Calming Signals: Are You Listening?

WMcalmingsignalIf you are standing next to your horse and he looks away, do you think he’s distracted or even disrespectful? When your horse yawns, is he sleepy or bored? If he moves slowly, is he lazy? These are important cues from your horse, are you hearing him correctly?

When it comes to communicating with horses, some humans are a bit like a self-obsessed rock star who throws a temper tantrum and trashes the room, but then assumes everyone wants his autograph. By equine standards, we ignore those around us and begin by screaming bloody-murder and escalate from there. Part of respecting a horse is remembering that their senses are much keener than ours. We can whisper.

It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.  ~Mark Twain. 

Horses give us calming signals, just like dogs. Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas wrote about it in 2005. She coined the phrase calming signals 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.

Calming signals in horses are somewhat similar and include looking away, having lateral ears, yawning, stretching down, licking lips or eating to calm themselves. Can you recognize them? Calming cues communicate stress, and at the same time, release stress. It is modeling behavior for us; they want us to drop our stress level, or aggressiveness as well.

When a horse looks away, either with his eyes or whole head and neck, it is a calming cue. He uses a signal like this when he feels pressured and wants the rider to know he senses the person’s agitation or aggression, but that person can calm down because he is no threat to the human. In the horse’s mind, he is communicating clearly and with respect.

Do you pull his head back and force his position? It’s human nature to turn up our volume if we think we aren’t being heard and maybe the hardest thing about listening to calming signals is that they kind of poke our dominant parts. So when the horse signals us to be less aggressive, but we mistakenly hear it as boredom or distraction or even disobedience, and then follow that up with a larger cue, we’re starting a fight. We’re letting the horse know we choose aggression over peace. Is that what you meant to say? Or is the appropriate positive response from a good leader to de-escalate the situation?

It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.  ~Mark Twain.  (It deserves repeating.)

If riders want to understand the language of horses, we need stop seeing our horses in our own worst image (lazy or distracted) and begin a conversation where we listen more openly, more honestly. It’s much too simplistic to lump everything a horse does into either dominant or submissive behavior. Herd life has much more nuance than that. As social animals, they work to get along, encouraging others to cooperate. Even dominant boss mares give calming cues.

We can build trust with the horse if we learn to respect calming signals, and even reward them. In my training, the best calming signal I have is my breath. I can slow it down, emphasize the exhale, and just be still at the end. Using our breath is a huge aid that horses pay attention to, so much more than humans realize.

Each time I start work with a horse, I ask for his eye, using my eye. I want him to volunteer. If my horse looks away, I take a deep breath, acknowledge the moment, and go slow. Usually on my second or third breath, he’ll look back and tell me he’s ready. It’s a short wait, compared to putting fear or resistance in that eye.

Reading horse body language takes some quiet time to learn, and they aren’t all exactly alike. Some horses are so shut down, so overwhelmed by us pounding on them in the past, that they have no calming cues at all, but you can remind him. Calming is a good thing, no matter who cues it.

If you are thinking of tuning up your communication skills with your horse, I really recommend ground work. It’s my favorite thing about the Horse Agility we do here at Infinity Farm in the summer. Obstacles are great conversation starters with a horse, and if the human can get past needing to dominate the obstacle, communication can be eloquent, with understanding and a healthy give-and-take reasoning. And it all translates to the saddle later.

Now that I think about it, when I meet someone who is loud or aggressive, I tend to look away, too. Sometimes I turn my shoulders sideways and don’t make eye contact. I notice I don’t like aggressive people crowding me and talking loud either. This is about the time I become aware that I do groundwork with humans as often as I do horses. Maybe the real reason we shouldn’t humanize horses is because they had it right in the first place.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

New in 2017: Concept clinics and there’s one on Calming Signals.

 

219 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Are You Listening?

    1. verena

      Hi there are some interesting ideas here. Please can you tell me where the information comes from, are there references to studies demonstrating what these behaviours mean so we can know if these are accurate, proven interpretations of what certain body language means, or if they are somebody’s untested ideas? The more we understand, the more we can help humans and horses so it is really important to me to have evidence to back up our ideas. Many thanks, Verena

      1. Thanks, Verena, for asking. I would refer you again to Turid Rugaas’s book, and yes, it’s about dogs. I believe there is a scholarly paper coming out this year in Norway, but it isn’t a phrase used much in this country. There is more research all the time that reads facial expression and body language, but not by this specific name. As for me, I am not a scientist. I am a trainer who was thrilled to find a name for a range of behavior that I had been aware of for years. I hope science will catch up soon, after all, in 2012 they gave us the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf). Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to see some scientific research. But until that day, I will believe horses are sentient beings who communicate eloquently, if we can find a way to listen. Again, thank you.

      2. Melissa

        You may be interested in the work of Dr Andrew Mclean & equitation science international. Also online magazine The Horse often publishes results of behavioural studies. Work is definitely done, sometimes it’s hard to find.

      3. Verena, I do like Anna Blake’s reply to your thoughtful question. Having spent a long professional life seeking understanding and looking for evidence, I have found much claimed objective “evidence” to be biased or lacking validity. Respect should given to those people who demonstrate understanding from a combination of knowledge and close involvement with the subject. A behavioural mental model can be developed and continually tested and calibrated, bringing insights that elude more detached analysis. At a time of considerable emotional post-marital stress, I was amazed at the comfort I received from my horse who listened patiently with touching empathy. Dogs and other pets similarly bond with their carers. What I am saying is there can be much truth to discover in anecdotal reports. Thanks, John

      1. You’re welcome. I created a webinar on Calming Signals with many video examples. I’m available for clinics and talks on this topic. Thanks.

  1. irisvillagegirl

    I love this and try to apply! I know it to be true! Thanks for this wonderful post! I love your blog! You are so wonderful!

  2. ktcorey@reagan.com

    Wow. This takes my breath away. I have a question. When I bridle Jackie, she will turn her head the other way and I was taught that, yes, she was being disrespectful and to turn her back to me and that is what I have done.

    When she turns her head from me, should I take deep breaths and wait until she turns back to me?

    Please advise me. And I know I’m very enthusiastic, but I hope I don’t turn you away from me.

    1. I think Jackie likes it when things happen in ‘mule time’. I was taught it was disrespect back in the dark ages, but now we know more and we can do better, and negotiate it. You do a really good job of this with her, but she is a mule and holds you to a higher standard… 😉

    2. Its a great question – and I love this post! I have abandoned the conventional way of reaching around to hold the horse’s (mule’s) head, way of bridling. For a horse that has been bridled, just move quietly and stand in front and show them the bridle, in front of their face, low down, but where they can see the bit, with the straps out of the way. Stand quietly until they reach down and take the bit and then you can softly and gently slip the headpiece over their ears. Give a treat at that point until they learn. They all learn. In about 2 trials. After that a soft rub of the forelock after the bridle goes on is all you need, with an occasional treat. Be patient, it is worth it. Agree – talk softly and breathe while waiting patiently.

      1. Giving him time to volunteer, good job. You’re right, in the beginning it takes a bit of time, but then it becomes habit. Great comment, thanks.

      2. I am going to try this. I have a horse who is iffy when bridling. I’m patient, but still operating on that old school way of thinking. Funny how it slips in without me even noticing. He’s a very sensitive boy who must be approached with low-key, gentle and inviting energy. I can’t wait to see how he responds to me practicing this.

    3. I read (“Horse speak”) that when they turn their head away they are giving you space to come in, or inviting into their space. You will see that with horses in a herd.

      1. I don’t disagree, but there may be more going on haltering a domestic horse. They communicate as individuals, of course, with personality and experience. Thanks.

  3. Lorri

    Can you speak more about the obstacles you use in horse agility? I have a OTTB that I am working hard to connect with. She is very aloof.

    1. Are you local to the Colorado Springs area by any chance? If so, join us here on first saturdays, thru the summer. I have a whole field of fun. If not, this is a great book, with all kinds of great information.
      The Horse Agility Handbook: A Step-By-Step Introduction to the Sport Paperback
      by Vanessa Bee

      1. Hi Anna. We’re nearly neighbors. I love your blogs and writing. Thank you for sharing your insight. Calming signals are tried and true when working with my herd.

  4. We learn so much from our animals and sometimes we can teach them. My Arabian went through rough times…neglect more than abuse, and he was claustrophobic which made trailer loading difficult. When I clued onto using ground poles for a one-step-at-a-time maze, and he learned where his feet were, the difference was stunning. Until eventually he would walk through a narrow pathway with branches rubbing him on all sides.
    I wish I’d come to dog Agility sooner. Watching their eyes dance while we work out how we’re going to approach a course is only matched when they’re calculating what might be available to chase, out in a wide open field. If I ever had another horse (dream!) I’d most likely prefer the ground work to the actual riding…but I am a bit odd!

    1. Laureen

      That is fantastic I I am the same way I want to do more ground work than riding. This is exactly what I am seeking!

  5. cathy thomas

    I just want to say a Great Big Thanks. Thank you so much for your words of wisdom and taking the time to write and send them to me. I look so forward to reading them. You are helping me so much to understand my horses. You are Wonderful! Thank you soooo much! My horses thank you too! Cathy Hawk, White Knight, Star, Commanche, and Cochise Date: Fri, 18 Apr 2014 12:24:15 +0000 To: cowgirlcathy@live.com

  6. julie

    I love this and so well put!! Your last paragraph really hit home for me because this is exactly how I react. I first noticed the calming my mare did when she would put her head down to eat when she was a little stressed. You are soooo on the mark. Thank you!

  7. Liz Goldsmith

    This is a wonderful post that underscores the importance of working with your horse and understanding how horses communicate. Wouldn’t it be great if they could speak to us? In many ways, they do. We just need to learn how to listen.

  8. Liz Goldsmith

    Reblogged this on EQUINE Ink and commented:
    This is a wonderful post that underscores the importance of working with your horse and understanding how horses communicate. Wouldn’t it be great if they could speak to us? In many ways, they do. We just need to learn how to listen.

  9. After the horses come into the barn for the evening feed, I always hang out with my boy for as lond as I can; grooming, learning a new movement or piece of nonsense, scatching an itch – you all know how it goes – and our quiet conversations are much the better for it – we teach each other so much.
    Anyway, we’re working on a bow. ( I never much cared to see horses bow down, but he’s such a quick study I’m running out of things we can do together in his stable.) As he was reaching down he unintentionally grazed my arm with his teeth and, none too pleased, I held up my arm to show him what happened. Four years ago he would have taken my arm off, he was so aggressive and insecure. Now he took in the graze and “licked me better”. Icky-sticky maybe, but the intention couldn’t have been clearer. I have tried so hard to calm this horse and bind him to me (and taken much inspiraton from your words and intent Anna) and now he is doing it for me, and I can honestly say, at last, we read each other like open books.
    Sorry this is a bit long! I’m sure many of your readers rejoice to feel the same calming communication and bond with their special horse. It’s very humbling. And cannot fail to touch your heart 🙂

    1. Well, this just gives me goosebumps. I remember where you started with this boy and it was not a smooth path, the challenges were intimidating. I am just so very happy for you, and maybe even more for your horse. He needed this so much. Thank you for sharing, you made my whole week. I am humbled too, talk is cheap, you did the work. Thanks for sharing your icky-sticky bliss. You are my hero!

  10. Pingback: Calming Signals: Are You Listening? | Happy Horses Blog

  11. Tracey

    I found this very insightful, my 5 year old does so much of the actions you mentioned, I thought it was him being bored tbh.
    Our relationship has been difficult but now he listens to me and we seem to know what the other wants. Thanks for posting this 🙂

  12. Pingback: Calming Signals: Are You Listening? | Equestrian Harmony

  13. Barbara Darbyshire

    very interesting article! 🙂 do you mind if I use it in our Western Club Newsletter and my in her magazine?
    (Western Australia)

  14. Kari

    This is the first I have heard of a yawn being a calming signal like how dogs use it. When I was training my 2 year old, he would yawn a lot with new tasks, and I did read that as calming or some sort of stress cue, but never knew if it really was. Now it also makes sense why you can make horses yawn by first yawning at them. Thanks so much for the post!

  15. Karen Plyler

    Terrific advice. I teach these same things, slow down, watch your horse, wait for his signals and give him the benefit of the doubt. Most people never realize they are screaming and pounding. Our Arabians are very sensitive and make great teachers for this. The lesson usually starts when someone asks “Why are Arabians so crazy?”

  16. elke haas

    This is such an interesting article ! and it arrives at the correct time – about 4 mths ago I decided to read my chestnuts ear movement in the same way that David Mech describes the ear movement of wolves — and it seems to work well for us.
    TTouch teaches us to look for the small changes, the hardening of the eye, holding of breath, shift in weight — and the horse does not escalate but starts to engage and trust.
    I am over the moon that others also think that Turid Rugaas has an application in the horse world !

    1. I love TTouch, and all horse body work. It is a great place to grow perception. To me it is another kind of natural horsemanship… Now, to check out wolf ears!!

      1. elke haas

        Agreed – natural horsemanship and TTouch go hand in hand. And the teaching of listening to the whispers of the horse or any other animal enables a person to do things that have not been possible for years, simply by being mindful and understanding the messages given when spoken softly by the animal ..

  17. Shared on Facebook 🙂 I never interpreted the behavior as calming signals but I knew when I experienced something like it that the horse was not comfortable with my energy. There is so much we can learn if we are just willing to listen.

    1. Yes, I think seeing the human energy collide with, or empower the horse is pretty dramatic. We do better when we listen (with our eyes.) You have a great blog, too!

  18. Thanks so much, I really learned something here! When I do groundwork with my horse, he sometimes turns his head away from me very obviously. I didn’t punish him for it, but I also didn’t read it properly! After that, he can start being quite pushy and nips at my fingers (I’m doing clicker training). So, actually, he gives me a signal that we should all calm down a little, but I don’t get it, and then he becomes agitated. Do I get it right?
    And you’re so right about the breath. Whenever there is a scary situation for my horse, I try to breath out very slowly. It usually calms him down right away and he even imitates me.They must really think we are the elephant in the porcelain store…

    1. I like to use my breath when they look away… Do you have it right? I think that your horse might tell you that, but I can’t tell from here. Thanks, great comment.

  19. Pingback: Tolka hästens signaler positivt | Busenkelt!

  20. Nancy Nieuwenboom

    Wow! Great article Anna! Already experienced some of the cues, but always kind of unaware. This is really an eye opener. I do have a question regarding a behavior my horse is showing from when she was a foal up untill now. And she turns 7 next month. Hopefully you can explain it a bit. From time to time, she comes up to me, lowers her head and pushes it against my body. She can stand there for up to half an hour. I can wrap my arm around her head and she can stand there for ages. She is showing this when we are doing groundwork or just when I am brushing her. It seems like hiding from the world or something. Could that be right? Could it be insecurity or something? She is no unsecure horse or anything.

    1. I think you are saying she is in a grazing position, but her head might be against your leg or body?? Without seeing her I would be nuts to guess, but if her face is quiet and her eyes are soft… I would guess she is stretching her back. That grazing position stretches the lumbar area of her back, and I would see it as relaxation and trust unless she is making faces. I teach mine to go there, but she is an individual, it might be a simple as ‘it feels good’.

      1. Nancy Nieuwenboom

        Hi Anna, yes she is in kind of grazing position. She is not making any faces. Just closes her eyes a bit and really pushed her head against my legs. It is a bit confusing, because I don’t know if she is stressed and want a kind of way out or that she is just really relaxt. Never thought about stretching her back. Very interesting though. 😉 Thank you for your comment.

    2. elke haas

      One of my horses does something very similar – at times he pops his head underneath my armpit and just stands there. Most of the time he moves into my outstretched hand, when offered, placing his forehead there and standing really still. To me it often “feels” as if he is drawing energy and a lot of comfort from me, as the whole horse relaxes when in this position.
      Check your horses breathing, eyes and ears, tail swishing – does that calm down and become slower?
      We work with head wraps in TTouch – these are placed in front of and behind the ears or cross over the poll area. They act as a calming band or thinking cap and have the effect of the animal really calming down and listening to what else is going on in their body – the head moves into a lower but not a grazing position more into a position tat brings the back up and engages the hindquarters, if the horse was moving.
      Sorry for jumping in here – but I am soo ecstatic that other people are also noticing these things – I really think that a number of Rugaas calming signals are applicable in the horse world and we are the poorer for it for overlooking them

      1. Nancy Nieuwenboom

        Wow Elke! I am so glad to hear about other horses doing the same thing as my horse. What you describe is exactly the way my horse is responding. Also pushes her head in my arm pit and just standing there. My first guess was that she was stressed. Did not dare to think that maybe she is doing it for comfort from me. Because, can I really be someone like that for my horse? That would be awesome.. 😉 But I have never seen it by any other horse in my entire life. So .. maybe.. I know about the TTouch wraps and have one myself. She was wearing the kind of wrap you describe for a couple of days when she was suffering of hoofabcesses. It really calmed her down. Thanks for reminding me of those wraps. 😉
        I totally agree that it is such a shame that lots of people don’t see all the things our horses are doing for us.. For me, it is a great opportunity to learn from them and have a horse myself that expresses so much and often in such clear ways.
        By the way, did you breed your horse yourself? I was wondering if that could be a reason that horses are much more communicative to their owners.

      2. elke haas

        so cool !
        I did not breed my horse – he is more of a rescue case. I live in South Africa where horses are also being used on the farms – just not by people who should ever be on a horse — generally no understanding, very poor tack, 12 hrs work at top speed in an inverted frame.
        My boy was broken. He did not like people, had to be sedated for farrier work, once a rider was on top he would just run, spooky of note ….
        So whenever he does something he did not do before, like rub his head after ride, when the bridle has come off, or move into my space, huddle with me, etc I am ecstatic. And no – I so disagree with this dominance stuff always touted in horse circles – there is so much less of it then what we think we see…

        But my boy is very tight in his poll and the top of his head is cold, a few degrees colder, starting from between his eyes — and there is a calming point between the eyes of animals if I remember correctly

        Anyway – it really is about observing behaviour and learning from them … 🙂

      3. Nancy Nieuwenboom

        Big thumbs up for you and your horse! He is a very lucky fellow to have found you. 😉
        I did breed my horse myself. That’s why I was asking. It feels so good and calming when they pushed their head against your body. But I was too afraid that it was stress and therefor could not really enjoy it. But after your story… we will! The both of us! 🙂

        I totally agree with you that it is all about observing and learning. But lots of people just don’t take the time to do that. To give the horse the possibility to show what they are capable of and really love to do for them. It really is a shame, because I strongly belief that horses suffer because of it. That it will give them a feeling of not being “heard” and overlooked.. so to speak.
        Thankfully more and more horsepeople are getting aware of their horses. So keep fingers crossed that over time more horses will be seen and heard. 😉

      4. I see that head down touching position in my herd and with me, and maybe it’s semantics, but if there is no stress, I think horses, and other social animals like to feel connected. I think of it as an acknowledgement of each other, which feels a bit different to me. AND we have Feldencrais/TTouch clinics here with Pam Beets and just love bandages!

      5. Nancy Nieuwenboom

        To me it has always felt like feeling connected. But that is hard to accept as a human being.. because is it possible that animals can feel that way so close by? Especially horses.. And yes Anna, I have to agree with you.. it feels like acknowledgement aswell. And it feels like you are special. 🙂

  21. Thanks, Anna. Reposted to the Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue group. You presented some great reminders to folks handling or working near horses. Sometimes a subtle change in human behavior in response to a horse’s signals can make all the difference in both safety and the ultimate outcome.

  22. Pingback: Horse Agility and Calming Signals. « Horses |AnnaBlakeBlog | Equestrian

  23. This is a great article! I am sure you know that lots of people have seen it and shared via facebook. I am so glad more people are interested in body language. I do have a question though, about the head turning away. Set aside soft work at home, let say you have a high energy stud colt at a horse show and he turns away and likes to drive his shoulder into you because his head is turned away. You don’t have to give me training steps, but what are your thoughts when dealing with a horse that pushes into your space because his attention is elsewhere? Thanks!

    1. His behavior, as I visualize it in my mind, doesn’t seem like a calming cue, and it’s never okay for a horse to push into a person’s space, but it’s his shoulder I would correct, not his face (again, as I visualize it). A young colt has to be prepared well for a show, and I also expect him to be challenged in that situation. I would correct that shoulder push and immediately move on to something I can praise him for. So that rather than beginning a tendency of correcting his loss of attention, I can put him to work and reward him for his focus. My goal is always positive leadership. Did that make sense?

  24. Pingback: Horse Agility: A Game of Partnership Without Coercion | Horse Junkies United

  25. Allana Kereluk

    Love your article!! Horse body language is so subtle sometimes, that we totally miss it. I also have a question about the ‘turning away’. When I come to the pasture, my horse nickers loudly when he sees me, and eagerly comes trotting up to the gate, but when I speak to him or go to bring him out, he turns away. Sometimes, just his head, but sometimes, he completely turns around and I get ‘the tail’. I’ve tried ignoring this behavior, I’ve tried waiting for him to turn around, and even simply letting him come through the gate on his own without a halter into the enclosed paddock. Until I read your article, I thought this was a unique behavior, but it doesn’t seem so now.

    We don’t ride, just do ground work as he has trouble with IR and laminitis and isn’t always sound enough to ride. Sometimes we do liberty work, sometimes ground driving, and sometimes we just go for a walk and hang out. It’s never an aggressive session – there’s no deadlines or show goals. So, I’m not really understanding what this calming cue means exactly?

    Thanks!!
    Allana and Mojave Moon

    1. Allana, thanks for this comment. I do think he is communicating and I really hesitate to guess in a situation like this, since I can’t actually see him. So it would be smart for me to just shut up right about now, but I am going to give you some ideas. First, humans see things our way and we call things light that aren’t light, easy when they aren’t easy for a horse, and where there is a discrepancy between a human opinion and a horse opinion, I believe the horse is always right, because that is a fair start.
      If he is dealing with laminitis, he hurts, he may give you a calming signal because when he comes out of the pen, it is painful to walk sometimes or he fears it might be. He may give a calming signal because he thinks you are loud or quick in your movements, and again, when he is not moving well, he may be just a bit defensive. He may have a sour stomach, or the beginning of ulcers, or he may just have anxiety. There doesn’t need to be a big show for this sensitive horse to get upset.(It may not be actually real, but if he thinks it is, then it’s real to him.) Again, I have no idea without seeing him. So I suggest some experimentation. Go slow and listen. Keep an open mind.If he looks away, take a deep breath and wait for him to look back. Never pull on his face and when he turns back, a big release/reward. Usually it isn’t so important what was bothering him, so much as how we act when we know. Sorry, without seeing him this is my best guess. Repeat:GUESS. Good luck. Stay happy around him.

  26. Edith

    hello Anna, we picked up your blog here in Holland and thought it very interesting. Would it be ok with you if we translate it for our club magazine? This club being the NVVR (the Dutch club of recreational riders). I volunteered to translate it for the next copy which is due in some weeks, so if you agree I could start working tomorrow

    1. Okay, you have my permission. I know my writing is a bit quirky sometimes, so good luck and try to keep the feeling. Most of all, thank you for asking and thank you for caring about horses. Hello, Holland!

  27. This is so interesting! I always meet my horses eye right after I put on the bridle and before I head to the arena. I feel like it centers us and I notice she calms down when I do it. I had no idea it was a “thing” other people do too.

  28. Debby Hess

    Hi Anna, I just found you and I’m enjoying your blog immensely. I’m going to go back to your beginning and read my way through. I already feel like I know you, like you, and wish we could sit down for a cup of coffee and a chat out by the barn. Thank you for touching my soul with such beauty.

    1. Eek! that is alot of reading. Thank you for taking the time and I am glad you enjoy our place here. It is a great joy for me to write about it. Come for coffee anytime, we can muck together!

  29. I’d love to know more about ‘lateral ears’. My mare has the tendency to stand with her ears like that when she’s having body work done or we’re just standing around while I’m talking to someone else. So many people have commented on it, including her bodyworker, telling me they’ve never seen a horse do that. I’m so used to seeing it I didn’t know it was uncommon. Her ears are forward at other times.

    1. Charly, I can’t give you an absolute here without seeing your horse. Saying A=B is too simplistic and horses are such individuals. If I was watching her, I would combine her ears with a few other body parts, (shifting weight, eyes, neck, etc.) My mare does it and in her case I hear it as relaxed and curious, or thinking for a minute. Under saddle, I go slow and breathe, which seems to always be a good idea, anyway. Your horse is being expressive, that is for certain.

  30. sabrena

    Calming article is very intriguing, as is your comment. We are retraining a wonderful mule- who is stiff and anxious. Maybe agility work would help us establish a trusting rapport? Can you recommend some good info sources?

    1. Wonderful, good for you. I love working with donkeys and mules, they require more from their handlers. However slow you go, you will probably need to go even slower, but the reward is huge. Like with anything else, it isn’t so much what you do as how you do it, and in a situation like yours, I do think agility is a great idea. This is the book by the woman who started the whole thing, it’s a great book, wonderful ground work technique and great photos… Good luck!

  31. foresthorse2014

    Great blog which I shared on FB and just now got a chance to read. … I just started working with one of my donkeys who I have not yet halter trained…I had been waiting for him to just say okay based on our bond but that method which sometimes works, has not yet! I have to treat he and his companion for fly bites so the training is beginning in earnest (Clicker) One donkey got the idea and let me medicate him within five minutes but little olli does lots of turning head away and also backing up. I am trying to also turn away when he turns recognizing a calming signal (please even the tiny amount of pressure you are putting on me is too much!) I will try breathing now and continue to try and step things into smaller steps to reduce calming attempts? Good timing on your post. thank you!

    1. Sounds like you are on the right path, cut it into tiny bites until it is easy. The only advice I might add is, if you ask for something and you can tell he is thinking about it, just thinking, reward that. A good boy reward to considering it, so he knows he is headed in the right direction. With donkeys their definition of trust is so important, I think you are finding that out. and they are stoic about it… Good luck. It will be so worth it.

  32. Heidi

    I have a horse who I haven’t ridden here recently and she has become attached to the horses in her field. Whenever I try to take her out on the trails she wants to turn and trot back. She is also spookier than she ever was before. I have just been turning her in a tight circle and forcing her forward then releasing and rewarding when she moves on down the trail. This seemed to work okay but I have two questions, one, am I doing the right thing? And two, how can I get her to relax away from her herd? Thank you so much and this was a great article!

    1. Like anything else involved with horses, there are lots of opinions. I think the important thing is how she feels. It isn’t wrong to want the security of her herd. We have to give the horse that security if we want them to leave the herd, so I would see this as a confidence question.The circling technique can work for a while, lots of people use it. If you can do it happily, good. In a situation like this, I ask the horse to leave the herd, and then bring them right back. Meaning remind him that they are right there. Depending on the landscape, ride him away and back in all directions, always rewarding him for walking away and always letting him know he can come back (on the aids.) We need to instill confidence that the horse is safe with us. All horses are different and a rider must be creative. Sometimes our attitude is an important as our technique. Sometimes seeing the ‘problem’ differently changes everything. Good luck, I hope this helps.

  33. Pingback: Calming Signals: Are You Listening? « Horses |AnnaBlakeBlog | Equestrian » Sabots Libres

  34. Jim Rushing

    Hi Anna!
    I couldn’t agree more with you! I love reading your posts – so insightful and thought-provoking! Thank you!!

  35. Lisa

    Hello! I enjoyed this post very much and would like to learn more about calming signals for equines. Are there any books, websites, etc. or other posts you have written on this subject? What was the source of info for this post? Your own observations?
    Thanks so much!
    Lisa 🙂

    1. The original book about dogs, Calming Signals by Turid Rugass is a start. I just talked with her, and a student of hers is working on a paper, I will be starting a book on it soon, and I am not sure what else is happening. I think others train with these listening skills, but perhaps don’t use this title?? My blog is almost a year old now, it’s possible others are doing things that I don’t know about. Thanks.

  36. Reblogged this on Golden Spike Farm's Plog and commented:
    Great article. I really need to stop, listen and observe more. “Calming signals in horses are somewhat similar and include looking away, having lateral ears, yawning, stretching down, licking lips or eating to calm themselves. Can you recognize them? Calming cues communicate stress, and at the same time, release stress. It is modeling behavior for us; they want us to drop our stress level, or aggressiveness as well.” Next time your with your horse look for these calming signals.

  37. vicky davis

    I have a horse that is “cinchy”. By this i mean that when i start to cinch up the saddle, if girth isnt up real far, he starts to pull and lay down and freak out.
    What is going on?

    1. Hard to know for sure, but some of the pressure points for ulcers are under the girth. First I would check that out. There are a couple of other physical possibilities too, but at that point, if he’s okay then I would re-train saddling. It’s a long process, but he isn’t happy and the re-training process could be a huge partnership builder.

  38. Pingback: Overcoming Our Neediness with Horses - The Liberty Trainers Network

    1. I’m not familiar with the saying, but I’m assuming it means a horse facing you shows respect and the hind end is disrespect/dangerous. If I’m right, it’s a starting place but a pretty black and white approach, and I would need context before I made such a broad sweeping judgement. For me, depending on the situation, one eye is enough lots of the time. Is there a particular situation you are thinking about?

  39. Reblogged this on Horse Wellness Blog and commented:
    This article couldn’t have come at a better time, as I am preparing to post a series of articles about “Path to Performance(TM) – A 3-Step Process to a Willing & Able Horse”. Resistance-free interaction on the emotional and mental level is part of Step 1 and this article gives wonderful suggestions and food for thought. Thank you and enjoy!
    “It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.” ~Mark Twain.

  40. Chris

    Amen! I never realized what I was doing when I would stop and take a deep breath and wait for my horse to “come ” to me! It works so much better than force. I too prefer to work on the ground and am going to look into agility for my horse. I think he will love it!

  41. Elaine McDonough

    Hi I did join up with my horse Blu , when I first got him six years ago (my first horse at 42) I felt we needed to get to know one another. I walked him for 3 weeks on all the routes I would be taking him on before I even put his saddle on. I felt I needed to know his quirks. I have also done the first couple of steps of natural horsemanship with him , the change is amazing & so much fun , we play chase in the school &he will follow my every step . Then he will run off & want me to chase him. We are both shattered afterward haha but the bond grows after every session. So glad people post thing like this , so that everyone can have a go. Keep it up I luv it. Xx

    1. Humans tend to make a big deal out of riding vs. being on the ground, but I don’t notice that most (sound) horses do. It’s all communication to them so the work in-hand is so valuable. thanks for the wonderful comment. I love that arena play as well.

  42. Sally

    Great article – I did my BSc dissertation on play signals, and these behaviours are seen a lot in domestic groups of geldings – there are so many facial expressions (such as tongue-lolling) as expressions of inviting trust. It’s good to see that people are beginning to realise that it’s more rewarding to communicate with horse in his world, rather than expect him to do all the work in ours! Thanks for sharing your findings.

    1. Thanks. I think there have always been horse people who have listened to this language… the problem is they have always been in the minority. Is your dissertation online anywhere??

  43. Muddypony

    This is a lovely article, and so true to every word, I had to stop from applauding in my kitchen. That would have been weird…. I got my 4 yo in January, unhandled, It’s taken time, and a lot of learning. She’s taught me how to listen to her and I’ve taught her trust, I hope. I couldn’t touch her without her showing signs of stress, but after weeks of just being there consistently with her she grew accustomed to pets whilst she fed, and then the mutual gentle grooming started.
    She is quite curious, so this helped a lot. She’s still unbroken, but she’s quiet and a very pleasant worker. Communication is key to any relationship, and what you have with your horse is a very special relationship indeed. I worried I wouldn’t get through to her, but in fact she was trying to get through to me to tell me that I wasn’t listening right. It was like having a travel dictionary, needing the toilet and asking for a sink.
    Soon my mare became a firm friend, that horse has done more for me and my family than I can put into words. These animals can be far more special than people think, has anyone else noticed their horses become far more gentle and caring if you have been sick, or they are around someone sick, disabled or just not feeling their best?

    Sorry for going into such length, I just feel very strongly that trust breeds calm, which in turn forges a bond. Will now check out the rest of your blog as I’ve just found this!

    1. Toilets and sinks is a great analogy! Glad for your progress with your horse and we do underestimate them too often. As for your question- I certainly do see horses behave differently when their rider is not well. In my circle of clients I’ve seen it to the extreme. This partnership we can have with them, that trust, means not just that they are gentle, but in a bad spot, your horse might do the thing that will save you. Great comment, thanks.

  44. Mariska Wentzel

    Good day,

    I read your article and really liked it.

    How can I get more information or get more involved? I just bought two new mares and their kind of human shy. How can I improve our relationship?

    I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

    Kind regards.
    Mariska

    1. There is no book that I know of that talks about Calming Signals for Horses, although I have thought about writing one. Since I’m not sure of your level of experience, I would suggest finding a trainer who uses a method of positive reinforcement. To begin I always use groundwork, I think my current favorite method is using horse agility. The best book about that is this:
      http://www.amazon.com/Horse-Agility-Handbook-Step—Step/dp/1570764883/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432377670&sr=1-1&keywords=horse+agility
      It talks theory and technique and is fun for both humans and horses.

  45. “If riders want to understand the language of horses, we need stop seeing our horses in our own worst image (lazy or distracted) and begin a conversation where we listen more openly, more honestly.”

    What a powerfully written, clear and beautiful post. I adore all of it, but the above quote really struck home. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, I haven’t read that sentence in a long while, it does sound like a bell. When something makes that much sense, you can tell some horse put the idea in my head; I can’t take credit. 🙂

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  49. I am not a rider, although I have ridden. Years ago I was on a film crew making a documentary in Rocky Mountain territory too rough for vehicles. We rented horses which were not dude ranch horses, they were working horses. I was assigned to a mare who would step to the right every time I tried to mount. After a day or so of this behavior, I grew angry enough to mount her and then slug her once on the side of the neck with a closed fist. She never stepped away from me again.

    What would have been a better and civilized way to correct this behavior?

    1. Tony, I can’t know without seeing the situation, so I am guessing that you were probably ground mounting, and I am guessing that your foot in the stirrup might have poked her, horses generally move away from pressure and your mounting method might had caused her to lose balance and move away. Depending on how you had the reins, they might have cued her as well. Dude horses are kind of greenhorn broke and are used to unbalanced people with undisciplined legs and if this was a ranch horse she was trained to move away from pressure. In other words, more responsive than dude horses. Step one is to see if you were creating a pressure, meaning actually giving a cue that she was responding to but you were not aware of. It happens more often then you would think.

      She learns the same thing from a closed fist that you would. Nothing positive. Sorry, don’t want to be mean, but riding students always know that the chances are that the confusion was their fault. Horses are honest. On the other hand, nice view from the back of a horse, right? And she was kind to you. Thanks.

      1. Tony

        I have felt guilty for slugging that horse for almost forty years. I am glad to have an explanation for her actions; there is no good one for mine. Although I still don’t understand why she stopped moving away after I hit her (not very hard by the way). At any rate, I am sure you are correct about the reason. Too bad the one real rider (cowboy) we had with us didn’t think to correct my, uh, poor style. Thank you very much for the lesson.

  50. Tony… We have all come a long way in the last 40 years… but cut yourself some slack. That good mare forgave you back then. (Or you would have felt her anger.)

  51. no matter how much you know it is never enough about animals. I really appreciate your great article about horses. learned a lot.
    thanks so much for stopping by and giving me this opportunity

  52. I have been doing this without knowing. Now maybe I can tune it more. Coming froma Horse Rescue was to me learning and such sitting and watching. I have always done more ground work, then riding. Thanks so much for your knowledge.

  53. I bought an older gelding that used to look away all the time. His full head and neck turned, both ways, continuously, as long as you simply looked at him. I had a wise horse woman tell me what it meant. It broke my heart to think he was that intimidated by me (and the people in his past) that he would behave like that. I learned positive reinforcement teaching/communicating, and when he realized HE was being listened to instead of being bullied, he looked straight at me all the time. My heart stumbled again … with joy.

  54. Lynell Abbott

    Love your posts! Love your followers’ replies! Cannot seem to read any one of them without welled tears…
    Might I have permission to copy-and-paste your sentiments for inclusion in a newsletter that I edit for a trail rider club in Loudoun County, VA? Will of course give your name and contact info for attribution; as well, mention your book. We are a membership of about 200. Thank you even if it’s a “no”!

    1. Thanks, Lynell. Thanks for asking, and with proper credit given, you are welcome to share them. And I agree, the comments that people share are the very best–I just love these readers.

    1. I would search out a horse rescue or maybe a therapeutic riding program and volunteer with them. And if the first place I called didn’t need me, I’d keep calling until I found a place that did… even if it meant doing chores. Good luck.

  55. christine

    Not always due to any loud, aggressive energy. sometimes Bodhi is saying he would just rather not work, and be with herd eating :-)..

    1. Yes, some days are like that. And then somedays like that I know I have to find a way to be more inviting. Perception is hard to balance and it has to constantly be fine tuned…

  56. Sandra

    Thank you for adding a “translation” to the horses’ language to ours. Our breed of horse (Hackney Horse), is acutely tuned-in to us, and are explicit if we pay attention. Many of mine will not tolerate having someone just stride on over to them, in a stall or in a pasture. If the person heads purposefully toward the horses, they will all turn away and/or walk away.
    If that person simply stands still, with a quiet mind, the horses will all return, letting one of them lead the way. Then, all of the horses will come to see what the person wants, often volunteering for the halter that may be in hand.
    Taking the time and thoughtfulness to, at least, let the horse acquiesce to the initial plan of the person (such as putting a halter on him), will set the energy flowing forward. I’ve seen this countless times over the past 20 years with my horses, more so than any other breed I’ve lived with.

    1. Yes. On the right column, just below the words, “Get my blog delivered to right to your Mailbox!” and just above the badge that says TOP 50, there is a box. Click on that. And thank you.

  57. Loving your blog and I’ve only read two articles! Had a pretty rubbish ground work session this evening (my first one) where I ended up getting frustrated and angry and my pony got defensive and confused! Reading this I see there were several times he used calming signals but I didn’t have the knowledge to read them as that and so he became defensive.

    We did end on a good note as went for a stroll to unwind both of us and had lots of scratches and rubs, when halted and He was very keen to press his head into my chest, almost like he was hiding. I’d be interested to know your take on that.

    Off to read more of your blog!

    1. Ground work requires a different kind of listening, but it sounds like it ended well. Without seeing the final interchange with my own eyes, I don’t like to “translate” but it sounds positive to me. Keep at it, go slow and keep things small at the beginning, with lots of rewards so he knows he’s headed the right direction. AND he hasn’t given up, that’s for sure. Good luck.

  58. John Weydert

    I would like to get a book about these calming signals. I have a 14 year old daughter that is training a 4 year old mare. She has done excellent so far & does lots of ground work but I am sure she would love to learn these signals.

    1. John, right now there is no specific book for horses, but the original book by Rugaas is good, even if it’s for dogs. I mention it in my training blog book, Relaxed & Forward, but it is just part of that book. And finally, I hear a book is in the process in Norway, but I am not sure if it has been published yet. Sorry I don’t have an easier answer.

  59. Katherine

    Love this post!!! I’ve been using my breath and heart breathing since going to Linda Kohanovs workshops, and it is so clear when I am still and breathe. And definitely it helps quiet/ calm both of us!

  60. Flo Hall

    Thank you for your article. I learned soo much from .it
    I have been with horses for 10 yrs because of my grandfaughter. I m just about the sole caretaker of my two. An old gelding i rescued 5 yrs ago and a sweet mare we have had for 10 yrs.
    I have noticed how my mare turns her head when i approach her for some loving. I usually wait for her to come to me and then she gets right in my face. I love it.

  61. Jan

    Thank you for that article! Now I understand (after how many years) that turning away is not a bad thing. Most of the time my horses see me coming and drop their head parallel with my chest. Some times they will turn away physically and cock a foot (now I see that as CALM DOWN WOMAN!). Every day I learn something new.

    1. Yay, that’s my hope too, even as a pro, even after all these years. I want to learn something new everyday…because my horses benefit. Thanks, great comment.

  62. Rachel

    I have a new horse that I spend calm time with out in the pasture. .no halter..no rope. No riding..just touching talking and being together. She has gone from jumpy and skiddish to relaxed trusting and even a little jealous if I show the other horses too much attention. Calm time with her has helped her to trust me and that makes the trail riding better. 🙂

  63. Ben

    thank you for this, I’ve noticed a lot of those cues in my horse in our time together. I guessed them to be something like that but never fully understood. This article really helped me there and will definitely influence our relationship from this point onward

  64. Denny

    Thanks for taking the time to let us in to your knowledge and experance I for one untill now didn’t know about the calming effect breathing would have on my horse or even for that matter people thank you
    Denny from Norco Ca

  65. Michelle

    I always called this the mirror effect of mules. Mules are a big mirror, and they reflect the emotions of the handler. If they are agitated take a look at yourself, sometimes us two legged critters ignore our emotions/feelings.

  66. I was wondering what you think of this signal my mare gives me when I am riding her. When we are working on something new, or I have been asking her for a concentrated effort, she always nickers to me when I stop to rest or dismount. It is a very strong nicker, like a mare would call to a foal that is far away, or like a stallion talks. It feels very strong, and insistent. She will do this many times. I usually just pet her and tell her how wonderful she is. I’m not really sure why she does it. Any thoughts?
    Thank you

    1. Hmmm. Interesting, and here’s my disclaimer; I never go by someone else’s eyes, meaning that I might read the whole thing differently. So with that said, I have no idea for sure. I will assume the obvious; that she isn’t calling to herdmates in the barn?? After that, I’d need to know so much more about her, I’d love to see a video, but even then, I’d need more. I also assume she is sound and ulcer-free. If you are not certain about the ulcers, be aware that the symptoms are wildly erratic. Not much help, am I? In the future, every dismount try something else (where you get off, how you dismount, etc)and see if you can get it to change. Try to find a bump in the pattern. You might get a hint there. I do think it’s a calming signal for her, a release of stress, and the answer is to go slow. Here is the best thing I have to say: I think your response is good. I’m curious now, too. Thanks for asking; this one isn’t on the common list.

  67. This is an amazing blog post. Nothing less! So very well written and understandable for everyone. Not to forget that the topic truly is important and should be common knowledge for everyone around horses. I truly enjoyed this lovely piece of writing. Thank you for this reminder!

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  70. Karen

    Yes, I have witnessed the human’s such intense focus to get the horse through the obstacle that they are oblivious the horse is stressed and not a happy camper! So much for our direct line thinking. Step back and look at your horse, is he enjoying this? I agree…..calm and slow down to read his signals.

  71. I can’t believe I am just now finding this. So profoundly eye opening. I had a disheartening day with my mare yesterday, and now I feel like I need to go back out and see if I can use this knowledge to make it right.

    Do you mind me asking what you mean when you say you give your eye to the horse you are working with? Is it simply watching for their cues, or something more specific you do with body language?

    Thank you so much ~ Noël

  72. Amy D

    My horse gave me a definite calming cue yesterday, and I was so thankful to have read your article! It was an amazing experience, especially to understand what he was saying. He turned his head away, and I was able to take a deep breath, and we both calmed down! Thanks so much. In a much earlier response, Anna, you mentioned a webinar on the calming signals. Is that readily available?

  73. Cari Zancanelli

    Somehow this particular blog post of yours came to my attention recently. I’m not sure where or how, but I had been noticing one of my horses noticeably turning away whenever i went into the pen. It bothered me. I tried stroking her neck and things like that but she didn’t turn towards me for long. I had noted it but didn’t know what to do, so I kept in the back of my mind. Then I read this blog and it all made sense!

    Long story short, I’ve had this mare since she was born and I also owned her mother. I had a very deep connection with her mother. For various reasons I haven’t been able to spend the time with Luna that she deserved. I was doing groundwork but it was frustrating! She was elevated and fearful, I had no control, and we were doing nothing but walking around the farm. I was trying to rub her forehead as another trainer suggested. She didn’t like it. I was getting upset.

    What you’ve said here I’ve never read anywhere else before. The reality is, training horses is not mechanical in nature. It’s not enough to go through the motions. I realized my mistake then and slowed myself down and focused on making a connection to her. I read some of the comments where people are saying that their horses have put their heads under their armpit. My horse puts her head over my shoulder and “hugs” me. Her mother did this when she was afraid of something. When she was really afraid she would squeeze me hard. Luna had never done this until two days ago, when I read your blog and went out to her with a new attitude.

    Some of the other calming signals you mention like head lowering and licking their lips are what other trainers say are classic signals of the horse “giving in”, especially in the context of round pen work. Thinking about those as calming signals rather than “submissive” signals changes the context of what’s happening when someone pressures a horse like that.

    Thank you for this blog and thank you for reminding me of things I’d lost and teaching me something new. This will certainly be food for thought!

    1. I like the nuance you are discovering. Trust your mare. She isn’t her mother and she thinks you’re loud. 🙂 and I’ll just say one other thing: I’ve been taught that the forehead is an intimate place. I know lots of horses who don’t like it. Thanks, great comment, and good luck, Cari.

  74. Pingback: Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

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  77. Theresa Assad

    I read your lovely though-provoking blog last night and today I visited my horse, Beau. I entered his field and looked quietly at him ad then I took a step backwards. He took a step towards me. I took three steps back and he came right up to me. Love the dance! Thank you.

  78. Pingback: Успокаивающие сигналы: вы слышите? | Happy Horse Training

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