The centuries-old act of laying a horse down with ropes and leverage is still used by some modern day trainers. Those who use it fall into two camps:
To date, there has been no scientific research specifically on what happens to a horse when laid down, or its effects as a training method – for better or worse. All we have are anecdotal or subjective opinions on the possible benefits of the act.(1)
Having witnessed numerous horses being laid down – both in person, and in videos – and having actively participated in laying down a horse once (before my current career), I have my own ‘one-rat study’ thoughts and observations on the subject.
I hope to approach this topic objectively. It’s a hot topic button for many in the horse world, and I would like to discuss it in a way that’s productive for both horses and people.
But first, a little history.
Animals will generally respond to things that they feel are a threat to their safety or well-being by one of four responses (2): freezing, fleeing, fighting, or entering into a state of tonic immobility (more on that later). Inhibiting the flight or fight of the horse dates back as early as early as 600 B.C. (3), when depictions of a one-leg hobble (used to prepare a horse to be ridden) can be seen inscribed on a silver vase.
Scientists estimate it’s been approximately ten thousand years since we started domesticating the horse. During this time, we have attempted to control the horse, and use his power, speed, and athleticism for our own. Throughout history, tools and leverage have helped humans gain the upper hand on the horse, and have sped up the training process. Removing the horse’s ability to fight or flee allowed humans to more quickly utilize the horse’s strength, and all that he had to offer mankind.
One of the first known modern proponents of hobbling the horse or laying him down to restrict movement may have been Dan Sullivan (4), an 18th century Irishman who performed his ‘rogue horse’ transformations in secrecy. Similar methods were later popularized by such horsemen as John Rarey, a 19th century American who claimed the technique to be of his own invention, followed by O.S. Pratt, Dennis Magner, Jesse Beery, and others. In more recent history, many of today’s well known horsemanship clinicians and trainers use laying down in their training; some use it with every horse, others only with select horses. The popular film “The Horse Whisperer” (1998), starring Robert Redford, brought the practice from ‘behind the barn’ where it is often performed, to the minds of the general public.
Just so we are on the same page here, what I am referring to is not the slow and systematic shaping of behavior to teach a horse to lay down over numerous sessions; I’m referring to use of ropes and leverage to physically overpower the horse, and take him to the ground in one session.
What follows are four videos of horses being laid down. There are other available on Youtube, these were just some that I found in a recent search. The first video shows a gelding who doesn’t struggle as some horses do. I’m not sure if this is his first time being laid down or not. The second video shows a mare, who the video’s maker states was feral just three weeks prior to this video. She is laid down twice in the video. The third video is another mare, and the trainer in the clip states that she has never been laid down before, but that he has tied one leg up before. This third clip is more representative of horses I’ve seen laid down for the first time. The fourth video is a variation on laying the horse down, called the TAP by it’s inventor. Of interest to note in this short clip is how completely unresponsive the horse is to stimuli (slapping, tugging, loud clapping) once he is down.
As you can see in the videos, laying a horse down can be done by one person, and often relies on the restraint of a forelimb, and simple leverage by the human to take the horse down to the ground.(5) Most trainers state that once the horse is down, it is important to gently and repeatedly stroke him. It is stated that doing so assures the horse that he isn’t going to be hurt or eaten.
What happens the first time a horse goes down depends on the trainer, the horse, the environment in which it’s done, etc. The four examples I picked were fairly middle of the road as far as reactions go, and extremes at both ends of the spectrum can occur – from total passivity to fighting, rearing and falling over backwards.
In my personal experience of laying a horse down, what happened was similar to what is seen in the third video (above); the horse fought heartily against going down, enough to generate a sweat in cool weather, and once he was down he was completely still. I was instructed to help rub him all over, which I did, and to which he didn’t respond on any appreciable level – no ear or eye movements following our movement or noises we made. We could rub his belly, his flank, his face without any response. He made no attempts to rise. His eyes were open, and blinking, but they were not focused on any external objects or events. For lack of objective, scientific words, the horse was ‘gone’; no one was home. I found it very overwhelming. I’m sure he did too.
In my experience, other horses behave in a similar manner once down. You can go back and fast forward to the ends of the video clips to see the behavioral responses if you wish. I always recommend turning off the sound when watching videos, and focus on objectively observing behaviors. What do you see?
Since that event, I’ve spent many hours thinking about what happens to horses when they are laid down, and why they cease to struggle. What I’ve found is this: there is currently no research showing what happens physiologically or behaviorally when horses are laid down in this way – but there is such research into what happens in other species under similar circumstances.(6)
This behavior – experiencing intense struggle and fighting against restraint, before laying prone, completely passive – is seen in many other species(7, 8). You may have even seen it before from the comfort of your living room. Remember the TV show ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’? If you do, you probably saw a lion taking down a prey animal, such as a gazelle or a zebra. Once down, the prey animal stopped struggling, even though he was still alive. In such situations the behavior is referred to as tonic immobility (TI). TI is thought to be an unlearned, reversible episode of behavioral arrest that acts as a defense mechanism in situations where an animal feels an inescapable life-or-death threat. Animals experiencing TI show a complete suppression of all motor behavior. Thought to be a ‘last-ditch’ involuntary survival mecahnism, TI renders the animal immobile and insensitive to pain.(9, 10) which effectively stops struggling or crying out – both of which can trigger a predator to continue an attack
In addition to happening in natural settings, TI can be induced in laboratory settings in a variety of species. TI is induced as a result of intense fear, and perceived or actual physical restraint. There has even been recent research investigating situations that are similar to TI in humans who have undergone serious emotional and physical trauma.(11, 12, 13)
I think what happens after a horse has been laid down may be what leads people to believe that the act itself might be acceptable. After the horse has been laid down, and is in the trance-like state, with some prompting from the human the horse may just get up. I say ‘may’, as I’ve observed horses rise with little to no prompting, or only rise after being tapped, hit, or kicked by the trainer. When the horse gets to his feet he may appear quiet, subdued. This can leave one with the impression that what just happened wasn’t that big of a deal for the horse. But is that really the case, especially if TI is indeed happening?
This question deserves to be answered, so here goes: There is currently no scientific evidence to show that the act has either a positive or negative impact on changing a horse’s overall behavior. There is anecdotal belief that it changes behavior for the better, and for worse, but we’ll get to that a bit later on.
The reasons given for laying a horse down are varied. Some trainers use the method in the belief it will help troubled or mistrusting horses become less troubled and more trusting. Some state that it will help the horse establish patience, respect and trust. And some believe it is the cure-all for any and all attitude or behavior problems – from bucking to simply being hard to deworm.(16)
When working with horses, people are generally trying to do one of two things: create new and wanted behaviors; change or stop unwanted behaviors.
From the horse’s perspective, can the act of being laid down address the reason for laying him down in the first place? Short answer: no. Research shows that horses would be unable to make a link between their undesired behavior and the consequences of being laid down. The horse would not understand why he was being laid down, and the act will not stop specific undesired behavior. (17)
Horses need the opportunity to form links and make associations when learning.(18) As far as we currently know, horses live “in the moment”, but evidence is being gathered to understand if and how animals can travel through ‘mental time’, and imagine future possible events.(19) In the meantime, how can laying a horse down address an unwelcome behavior that is not happening, in that moment? Unless the unwanted behavior is that the horse is actively and in-the-moment specifically afraid that we humans are going to kill and eat him (and by laying him down and not killing him, we can somehow cause him to have a revelation that challenges that belief), laying him down can not address any other unrelated behavior issues. It. Just. Can’t. But it can do something else that can cause behavior to change, and I’m coming to that.
There are a number of concerning, well-documented consequences that can occur when an animal is subjected to great physiological and psychological stress.
One such repercussion is capture myopathy (CM), also known as exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER) (20). Seen in both wild and domestic animals, CM is muscle damage that results when an animal experiences extreme exertion, struggle, or stress. CM can result in clinical signs that show up in the hours, days, or weeks post event, or can even result in sudden death of the animal. Early warning signs can include an elevated respiratory rate, heart rate, and body temperature; other symptoms can include depression, unresponsiveness to stimuli, uncoordination, weakness, stiffness, tremors, muscle paralysis, shock and death.(21)
On the psychological side of things, creating TI, or utilizing training methods that don’t allow an animal the opportunity to ‘find the answer’ to relieve physical and mental pressure can create a psychological state known as learned helplessness. “Learned helplessness is a psychological condition whereby individuals learn that they have no control over unpleasant or harmful conditions, that their actions are futile, and that they are helpless.” (22) Animals who feel they have no control over aversive situations appear passive, demotivated, and depressed. (24) It has been shown that animals who develop learned helplessness will not only fail to respond to and avoid aversive events in the future, they will also generalize the condition to other areas of the their life experiences. Learned helplessness can trickle over from the situation where it was created, into other areas of the animal’s existence. Although there is no current scientific evidence, could this be what explains the ‘attitude change’ in many horses who undergo being laid down?
When training any animal, learning is a two-way street: Humans are reinforced for, and are more likely to repeat behaviors whose outcome they find favorable. They are also likely to not repeat behaviors that have an unfavorable outcome. If laying a horse down makes him appear more compliant overall, trainers may be likely to repeat the behavior. But given the points I’ve raised, are trainers really achieving what they think they are achieving when they lay a horse down?
My intent with this article isn’t to judge those who have laid horses down; although the practice isn’t part of my current training repertoire, I am among those who have done it. I was taught to believe that what I was doing would help the horse, as are most of the people who use the practice – including the trainer I assisted. Instead, I wanted to break down and analyze what is happening when a horse is laid down, using the current science of learning and behavior as we know it.
It’s important to continually analyze horse training methods and traditions, and see if they still hold true when compared against what we know currently. To do so isn’t disrespectful to the horsemen and horsewomen sharing traditions; it’s a sign of respect to the horse.
 Rohner Schafer, L., “Prone to Gentleness”, (May 2012), Western Horseman Magazine, Fort Worth P 62
 Clerici, C. A., Veneroni, L., The Impossible Escape: Studies on the tonic immobility in animals from a comparative psychology perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers (2012) p 25
 Miller, R.M and Lamb, R. (2005) The Revolution in Horsemanship. Guilford: Lyons Press. P 186
 Miller, R.M and Lamb, R. (2005) The Revolution in Horsemanship. Guilford: Lyons Press. P 187
 Rohner Schafer, L., “Prone to Gentleness”, (May 2012), Western Horseman Magazine, Fort Worth P 62
 Clerici, C. A., Veneroni, L., The Impossible Escape: Studies on the tonic immobility in animals from a comparative psychology perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers (2012)
 Marks, Isaac M., Fears, phobias, and rituals: Panic, anxiety, and their disorders.
New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press. (1987). P 61
 Clerici, C. A., Veneroni, L., The Impossible Escape: Studies on the tonic immobility in animals from a comparative psychology perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers (2012) p 2-3
 Gallup, G.G., 1974. Animal hypnosis: factual status of a ﬁctional concept. Psychol. Bull.
 Clerici, C. A., Veneroni, L., The Impossible Escape: Studies on the tonic immobility in animals from a comparative psychology perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers (2012) p 26
 Clerici, C. A., Veneroni, L., The Impossible Escape: Studies on the tonic immobility in animals from a comparative psychology perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers (2012) p 1
 Clerici, C. A., Veneroni, L., The Impossible Escape: Studies on the tonic immobility in animals from a comparative psychology perspective. New York: Nova Science Publishers (2012) p 8-20
 McGreevy, P., (2004) Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, Edinburgh: Saunders. P 63
 McGreevy, P., (2004) Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, Edinburgh: Saunders. P 103
 Mendl, M., Paul, E.S., (2008). Do animals live in the present?, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 113,(4), 357-382.
 Hall, C., Goodwin, D., Heleski, C., Randle, H., Waran, N. (2008): Is There Evidence of
Learned Helplessness in Horses?, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11:3, 249-266
Lauren Fraser, CHBC offers relationship-based horse training that blends the art of horsemanship with behavioral science and the practical application of learning theory. She provides horsemanship coaching, behavioral consultations, solutions to problem behaviors, foundation training, clinics, and educational presentations.
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Thanks to the awesome International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants , and the very talented Lili Chin, this poster is available for horse people to share far and wide. My colleagues Justine Harrison - Equine Behaviourist, Lindsy Murray Animal Behaviour/Complementary Therapy and I helped with the concept and text. What do you think?
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