But what can we do? Un-Learning Helplessness

He could kill him with one hoof tied behind his withers.
He could kill him with one hoof tied behind his withers.

Gravel crunched under the tires as we navigated the long winding drive under the arching oaks, with their Spanish moss garlands waving gently in the breeze…I arrived at the Ocala Thoroughbred farm around 10 AM, to take advantage of the good light for a portrait of their star stallion. The groom was supposed to meet me at Barn B.

A little old black man was sitting in a raggedy lawn chair at the barn entrance, trying unsuccessfully to light a cigar. “Hi,” I said, “I’m here to do a portrait of Mr. Bigshot?” “Uh huh” he said, “Gimme a minute.” He set his cigar down carefully on a cinder block, presumably to deal with it later. The groom’s name was Ezekiel.

As we entered the barn, I heard the unmistakable sound of a ticked-off horse kicking the sides of his stall-BANG…BANG…BANG…Ezekiel disappeared into the tack room and came out with the fancy halter for the portrait, a chain to go over the stallion’s nose and a stout riding crop tucked under his arm.

BANG, BANG, BANG…I was hoping that wasn’t Mr. Bigshot feeling his oats, so to speak. “HUP!” Ezekiel shouted, sternly. I guess this meant “Stop kicking the stall,” because the barn grew silent. Sure enough, Ezekiel opened the stall door whence the kicking had come and said again, “HUP!” and he walked in.

I peeked in the stall at my subject: a HUGE dark bay stallion, over six feet at the shoulder, with over half a ton of thick muscles rippling under his sleek hide. He was cowering in the corner of his stall, watching the frail old man approach. I try not to use the Lord’s name in vain, and maybe it wasn’t in vain, but I thought, “Jesus, that horse is going to kill this guy.” All that is between me and that beast is a skinny old man? Is he actually going to try to lead him outside?

He did indeed, while I kept my distance. The stallion saw some mares in the distance and tried prancing a bit, but Ezekiel snatched the chain over his nose and he quit. I had once lead a stallion who simply raised his head high, lifting me effortlessly off the ground and ran off with me dangling in the air like a fool. It would be so easy for Mr. Bigshot to do the same to Ezekiel, but he did not. We got our photos, Mr. Bigshot returned to his stall and Ezekiel returned to his cigar and lawn chair. As we drove away, Ezekiel sat, legs outstretched, blowing smoke rings.

Why did Mr. Bigshot stop kicking his stall when he heard “HUP!” Why did he cower in the corner as Ezekiel put a chain over his nose? Why didn’t he squish Ezekiel like a grape and run off and join the mares? Because he didn’t know that he could. 

He had more than enough power to do as he pleased, but he didn’t know it-that is a good definition for learned helplessness. It is why abused people stay with their abusers and it is why Americans let our civil liberties to be taken away, one little liberty at a time. Mr. Bigshot was conditioned over many years to NOT KNOW what his great strength could do, and so he didn’t use it.

We are the same and we are not domesticated animals, we are human beings, clever little buggers and capable of working together to do just about anything we set our minds to. If you only remember one thing from this true story, let it be this: We DO have the power to change things.

Below is a video on learned helplessness by Lionel, a former trial lawyer turned pundit/comedian. He’s not only bright and funny, he’s RIGHT. But I think we CAN un-learn helplessness. 🙂


  1. Good day! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to
    him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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