What causes a horse to shut down?

I think we can agree that the ultimate goal in horse training is to end up with a horse that is responsive, safe to be around, and enjoys his work. Happy horse, happy human.

food reward

Positive reinforcement is a process that strengthens the likelihood of a particular response by adding a stimulus after the behavior is performed. Negative reinforcement also strengthens the likelihood of a particular response, but by removing an undesirable consequence.

Learning depends on a number of key things: stimuli, responses, and reinforcement.

Stimuli being the “aid” (or cue), which is what we do to the horse to ask for him to perform a particular behavior. The response is the behavior that we want the horse to do, whether to yield his hindquarters on the ground or in the saddle, walk on when we are leading or riding him, or perform a complicated equitation movement.

Often the reward/reinforcement is the release of the pressure, for example when your horse moves forward off the squeeze of your legs (you then release the pressure – this being negative reinforcement) or positive reinforcement such as clicker training where the horse receives a food reward ( positive reinforcement). Whether using positive or negative reinforcement timing and consistency is crucial to good equine training.



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What is learned Helplessness, and how can it make a horse shutdown?

Learned helplessness refers to a state of significantly reduced response resulting from the animal’s inability to affect its condition or environment. This results from repeated exposure to unavoidable, inescapable painful or fear-inducing stimuli or situations.

The horse essentially shuts down behaviorally, no longer trying to escape, avoid or communicate with the trainer, and enters a state of behavioral depression. Learned helplessness can be situation-specific, but most often in psychology, the term learned helplessness is used to describe a generalized “shutdown” or depression and apparent inability to act.

A horse acting out

Behaviors such as unpredictable bizarre “acting out,” self-mutilation, inability to learn and work, stereotypes (repetitive behaviors that serve no function), and health effects such as gastric ulcers and suppressed immune function are synonymous with a shutdown horse.

In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, so it gives up trying.

When timing is not effective, or the release or reward does not come, the horse may understandably give up trying. It’s a case of “ If you’re not listening to me, I’m not talking to you anymore”

In my work, I often come across horses who have varying degrees of shutdown. The owners have good intentions but are still learning how to really listen to their horses. To have an engaging horse we need to make sure they feel heard. Some horses for different reasons need more release and reward more regularly than others, if not they tend to shut down quite quickly. This can be quite challenging for the more inexperienced horse person.

Unfortunately, this puts up a huge barrier between us and our horse. Connection and trust are lost. It’s not all bleak though and there are ways to repair the damage that has been done. Look out for part 2 for techniques to re-establish the connection and willingness in a shutdown horse.


Signs of a shutdown horse

The horse acts out randomly and unexpectedly and has tantrums that seem to come out of nowhere.

He’s moody and has shifting moods.

Very “stubborn”

Zones out – you can’t get through to them or get any response out of them.

Sometimes they are very dull and unresponsive and other times they are flighty and speedy.

They suck back when riding. When you put your leg on the feel as if they are drawing back instead of moving forward freely.

Your horse is robotic and lacks personality, he knows his job but doesn’t offer much else. You get the feeling you are just being tolerated and endured.

Your horse’s connection with you is very inconsistent.

Warwick Schiller gives this helpful explanation below on why horses shut down  


** In part 2 we will discuss how to prevent and reconnect with a shutdown horse





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