Laying a Horse Down


Laying a Horse down

What are your thoughts on laying a defiant or strong-willed horse down to make him more submissive? Will this assist in the training process?

A.The ultimate goal in horse training is to end up with a horse that is responsive, safe to be around, and enjoys his work. Training involves the use of learning theory, as this is quite simply how we all— humans included—learn.

Learning depends on a number of key things: stimuli, responses, and reinforcement.  The trouble is that these are seen as scientific words and can easily be lost in translation between research and real life. Putting these into equestrian-specific terminology, stimuli is the “aid” (or cue), which is what we do to the horse to ask for him to perform a particular behaviour. The response is the behavior that we want the horse to do, whether to step back as we enter his stable, walk on when we are leading or riding him, or perform a complicated equitation movement. What happens next—after the horse has done what we’ve asked of him—is the complicated bit. In regular training the trainer/handler/rider would give the horse some kind of reward (or punishment), for performing (or not performing) the desired behavior. Often the reward this is the release of the pressure that was applied as the aid. But not always. It’s fundamental to good equine welfare that the human removes pressures appropriately when the horse responds positively.

Over the past decade, in an effort to demonstrate awareness of and concern for the mental welfare of the horse, there has been an increase in the labeling of behaviors displayed by the horse (often under certain circumstances assumed to induce poor welfare) with human-based conditions, most notably separation anxiety and learned helplessness. As a biology and psychology graduate, this has always been of concern and I often ask my equitation science students “Is it really learned helplessness?” and then tell them to go and find out what learned helplessness really is before they attribute horse behavior to it.

“Learned helplessness” (or LH) is a psychological condition in which an individual suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It’s known to be common in institutionalized individuals which it could be argued some horses may be (and that is another piece in itself!)

In order to fully understand what LH actually is, it’s useful—but certainly not pleasant—to describe its discovery by psychologists. Dogs were put in a test pen which was separated into two halves by a small barrier with an electrifiable floor on the start side. A warning light signal was given just before the floor was electrified. Dogs quickly learnt that the light meant “jump” (over the barrier) to avoid getting a shock. Some of these dogs were then tied up so that they could not avoid the shock that followed the light signal. These dogs were then untied and the light signal given again but they no longer attempted to avoid the shock by jumping over the barrier, and were deemed to have developed learned helplessness.

So back to horses. There’s an old horsemanship tradition of “laying a horse down,” which enjoys periodic resurgences and is argued to be a useful way of dealing with so-called troubled, defiant, or problem horses. There are two different forms of lying a horse down: one where the trainer uses a series of signals and reinforcements to teach the behaviour slowly and clearly over an extended period of time where the horse stays immobile in response to signals and is rewarded for doing so, and another where a trainer makes a deliberate attempt to put the horse into a state of tonic immobility (a state of paralysis) to inhibit the horse’s flight response. Tonic immobility is believed to be a last ditch defence response of individuals, especially prey species such as the horse. Tonic immobility comes with a price, including physiological effects such as exertional rhabdomyolysis, which causes muscle damage under conditions of extreme muscle exertion and/or stress, which need to be taken into account when evaluating the use laying the horse down to manage horse behavior.

In the trained method of laying down, the horse is given a signal to get up and is duly rewarded for doing so. In the latter the horse is made to stay lying down, and because tonic immobility is likely to be aversive due to it being an extreme defence response, it could be argued that the horse is likely to develop learned helplessness as a result.

Wind back to the starting text: A well-intentioned approach to lay the horse down to cure behavioral or “attitude” problems might have serious physical (muscle damage) and mental (learned helplessness) effects and, in my opinion, should be avoided and replaced with clear and consistent training based on simple stimulus-and-response methods within physical and mental limits of the horse being worked with. Deliberately putting individuals that we are responsible for into an LH should be avoided at all costs, because not only is it specific to the context in which it develops, but it can also spill over into other aspects of the horse’s life and can cause depression. Do we really want to do this to our horses?


Hayley Randle, PhD

Hayley Randle, PhD, runs the undergraduate and graduate equitation science programs at the Equitation Science Academy at Duchy College in the United Kingdom, in conjunction with Plymouth University. She has been involved in large mammal behavioral research for the past 19 years. Her research interests focus on animal (in particular equine) behavior, training, individual differences, and welfare. Randall has successfully competed in endurance but is now spending any spare time she has with her son, Border Collies, senior Arabian gelding, and Shetland Pony.