be taught to do it on command and the first few times that's done they ARE forced to lie down, by setting them off balance (so it's no different from being 'thrown' by a Robert Redford lookalike) - and they STILL go ahead and do it rather quietly and cooperatively - because they learn to do it.

                                People - MANY people have deluded themselves (or their customers) into believing that something important or significant is going on during that time. It's been a part of every horse whisperer 'schtick' for hundreds of years.

                                I think it's baloney. I've seen horses 'thrown', and how it changed them - no change in their behavior, no change in their training success or co-operativeness.

                                News flash....you cannot change a horse's personality, energy level, nervous system, or the mistreatment and bad training he's had, by throwing him on the ground.

                                People want to believe what they want to believe, so they convince themselves it does something. Because that's what they want to believe. All I can say, is, leeches eventually went out of fashion too.

                                Comment


                                • #17
                                  Ahh, but leeches are making a comeback.
                                  Where's the glamour? You promised me glamour!

                                  Comment


                                  • #18
                                    That's an absurd distortion of what's going on.

                                    They are still used to debride some sorts of wounds, in very rare circumstances.

                                    Back in the day - leeches and bleeding was used for EVERYTHING - and the whole deal looked like a Monty Python script.

                                    People were bled with leeches under the most absolutely insane circumstances and often died as a result of the bleeding. The use of leeches violated just about every currently known medical and physiological principle. The way leeches were used in the past, as a snake oil to treat EVERYTHING - often resulting in the death of the patient, is NOT coming back.

                                    Comment


                                    • #19
                                      what i know of learned- in a horse is in his mind
                                      he can only response to hows he treated and they learn by us the human
                                      how we act is how they re- act good or bad but they also have long memories - and some can be of pain or sadness happiness some do say they dont feel i can ssure you they do
                                      both mentally and physically

                                      Comment


                                      • #20
                                        Originally posted by slc2 View Post
                                        That's an absurd distortion of what's going on.

                                        They are still used to debride some sorts of wounds, in very rare circumstances.
                                        Deapite your expertise in the field of absurd distortions, you're incorrect here.
                                        No. Leeches are used to relieve venous congestion.
                                        Maggots are used for debridement.

                                        Get your medicinal invertebrates straight, willya?
                                        "It's like a Russian nesting doll of train wrecks."--CaitlinandTheBay

                                        ...just settin' on the Group W bench.

                                        Comment

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