Is there evidence of learned helplessness in horses?

J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2008;11(3):249-66. doi: 10.1080/10888700802101130.


Learned helplessness is a psychological condition whereby individuals learn that they have no control over unpleasant or harmful conditions, that their actions are futile, and that they are helpless. In a series of experiments in which dogs were exposed to inescapable shocks, this lack of control subsequently interfered with the ability to learn an avoidance task. There is evidence that both neural adaptations and behavioral despair occur in response to uncontrollable aversive experiences in rodents, although this has yet to be demonstrated in other species such as horses. However, certain traditional methods of horse training and some behavioral modification techniques--it has been suggested--may involve aversive conditions over which the horse has little or no control. When training and management procedures are repeatedly unpleasant for the horse and there is no clear association between behavior and outcome, this is likely to interfere with learning and performance-in addition to compromising welfare. This article reviews published literature and anecdotal evidence to explore the possibility that the phenomenon, learned helplessness, occurs in the horse.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Welfare
  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Dogs
  • Escape Reaction / physiology*
  • Helplessness, Learned*
  • Horses / psychology*
  • Rats
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*