Learned helplessness as a survival strategy

Lola Montez is a very beautiful, shy palomino mare. When she first came to us she was very difficult to catch and would choose to be as far away from us as possible. She would occasionally accept a gentle touch on her shoulder but even that was clearly not what she wanted.

On our first in hand walks you could not feel her at the end of the rope – she would do everything to make sure there was never any tension on the rope. She wanted to be invisible, to stay out of harms way. Even when stood still by the tastiest green grass, she would stand square and tense and never even try to put her head down to eat.

It took a long time to get her to relax in human company. It’s been 4 years now, and still she is one of the most nervous horses we have.

Early days when we still used to go riding, she would stand absolutely still and quiet for tacking up but explode into a crazy bucking fit the minute I went to mount.

We have worked really hard with her to give her back her freedom, confidence and power of choice. Positive reinforcement training has been a great confidence giver for her and when given the choice she will always want to participate. We have been able to rebuild a trust between us but there is still a long way to go. If you push her too hard or approach with any force, she quickly reverts back to her old coping mechanism and shuts into herself. I have become very highly tuned and can read her very well, so we can stay within her comfort zone and offer her plenty of successes.

If she goes into her survival state;
It’s a sad sight to see.
A horse as tense as an overly stretched string of a violin, just closing into her own mind and shutting the world out.

It’s also very dangerous, as I can attest from the early days, the minute that string snaps and she ‘wakes up’ from her sleep-like state, all hell breaks loose and she is back on fighting for her life with everything she has.

She has been a great teacher for us and we continue on this learning journey together, hopefully for many more years to come.

Pia Saari is the founder and owner of Country Quest Portugal. Throughout her life she has gathered extensive experience with horses in many different ways. She has worked with horses professionally in riding schools, livery yards and racing stables. She has worked in horse rescue and helped numerous horses recover from severe physical and mental negligence. She has studied equine ethology and psychology, learning theory and many other subjects relating to horses. Country Quest Portugal has a mission and a vision to make the world a better place for horses - sharing knowledge by an online course is a very important part of this mission. The course is priced low to make it accessible for everyone who wants to learn how to better care for their horses.