Radical Acceptance

I’ve been trying to understand a phenomenon in the horse world. We understand Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility and why humans chose to utilize these psychologically distressing tools. They are effective restraints and control devices for emotionally sensitive animals. We also understand the extreme emotional cost using these tools comes at for horses, instilling life-long trauma and avoidance behaviors, and redirecting into dangerous reactivity, and majorly compromising the welfare of a sentient being. But how do some horses still come out of this world looking relatively undamaged? Functioning well and appropriately in their job or sport?

Tonic Immobility occurs in times of extreme distress, feelings of being trapped, out of control, and devoid of all hope. The animal freezes physically and disconnects emotionally from the reality of their situation. In horses we witness this when the horse is forcibly laid down, extreme restraints (multiple hobbling with no prior training), and when twitched. Freezing and disconnecting preserve the animal from greater distress and suffering. While little is known about the evolution of this psychological event, we can presume it became a safety measure to protect animals from the suffering of immanent death (like when caught by a predator). It can also go a long way to increasing chances of survival, if they are entangled in something and they were to continue to thrash, they would likely do much more harm to themselves. If they were to fight with the predator they would likely lose. But by remaining totally still they allow the minimal damage done to their body and something may distract the predator (other predators or scavengers) giving the animal a chance to escape.

Learned Helplessness is a similar such occurrence, when repeatedly exposed to unavoidable, yet horrible stimuli, the learner stops trying to escape it – even if given an easy escape route. We see this often in horses who are being “sacked out” or “desensitized” to items, the horse is chased and hazed by the frightening object and they are either kept in a small, inescapable pen or are tied. So they quickly learn they cannot escape the frightening stimuli, they give up hope that escape is possible. Then even when escape is very possible, even easily presented to them, they no longer try. This hopelessness is convenient for riders, as the horse will no longer fight or flee from upsetting stimuli. However damaging to their psyche.

But in reality, we don’t want a horse in total learned helplessness or tonic immobility all the time. While these are beneficial for us to impose our will on animals far more powerful than us, they’re not effective for sporting or getting a job done. So what is happening in the mind of the horse when being responsive to aversive aids and stimuli? When they are light and responsive to aversive aids, we know this is not Learned Helplessness, because the horse is actively working to resolve their uncomfortable situation. Complete LH would mean the horse is non-responsive to aids, you could kick all day long and the horse would just stand there and suffer. So what is happening in the mind of a horse who is responsive to aversive aids, but not fighting against or inappropriately reactive to these aids? Why do some horses adjust and even seem comfortable, I might not say “happy”, but they are ok with their circumstances?

I recently read a book on dealing with depression and anxiety (DBT Skill Training Manual, second edition by Marsha M. Linehan). In it it discussed a concept of “Radical Acceptance”, this is “a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering. While pain is part of life, radical acceptance allows us to keep that pain from becoming suffering.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/…/radical-acceptance)

Some people are able to do this readily, others have to learn this as a skill. Sometimes this can be a healthy coping mechanism, sometimes this can become toxic and inappropriate. When we get the alert for a tornado in our area, we can not just sit there and say “this isn’t fair!”, “I don’t want a tornado”, “not today, I’m busy”, “why does this always happen to me?”… Instead we need to accept the reality of the situation, the tornado is coming and there is nothing we can do about it. We need to do what we can to alleviate the damage of the tornado, block our windows, lock things up, weigh things down, make everything as safe as possible, using whatever techniques you know to help keep yourself and your loved ones as safe as possible. There are some things in life we must accept as unchangeable, unalterable, all we can do is respond accordingly and reduce the damage as much as possible.

The horses who are thriving in a world of unavoidable pain, and yet aren’t suffering, have mastered this coping skill. They may have felt LH and TI from an early age (extreme imprinting techniques can do this), or seen enough of it to accept that their fate is inescapable. They have accepted the reality of their situation and learned to cope within it. By responding quickly and appropriately to their aversive aids they have reduced their suffering to the lowest they are able to. While this isn’t ideal or something I promote or condone, it makes sense to me now how some horses can live a relatively happy and comfortable life, even when handled with harsh aversives and even when exposed to extreme techniques of LH or TI.

However not all horses are so lucky. Few horses live a life full of pain, especially when the pain is unavoidable and inescapable (like when techniques used to cause LH or TI are used) and cope with it well. There are some, and I understand now how they have managed, but most have not. So my next article will be on how to help those horses who have not. Those horses who are left with trauma, reactivity, “shut down”, “explosive”, or just not right. Those horses who have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms like stereotypical behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, explosive reactivity, superstitious behaviors, or internalize their suffering turning into health issues (like ulcers). We need tools to help these horses overcome this history. While switching to R+ can and does better the welfare of all horses, even those who were coping well with aversive techniques, it’s not the only thing we can be doing to help those horses who are left with trauma from their past.

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