What is Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility? Is it necessary?

Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility are a big topic on the internet right now. Seems education is spreading around, I’m so glad for this. For the well-being of horses everywhere, understanding these commonly used and exploited coping mechanisms are not only dangerous, but also cruel. If you’ve studied psychology or seen videos of animals “hypnotized” or doing “yoga” or maybe the awful shark flipping techniques, you may have heard of these topics, it’s been shown to be something present in all species of animals. To start, there is a lot of misconception about what these terms really mean, so let’s clear that up. We’ll let science define the terms to keep us all on the same page.

Tonic Immobility is a state of temporary semi-paralysis, where the horse remains still, though sometimes tremors or spasms, with intermittently closed eyes, which can appear calm, their respiration, temperature, and heart rate changes. This mental “clouding over” helps to protect the individual’s mind from whatever trauma may be happening. People have misunderstood and mislabeled this phenomenon for ages, some believe it is a state of relaxation, a broken spirit, a system shut down, hypnosis, or just a strategic way to get a job done without the animal fighting. However further studies and learning from human experiences we have learned this is a much more emotionally complex state. It is a result of extreme fear, it’s a last resort of self defense when in an inescapable situation (as perceived by the individual). In nature this occurs in animals caught by predators or when losing a fight to a stronger peer. It can happen when the animal feels trapped/confined, or in imminent, inescapable danger. We see this occur for many reasons and in many ways in the animal kingdom, but always through extreme instances of fear and complete lack of control. It’s a fallout when survival seems impossible, but should they survive, they’ve lost minimal blood and haven’t gotten torn up like they would have if they struggled (against a predator or a fence). If we’ve watched our barn cats play with mice we may have even seen this save a life. When a cat catches a mouse, just to play with, not to eat, the mouse may appear dead in their mouth. Then when the cat stops to rest and groom themselves, the mouse shoots out an disappears. If the mouse had struggled or tried to escape earlier, the cat’s play and predatory nature would have been triggered and definitely killed the mouse. It has major short term health risks, including going into shock when re-awakening, or heart failure. There are also long lasting emotionally damaging effects, including feelings of intense depression, hyper anxiety, and extreme apathy.

This apathy is something humans have long taken advantage of, using this lack of drive to survive, lack of effort to defend one-self we can rapidly flood our learning animal with new stimuli. Often this is done once or a few times in the first few days of life to make this easier to trigger later in life. Often in horse training we see people force-ably laying a horse down (with ropes or holding up a leg and tipping them over, restraining them while down), we see this with horses tied to something for long periods of time and left to fight it out, twitches can trigger this state quickly and extremely, as well as just flooding a horse with an inescapable stimuli. We can use this state for our benefit with animals of labor, sport, or production, as the individual remains still and no longer defends themselves, so we can do whatever we want to them, including husbandry and cosmetic procedures. But until recently, we haven’t really understood the long term effects and risks on physical and mental well-being.

Taina, just rescued and about to come home

Baby Celest at the mustang rescue we got him from, just after being caughtLearned Helplessness is a similar situation, though less acute and more prolonged. This state can be achieved through an extreme experience of tonic immobility or multiple, more mild fear experiences where the learner can’t escape or avoid the aversive stimuli. Learned helplessness is exactly as it sounds, the individual learns they are unable to help themselves. They submit to whatever horror is happening and no longer attempt escape or avoidance. This has been regularly utilized in horse training traditionally and in natural horsemanship, when attempting to desensitize, through flooding (learn more about what this is here), the horse is exposed to strong stimuli until they learn to tolerate it, without ability to escape or avoid the stimuli. Only compliance/tolerance results in relief from the fearful stimulus, often this can even be a state close to Tonic Immobility. They must learn again to avoid stimuli, as the same people using flooding to desensitize want their learners to be responsive to aids through negative reinforcement. With the addition and removal of an aversive stimuli. A horse shut down too extremely (we may see this in very sad school horses) will no longer work to avoid the leg aid, and the trainer would need to escalate, no longer work to escape the discomfort of a rein cue, leaving the trainer with no choice but to pull out bigger, stronger tools. So traditional trainers who utilize flooding techniques and negative reinforcement training really rely on a horse who is shut down into a state of learned helplessness, just enough that they will ignore extreme fearful and spooking situations, but respond to light aids and work to avoid those more mild aversive stimuli.  This is a delicate balance.

So while learned helplessness and tonic immobility can be a useful thing for us using horses as production, labor, or sport animals, but at what cost does this come? To the animal, it comes at a great emotional cost, a cost not worth the benefits. Imagine for a moment you are in your horse’s place. Exercise your empathy muscles. Science has shown that while horses think differently and express themselves differently than us, they do have and feel the same emotions we do. Neuroscience has put this debate to rest, emotions controlled and expressed by the brain, nervous system, and hormones are the same in most all species (some exceptions apply but too complex to go into). So now imagine yourself in a situation where your fear is so extreme and you have no ability to escape it, afraid of spiders? imagine being covered in them, in a closed box you can’t get out of. This deep, instinctive fear, so extreme you disconnect from reality. You leave your body, turn off your mind, and accept the horrors, just surrendering. Survivors of trauma may spend a life-time working to overcome the emotional damage done by just one experience like this.

Unfortunately our horses don’t get a life-time of emotional therapy to learn to accept and move through the lasting effects of this trauma. Particularly in cases of long-term learned helplessness that benefits the handler/owner. We now know and understand the long term effects of this trauma (explained in detail in this article). The cost is too high for us to use these techniques for our benefit for any but the most extreme, life-saving situation. Extreme tools like twitches were designed in times of war before we had sedation, pain relievers, and anesthetics, these restrained the horse while emergency surgery was performed on the side-lines of a battle. Often just patch jobs so the horse could carry a few more loads of ammo, or the next soldier up to the front lines. These were not designed as tools to be used so we can clip our horse’s ears before a show. These were designed to keep a horse alive to fight or labor a few minutes longer. And now, should we find ourselves in a position where sedation, pain relief, or any other techniques aren’t possible, these tools of restraint make acceptable life-saving choices. But given the emotional impact, they should be reserved for the most extreme of situations, reserved for when it benefits the horse, not for our convenience.

Because of the benefits in emergencies, people have justified these tools and techniques as a necessary evil in the horse world and created a culture where we accept and ignore these things happening, even when not absolutely necessary. We have many techniques to prepare our horses for the world and many more to prepare ourselves for emergencies. Now that we know better in animal training, it’s time we do better. We now understand how fear works in animals and how to overcome it with habituation and counter conditioning. We can also utilize enrichment to prepare our horses for a wild variety of possibilities in life. When horses are regularly presented with new and crazy objects, sounds, smells, and so on, but they result in good things happening (like food!) the horse will become more confident and exploratory. We train the horse that new things equals new possibilities for good things in their life. No need to shut down a horse when we can inspire confidence and curiosity. We also have positive reinforcement to teach appropriate behaviors and solid responses to cues. All this allows us to train bold, confident horses who are eager to work with their humans and comply with our silly whims (in their minds maybe – haha!).

However, often we don’t get foals who haven’t been handled or haven’t already been exposed to TI or LH to some degree. So how do we help these horses overcome this? The same ways we prevent it, just slower. Through enrichment and positive training we can rebuild our horse’s self-esteem, self-control, and desire to try and participate with humans. Right now at our rescue we have a mustang foal who lived wild until he arrived at our farm at 9 months old. Here he has just had positive training and enrichment filled baby life. He is becoming the greatest horse I’ve ever worked with and a horse who knows no fear. We throw the weirdest objects in with him and he is the first one over to investigate it. While we are progressing quickly and easily through his training we also got a mare at the same time. She has lived a terrible life of Spanish dancing, rodeos, abuse that has covered her body with sores, crushed her throat, and cosmetically cut the ligaments in her tail. She also survived incredible levels of neglect as she arrived completely emaciated. It took a long time before she was even able to acknowledge a human without intense levels of fear and rage. We didn’t even begin training or positive reinforcement work for many months, allowing her to take time to heal physically, and mentally recover from the trauma and accept this new world as a safe place. She is slow to try new things, slow to trust they won’t result in punishment, slow to put in effort, and very easily frustrated when things aren’t straight forward. Watching these two horses follow the same path of an introduction to this lifestyle, you can see how this beautiful untouched foal is having a much easier transition. However our sweet little mare gets better everyday, only set back by her physical struggles. Enrichment and training being the highlight of their days.