I was asked by Leah to write a short piece on my views of laying a horse down, so here goes.
From the start I want to be clear that there is a difference between teaching a horse to lay down on cue using standard pressure and release techniques and forcibly laying a horse where there is no room for a horse to search for an answer. For the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about laying a horse down by immobilizing it against its will.
Laying a horse down is still widely used by trainers. Many of you probably saw Robert Redford do it in the film, The Horse Whisperer.
A few trainers make it a routine practice that every horse must endure. For others, it is used only on those horses that have problems. And yet other trainers reserve it for the rare and special cases where other approaches have failed and laying a horse down is a last resort.
Whatever the thinking behind laying a horse down, it is used almost exclusively to eradicate an unwanted flight or fight behaviour. It is not used to teach horses to pick up their feet or perform flying lead changes for example. Its function is purely to instil submission in a horse – nothing else. This is not the same as teaching a horse to lay on the ground on cue, which has an entirely different purpose.
There is a long history of laying horses down that goes back to ancient times. Many more modern-day trainers, such as John Rarey (1827-1866) and Professor (Jess) Berry (1861-1945), used laying down techniques to tame horses that other could not in order to make a reputation for themselves.
There are several issues about laying a horse down that are argued by people on both sides of the fence and remain unresolved. I’m not able to cover them all in such a brief article, so I’m going to focus only on my views based on my experience and research. If you are interested in a wider perspective, there are plenty of articles on the internet discussing the pros and cons.
It is probably only fair that I declare that I have taught most of my horses to lay down. Just like I have taught them to lead well and halt softly. It’s fun and it gets them working with me. But as well, I have also forced a few horses to the ground in my life – maybe two or three special cases (it was a long time ago, so I can’t be sure how many). I have also seen it done many times in my earlier life.
When a horse is laid down, it almost always becomes immobile. There is sometimes (about 50% of the time) an initial struggle for a horse to immediately get to its feet again, but if the trainer blocks this; the horse will lay still and quiet. It’s this stillness that a trainer is looking for because it signals that the horse has stopped the fight and will accept whatever the trainer has in mind. At this moment, a trainer tries to make the horse accept the human’s dominance and submit to its fate, without the horse thinking that fight or flight is an option.
Why does a horse to accept its fate and not continue to fight?
There is not a lot of research done with horses, but work with other species has given rise to the theory that forcibly immobilizing some animals leads to a catatonic state called tonic immobility (a natural state of paralysis). When an animal is in a state of tonic immobility and then subjected or exposed to stressful stimuli it leads to a state of learned helplessness, which is when an animal stops fighting a situation because it feels the futility of flight or flight. In other words, when an animal of forcibly laid down, it can feel so helpless that it just gives up.
Many species exhibit this behaviour. You’ve probably all seen the nature shows where a lion attacks a zebra. The zebra fights and kicks until it is forced to the ground, when it then just lays still while the lion eats it alive.
An example of this is seen with horses. Often when they are laid down it is very difficult to get them to their feet again. The tonic immobility makes them emotionally paralysed and sometimes a trainer has to get quite violent in order to wake the animal up and get it to its feet again.
One trainer, who uses laying down methods on most horses, argues that it is a kind and gentle way of starting the breaking in process or helping troubled horses. He even used a heart rate monitor to show that horses that he laid down had lower heart rates and argues that this was proof that laying a horse to the ground was a less stressful approach for the horse. However, if he had studied physiology at university he would have learned in second year that tonic immobility-induced stress is associated with bradycardia (lower heart rate). Not all stress causes an increase in heart rate. So his heart rate monitor test actually showed that the horse’s he laid down were more stressed because their heart rate decreased.
I believe that forcing a horse down is something that should only be preserved for extreme cases. For the average horse I feel it does psychological damage because it takes away a horse’ right to say ‘No’ and express its feelings. That means that the true feelings of a horse are hidden away from an owner and puts the chance of having any sort of relationship better than a master/slave beyond reach.
Having said all that, I do think there are rare times when laying a horse down has a place in training. But they are rare. It happens when a horse is beyond emotional reach. It’s when a horse is not thinking and just reacting. It’s when a pattern of aggression has been formed and a horse is not able to search for an alternative behaviour because its emotions block its ability to process and think through a situation. Laying a horse down in this situation can reset the emotions to zero, which creates a window of opportunity to break the pattern.
I also believe that the success of creating change in a horse after it has been laid down is dependent on the quality of the work after it gets to its feet again. Dropping a horse to the ground has no long-term benefit in itself. There is no learning by just laying a horse down. Nothing changes unless what comes after it gets to its feet again changes. Laying a horse down only creates a window of opportunity to have a conversation with a horse. In itself, putting a horse on the ground does nothing to change things in the long term.
Lastly, I want to also point out that laying a horse down is not the only method for inducing tonic immobility and learned helplessness. Anytime a horse is put in a situation that it feels is helpless and resistance is futile, you can induce the same stress of tonic immobility. For example, many forms of desensitization where a horse is tied up and flooded with stressors, imprint training of foals, hobbling or tying up one leg, tying a horse up until it stops pulling back, collar roping hind legs, and wheat box training (used for starting horses) can work on the same principle of removing a horse’s ability to escape a stressful situation and inducing a sense of helplessness and submission.
Laying a horse down is a skill that some professional trainers may use a few times in their life, but it is not a skill most owners will ever use. Nor is it a skill they should have because it relies on psychologically traumatizing a horse in a way that has the potential to do long-term damage to a relationship.
The photo is a shot of Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson laying down the horse in the film, The Horse Whisperer.