Lots of the people who come to Calming Signals clinics are bright-eyed and hopeful that I have a signal to give horses to calm them down. Most of us prefer a horse who is calm and if I had a fool-proof hand signal that I could teach, can you even imagine how many rescue horses I could afford?
“Calming signals” is a great turn of phrase originated by Turid Rugaas, Norwegian dog trainer, to describe the social skills, or body language, that dogs use to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs. I’d recognized similar language used by horses after moving to an isolating farm a few years before and first wrote about it in 2014.
I love the words Calming Signals but to be an honest loudmouth party-pooper, people get it backward. We don’t calm them, they mean to calm us. We are the loud ones and the more we over-cue them, the more they try to convince us that they are no threat. We think we’re training, but to them, it’s always about survival.
Horses would like us to know that they don’t live to please us. They have fully dimensional, sentient lives in the herd that don’t revolve around us. Safety is the goal, but peace can be boring. It isn’t all hearts and kisses; they have rivals and favorites. Some enjoy roughhousing, some have senior sensibilities. Some are born leaders, compassionate and protective. Some struggle with confidence and behave with loud bravado that humans mistake for “alpha” behavior, but then humans are always confusing rude habits for celebrity.
Herd dynamics is subtler and more nuanced than we appreciate, and as much as we love seeing sweet mutual grooming sessions, it’s never that simple. Then just when things settle, everything changes. They evolve as they learn and grow, and it’s our job to try to keep up. Smart humans give up thinking they know anything.
On a personal note, as I bring this Loudmouth Party-Pooper mini-series to an end, I thought I’d share some opinions from my barn, straight from the horse’s mouth, translated to English with the intention to not anthropomorphize, the Real Loudmouth Party-Poopers of Infinity Farm:
Andante is a coppery chestnut who started as a skittery draft-cross PMU baby. His rider was committed to improving through lessons and now he’s fourteen and they have built an enviable relationship. The more dynamic his work under-saddle, the more he grew in confidence, and eventually he became our gelding leader. We never dreamed he would have the temperament but affirmative training impacts everything, even herd behavior.
A year ago, Norman came to the farm. A talented young draft-cross who tried so hard that there were permanent worry lines. Losing his herd was a challenge, changing barns is always hard, but Andante moved him from hay pile to hay pile, kindly and consistently, again and again, until Norman knew just where to be. Then he could relax. His rider reminds him to breathe, the wrinkles are gone, and he blows as the lesson’s warm-up begins. He loves to move in the arena and he’s the first to lay down for the morning group-nap. Happy boy.
Clara is the only mare here at the moment. Her leadership style is to flag her tail, gallop churning circles and scream, “We’re all going to die!” The geldings try to ignore here but she persists. She would like you to know the world is out of control and being calm is for saps. You have been warned.
Bhim is thirty-six inches tall but has more horse in him per square inch than the draft horses. Do not minimize him by calling him cute. His bravado is fear-based but listening to him gives him the confidence to sometimes sniff my hand. Four years later and he allows his feet to be trimmed. He has a long memory and it’s on me to prove humans aren’t all alike. He teaches the gargantuan thing called trust.
Nubé, our most sensitive horse, seems to protect his feelings more. Namaste, the worrier in the group, doesn’t get corrected for it which is almost like having less anxiety. Roo, retired from a therapeutic program, is starting to like the idea of company again, but not much. Pearl, the neurologic donkey foster has gained enough weight and opinion to play. She dotters crookedly after us, ears flat; sometimes it’s good to be bad. Cupid, the most recent decrepit foster has finally allowed that weird animal, Edgar Rice Burro, to groom him for a moment. Cupid’s more open to him than me. No shade thrown, I understand that. Edgar Rice Burro’s our moral compass after all, for his long-ear eloquence. All donkeys become geniuses once you understand that stubbornness is a calming signal.
My home herd has blossomed since focusing on Calming Signals and my training practices have evolved dramatically. I worry that this practice of reading calming signals encourages too much thinking on our parts. Sitting in a pen staring at horses is only a start. We must get into the conversation ourselves, learn to communicate in their language, and make ourselves more interesting than grass. Riding well can be a very healing therapy for a horse.
Calming signal conversations in the saddle are affirmative training at its finest.
Finally, a nod to my Grandfather Horse, I’ve written about him often. He was never the sentimental sort. He bore my passion like a rock under his saddle and did not suffer idiots (me). In my fantasy world, he isn’t loitering at the rainbow bridge. He’s young and strong, training some other hard-headed horse-crazy girl-woman, but maybe on a particularly good day, if I’ve managed to help a horse, he might look over and give me a small lick and half-chew. He was stoic and the loud-est-mouth party-pooper-iest horse ever… until we negotiated a democracy.
Animals were not allowed in our farm house, three rooms and an attic. Dark mornings with frost on the inside of the windows, thin glass against the Minnesota winter, the icy
linoleum floors nipped at my bed-warm feet as I ran down the stairs in flannel pajamas to dress in front of the oil furnace. Chores before school, bundled for the hundred-yard trek, push
hard to slide the barn door just wide enough to be greeted by a screaming mob of thin, half-wild cats clamoring for milk; the wagging collie dog muttered a hushed bark for his table scraps. Grain
for the mare, the hens were still nesting while steam rose off dairy cows chewing silage to the milking-machine rhythm. The air was rich with moist snorts and the earthy scent of warm manure.
Winters passed, now the dogs sleep on the couch as I dress for chores and watch you drive away to holidays with family, their house with ice inside the windows and the door shut to those who are other.
Say you’re learning to read calming signals, so naturally, you’re scrutinizing your horse. Staring like a coyote. Very quietly staring hard, when suddenly, he blinks funny. Your eyebrows wrinkle. What does that mean? Then he freezes. “Is he even breathing?” you wonder, holding your breath. “Does his lack of breathing have to do with being a rescue horse? Could it be a health issue, is he choking? Did he have a rider who…”
Humans aren’t multi-taskers. We just think we are, and that’s the problem: we think. It’s possible to be externally aware (feeling our surroundings with our senses) and think at the same time, but more often, when we intellectually engage it seems to cancel out our sensual awareness. It’s like our brain is a warm little bed and we’re old deaf cats. We like languishing in our own minds making up stories about mice, rather than trying to catch one. Now let’s say we were in the saddle.
This is how we get reactive, we chatter away in our minds, telling ourselves stories, and then wake up in the middle of something real our horse has been trying to let us know about for a while. We’ve missed the first handful of calming signals and now he’s starting to feel abandoned. Fair. We react abruptly because we’re startled. Of course, that startles the horse because we both have autonomic nervous systems and it doesn’t matter who goes “sympathetic” (flight, fight, or freeze) first. It’s contagious.
Once that fear dynamic starts, we get defensive and our instinct says grab hold. Legs get tight and hands pull reins and we assume everything the horse does is wrong because we’ve had a mental runaway. *Some horses handle this better than others.*
We get defensive. We stop being partners and become restrictive in our bodies as well as our minds. It’s enough to make carrying us around a chore for horses. We kill Funktionslust, that German word meaning “the pleasure taken in what one does best.” We kill our horse’s desire to go forward.
Think of it this way: Forward, having a ground-covering fluid gait, is the foundation of balance and comfort for a horse, mentally and physically. In order to partner with a horse, we need to become mentally forward in the saddle. Instead of reacting to what just happened, we want to be thinking ahead. In other words…
Less correction, more direction.
The best remedy for thinking too much is being more sensually engaged with the environment. Rather than thoughts, emotions, and rat-on-a-wheel overthinking, take a breath and stroll through your senses: Touch, taste, smell, sight, sound.
Slower, how does his back feel? Are his ribs mirroring his slow breathing in a way your calves could follow? Encourage that. Is there a stale taste in your mouth? Or is it clean, fresh saliva tells you you’re relaxed, in the parasympathetic phase. You probably did a lick and chew to figure that out, good girl. Now, smell the air, always a bit better a few feet off the ground. Deep breath, feel the air cool on your throat, be here now.
What do you see? If something concerns you, excuse it with an exhale. Breathing is a recurring theme, but breathing is life and cueing your horse to breathe is a primal connection. Finally, what do you hear? The rhythm of his footfall is the metronome for his life, movement flowing with energy. Unite with him, here in the present real moment.
Listening to calming signals is the action of affirmative riding.
Consider a bit of reverse engineering. What do mounted calming signals look like? Is he counter-bending or looking to the outside of the curve? It’s like looking away on the ground, what loudness is he resisting? Are the reins any different than the lead line? Is your inside hand pulling or threatening or working like a parking brake? (If your horse says yes, you are.) Let go of the rein, even if you’re just lurking on it, he feels it on the bit. How is his forward? He’s lost rhythm, hasn’t he? Use just your sit bones and ask for a longer stride. The answer is to let him move, always.
Mentor the turn in your body, by turning your waist, not pulling your hand. He isn’t trying to be a pill, bits are literally painful in his mouth. He’s right about your hands, he always will be. Use your body instead and help him find balance with a mounted massage. That’s a better outcome than frustration and anxiety, the mental argument.
Is he dead to leg cues? No matter how hard you kick, he doesn’t go? Feel his ribs under your calves. Is he tense? Look at his ears, is his poll braced? Right now, don’t change your legs, just feel what they are doing. Are they totally still or muscle-tired? Then you’re clamping them. Are they just banging away? Then you have over-cued him for so long he’s ignoring them. Do you escalate cues, ask-tell-make, and he’s bracing his ribs for the pain to come? Does your horse think you’re still pulling on the rein, meaning giving a conflicting cue; go forward and stop simultaneously. Instead of judging what he isn’t doing, feel what you are doing. Know that horses shut down to avoid our over-cueing noise. Apologize, start again and do less.
Ask for a tiny thing lightly. Allow him to move on without correction. Reward him whether it’s good or not. You owe him that. On an arc, ask his withers to the outside by pulsing in rhythm with his barrel, a whispering inside leg to the outside shoulder, as you turn your waist into the curve. Using just your sit bones, ask for a longer stride. Reward his immediate response and promise to be lighter. Listen for his breath, for his jaw to release a lick and chew.
And by now, a million thoughts have tried to distract you from the sensual awareness of the real world. Politely excuse them; you can meet them later over a glass of wine. Love old deaf cats, but show up for your horse.
Engage your senses and listen. That place of sensual awareness is where horses exist, the place to build a partnership. Engage your senses and listen. Calming signals are language exchanged, and understanding its own reward.
From a reader: What I am learning from you, Anna, is helpful as I work to understand the horse. What I am left with is that anyone who truly wants their horse to be content will let them “be a horse”. So, from that I conclude that we shouldn’t ride them or handle them but instead, ensure their safety and physical needs are met and then let them alone. Any other intrusion and you’ve made this clear, is anxiety-inducing and stressful. So why do you continue to own horses? With a barn and tack and expectations? (…Wanting to ride our horses or even just be a part of their lives yet wanting them to be at their happiest is a contradiction that I struggle with.”)
Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to answer. What a great question.
First, my working definition of stress is being alive. Period. It’s the horse’s health, environment, changes in the herd, the need for free choice feed, and visits from farriers and vets; it’s all stress. Beyond that, it’s our responsibility to train ground manners so horses have a safe place in the world, even when many of our traditional training methods are not well suited to a horse’s temperament, so more stress.
Wild horses have stress without human intervention; harsh land, grazing scarcity, herd dynamics, and predators, just to name a few. It’s a fight to stay alive in that natural world, but not so different from the unnatural world of domesticated horses who live in confinement, face a growing list of chronic health issues, and are asked to work for us in ways they were not designed to do.
And yes, we humans cause our horses stress, sometimes without knowing it, because we confuse calming signals for affection. (I qualify for being a Loudmouth Party-Pooper by debunking the snout-kissing thing.)
Just being alive is stressful for horses, but it’s during times of stress that we can help them the most. The question isn’t whether there is stress, but can we recognize it at the earliest point, and at least, not exacerbate it?
A different reader: You wrote, “We’re even busy-in-the-head about being quiet, for crying out loud.” Busted. Anna, can you help? I’m overwhelmed with the thoughts of calming signals to the point of paralysis by analysis. Are some signals good?
Humans are extremists, aren’t we? Overthinking is our superpower and the more we stand and stare, the less we’re holding up our end of the conversation. First, we shouldn’t take a horse’s emotions personally, it gets in the way of listening.
Watch a horse getting bodywork; they’ll give a wide range of calming signals as they process how their body feels. Please, remember that every moment isn’t forever, it’s just a snapshot-second. Horses live in the present, and by the time we over-rationalize the instant, the moment may have passed.
When reading calming signals in a horse, rather than judging them as good or bad, it’s more useful to think in terms of stress rising or falling. It’s more like taking the temperature of the instant. Horses are always on a continuum somewhere between boredom and overwhelm. We’re looking for the middle ground.
If my horse tightens his lip, I may be too close. If he closes his eye, I may be too loud in my body. If he looks away, I might need to slow down. If I ignore his messages and push ahead without paying heed, his anxiety will rise. His sympathetic nervous system will engage, and he will become tense and resistant.
On the other hand, if I take a breath, give him some room and time to think about it, his calming signals will go softer. Then he’ll stay in his parasympathetic phase where he can quietly respond and learn. He can feel safe with me and trust me to be his leader.
I can give him a reprieve from his life of stress, which is why we humans want to be with horses, (and away from our own stressful lives,) in the first place. We mentor anxiety or calmness for our horses every moment.
Why do I continue to own horses? I can’t stop. Neither can you.
Is it fair to ride horses? Yes, if you do it right. You work for their welfare, give them 23 hours a day of herd time, in the most natural horse-way you can muster, with good vet and farrier care and free choice hay. You thrive on the inconvenience of keeping a horse. You keep your big emotions quiet, so you can hear their stoic messages.
And you make this promise of impeccable care for them until their last day, long past the riding years. You put the horse first, and in exchange, you get an hour in the saddle a few days a week, sitting spine to spine with a beautiful, dynamic creature who tells you everything he thinks. You get to be lifted and carried in a sacred place where grace is exchanged as readily as the air you both breathe. It’s the best trade any of us can ever make.
I get plenty of comments like this from readers, too: It has been about a week and the difference in Asher is pretty amazing. While it is challenging to keep my hands off his face, he is really responding by being much more mannerly. Such a simple thing and yet I never knew to do this till you posted about it.
Most people tell me they want a better relationship with their horse, and reading and responding to calming signals is literally the way to achieve that. If your horse is perfect, has no training issues, is not stoic, lives in a wonderful herd and never shows you any anxiety (?), then you’re fine.
But if you are a work in progress, building a partnership where trust matters, and hoping for a goal on the horizon, then know that your communication must improve. That for every bit of that growth, you must invest in your riding skills. You must invest more of yourself in money, time, and willingness to learn. Being the leader means being the one to do it first.
Am I ruining your horse-crazy girl fantasies with my Loudmouth Party-Pooper-ness? Mine, too. When I was a kid, I wanted to be rescued, not by a knight, but by his white steed. Little did I know that horse needed it as much as me.