Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter

We’re breaking in a new farrier here at Infinity Farm. The new guy is soft-spoken, uses a nice pink hoof-stand, and has an easy laugh that the mares like. We’re like any other herd. We’ve got some quirks. Not all of us got a great introduction to humans.

The farrier and I trim our way through the pens. The geldings are dependable and the mares tolerant. Lilith, the carbon-dated donkey, turns to face us, lifts her nose level with her ears, and brays like a fog horn. Her feet are fine this visit and we’re all relieved.

Bhim’s next. He came here from a rescue for training a few years back and I’m still working on it. I consider him a bit complicated. He considers me expendable. The farrier waits while I move forward with Bhim’s halter. We do a slow-motion dance; two steps this way, a dramatic pause and our shoulders turn. I know we must agree on this part. He continues to think I might go nuts. I continue to out-wait his low opinion of humans. A few more steps of the dance, slow and deliberate, and the halter is on. We walk back to the farrier who says, “Will you teach all my mini clients to do that?”

Funny you should mention that –there’s little I like to train more. I love a nuanced greeting, a dance of equals, each of us offering something positive. Haltering Bhim is a process. But that’s true for all horses.

Sometimes we chase them till they’re out of breath, the predator way. Sometimes we coyote-coax them with treats. Sometimes, (my least favorite), we march right up, pull the halter on snug, and pull them away from breakfast.

In each of these examples, the horses were giving calming signals. In each example, the horses were speaking more eloquently than their human.

A Calming Signal is the subtle language of horses. It’s a peaceful message to let us know they feel us there, disturbing the Zen, and they are no threat to us. We usually answer by letting them know we are an unpredictable war-like species.

Our haltering method is usually a complacent habit, even with hard to catch horses, and not something we think about much. At the same time, that initial moment of greeting creates a first impression that a horse remembers.

Let me put it another way: How do you like your significant other to greet you? By threatening or bribing or just grabbing you by the hair and pulling you along? It’s no surprise when a horse isn’t responsive in the saddle if we’ve already let them know that we’re lousy communicators on the ground.

How a horse greets us is his honest expression and if we mistake that for disobedience or stupidity or laziness, we are the ones with the problem.

Reset: Complacency is your enemy. It makes you dull-headed and lead-footed… not traits horses appreciate, but more than that, you’re missing the fun.

Before entering the pen or stall, remind yourself of the wild luck and hard work that put you in front of this gate. Take a breath and soften your gaze. Check yourself for anxiety or expectations. Use your peripheral vision and listen to your surroundings. When you’re presentable, enter the pen and stop.

Don’t “hide” your halter behind your back, horses see that as the first sign something weird is going on. If your horse moves away, you’ve got some work to do. If your horse runs up to mug you for treats, same thing.

It’s that stoic horse who stands where he is with his eyes half-closed that is the most interesting to me. Does he pretend you aren’t there? Or is he preparing for a loud advance?

Take just a step or two toward him and say whatever you want because words don’t matter. Ask for his eye. Think of it as a greeting more eloquent that words. Ask with your eye and breathe. If he moves away, know that you were too loud. Or it might be that your history is too loud. If he doesn’t acknowledge it at all, know he heard you and then ask even smaller.

If you want to know how you could possibly ask smaller than your eye looking at his eye, then you’re on the right path.

Reset your previous reset: We are predators by nature. In comparison to horses, we are loud and obnoxious by accident of birth. Even when we think we’re quiet, we roar. Take another breath and empty your mind of the loud jangle of expectations. Quiet the tick-tick-tick of your mental stopwatch. Let your shoulders drop the weight of needing to get it right all the time. Pooch out your belly and trust the ground to hold you.

Then ask for his eye in a lackadaisical way, because you are pretending to be free of expectation. If your horse flicks an ear or blinks an eye, that’s your reward. You receive this gift without judgment about its size or expense because you are an adult who’s above that kind of spoiled-child behavior. Exhale and let him know that you heard him. Say thank you with a pause of time.

About now, your horse looks right at you. Take another breath and maybe a small step sideways. The dance starts with a subtle invitation. Perhaps he moves a hind leg to re-position himself and so perhaps you take a step back this time. Across the distance of the pen, he looks at you with new eyes, slightly shifting his weight, and  pondering the possibility…

The halter was a prop. Something real just happened; he volunteered to meet you in the middle. The world has shifted. Say Good Boy and let him watch you leave the pen.

Then feel your reward. It’s so light, you could be imagining it. If you tried to clutch at it, it would skitter away like seeds from the head of a dandelion. So, you let it be. The best things grow, not with force, but with freedom. It’s an invitation to dance beyond ropes and words, and maybe even gravity.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

44 thoughts on “Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter

  1. Shannon

    Wow! I am constantly amazed how your writing style and your concepts speak to my soul. We all want to be better for and with our horses and your books and blog keep me focused in that direction. Had a rough morning with my horse today. He’s stoic by nature and I’m pushy by nature – not the best combination. His reaction this morning told me I wasn’t being the soft human he has shown me her prefers so back to the drawing board for me. Thanks for the reminders! So valuable.

    1. Shannon, we humans are working at a deficit where horses are concerned, but the ones of us who know it, have a better chance. Keep trying, I swear it gets easier. (Just channeling your horse) Thanks for commenting.

  2. Deb

    Funny, the farrier came to see us yesterday too! And the girls were in an uproar, especially the one with Appytude. While the elderly Arab was submitting to her trim, more or less willingly, the Appy worked herself up into a tizzy in the yard. So when it was her turn, I made the mental acknowledge that maybe the trim wouldn’t happen today. She appreciated that. I approached her with a halter. She darted off to her hay pile, with her eye on me. I took that as a maybe. I stood beside her for a few seconds, didn’t get a no, so I slipped on the halter. I thought of you, and said good girl, then stepped away inviting her to follow. She likes it when you ask nicely; a testament I think to the calming signals you describe.

  3. JUDITHBELFORD@comcast.net

    Thank you. I love your book and I love your posts. This one especially. I have always had this intuition that when I walk out into the pasture to ‘get’ Amy that I am intruding and you described it perfectly. I try to be soft and quiet and aware of her ‘horseness’ and ‘herdness’ with her 3 horse pals, but I haven’t being doing the ‘thank you pause’ when she very slightly acknowledges me. I will do that, and then leave. And then come back.

  4. cricketgurl2012

    Lovely read….I too often see people doing exactly what you described…hiding the halter, or chasing their horse around till he’s tired and gives in. There’s a better way and you have written it here. Thanks for the lessons, they are very valuable and I love your posts.

    1. Hi Carolyn, they used to be called blacksmiths back in the day. They are horse-shoers, or in my world where we don’t wear shoes, they trim hooves, every 7-8 weeks, forever.

      Hope you’re enjoying spring.

  5. Interesting read, as I reflect on how my haltering relationship with my mare has developed over the past three years. We’re at a point now where her cooperation sort of depends on where she is. She spends winters in a large feedlot with round bales, summers out in a ginormous pasture. In either case, I walk out to greet her with halter and lead over my shoulder, in plain sight. At the round bale, she allows me to approach, whereupon I greet her with soft words of inquiry as to how she’s doing, rub her forehead and progress backwards to scratch her neck. If she dives back into the feeder and won’t lift her head, I loop the lead rope around her neck and gently tug until she figures out that I really mean it. Then I can put the halter on and she will not try to eat again. She knows we are leaving. I ask her if she wants to come along with me, and we walk off.

    The only thing that changes about this sequence of events when she is out in the huge pasture is that she will see me coming, let me get to within 20 feet or so, then walk (not run) away about another 20 feet, stop, turn and look at me. That is her, making her point. I can then approach as before, rub and scratch, etc, and then we are good to go. Gotta love a mare…

    1. Baseball players have a pitching motion, or tennis players certain things they do before a serve … I consider that walk off just a part of the haltering process, like adjusting a cap. Your mare is saving you from complacency, bless her heart. Thanks for commenting, Alli. Well done.

  6. So much fun to watch your video clip after getting to meet you in Omaha! Your writing is expressive and soft, but I think of your verbal communication style as blunt. (which I like – probably because I am! 😉

    1. Thanks… can I just say that a video with no horse in it is an added degree of difficulty? One reader who clinic-ed with me told me I was that exact person in the book… just the same. Well, who knows. I wonder if you’ll start reading with a different sense of voice now?? Thanks, Michelle. I miss Omaha.

  7. Joan

    Thank you so much for again giving the kind of “training” I need to be the human that Peachie needs. I have to laugh at how Peachie increases the loudness if her cues until I finally get it. And here all of the experienced horse people were telling me it was the other way around!

  8. mswix

    I absolutely love this lady! Pass on to Livvy. This is also approach to bunnies…since again they are also prey animals! Love to my girls! Aunt Alix

  9. Susan Lumen

    I wish I could hug you for giving me the validation that my instincts were right and that I should never have forsaken them the 40 plus years ago when the 1st riding instructor gave me different approaches to working with and around horses. I think the main reason so many humans opt for those other approaches is because they have limited amounts of time and think force equals speed. But with horses I always found the fastest way was the slowest, if you get my meaning. There was a lot of violence around me in my first 4 years of life and as a result I was extremely shy and afraid of people. I think this gave me a sensitivity to the horse’s way of communicating. My problems started when I sought out instruction because I didn’t know the how’s and why’s of my success with horses and I lacked confidence in myself as well. Now with Warwick and your words and explanations I have spiraled up to a better understanding of what I have instinctively always had. People who had horses with problems would ask me to work with their horses and then I would rarely have the same problems. But why? Now I know. I was polite as far as the horse was concerned but way too slow as far as the people were concerned. Deep breath. Keep telling us about the horses way speaking. We all need it, badly. And just maybe we will start working better with other humans, as well!

    1. Susan, it was similar for me. I escaped the fighting in my house by going to the barn… Even now, the barn is my “church” and too many of us take our fight to the horses; we’ve been taught to by some trainers. Great comment, thank you, Susan.

  10. Susan

    Hi Anna
    Some times when I go into the pasture to get Dan he will stop and look at me and walk away so I wait while he grases he will then turn and look at me and that’s when I know that I can approach him he lets me put the haulter on but just before we start off he will turn and look back at his pals as if to say can they come to but I don’t think that’s it I’m starting to learn what he is saying I have not ridden him for a year now he was always very tight and tense and I didn’t want that for him but now his body is beginning to relax and his tail will swing when he walks his muscles will move and his back swings from side to side your blogs are so important to me because every thing that I’m doing feeling seeing listening my horse looks better and better and learns faster and faster thanks Anna I hope too meet you soon

    1. Wonderful comment, Susan. Some breeds have “tighter” bodies than others, but it is a joy to watch any of them grow softer as their emotions change. Thanks for writing.

  11. Jeannie

    I laughed through the first part of this and started crying mid-way through. The reason for the laughing is obvious – I love your sense of humor, Anna! I asked myself why the tears? The answer I heard – I want all horses to be respected this way but so few are.

  12. Michelle

    I really love this one Anna! Thank you. I have added two words to my ride accompanied by a smile and a pat, “good try!” And my horse is so proud of himself when he hears this! Just a small give and a small try is all we need❤️

  13. Every time I read something you’ve written, my energy, expectations, everything, takes a deep breath and relaxes. I LOVE how you write and how you get into not only the horse’s head, but mine as well. Thank you.

  14. Lynell Abbott

    This is so helpful, Anna. Loopy, our new addition ex-racehorse, injured his leg and needs to be wrapped to keep the wound site clean. I notice when we go to halter him, although he is very compliant, we need to do something to soften the anxiety he exhibits. Your thoughts on the haltering process might be just the thing to do to help him.
    Our barn now is composed of 2 who have been with us 20 years and 2 who came to us 3 months ago. The new additions think of us as inane drones; the 20-year ones seem to see us as noble drones!
    As always, thanks for sharing your horse-communication skills with us…it is so appreciated!

    1. The reason this kind of volunteering has to start with the halter, is really what comes later… and if later is bandaging especially!! Well done, noble drone.

  15. Celeste

    Thank you for writing another reminder for me. Sometimes life’s common stresses follow me to the barn and once again you have nailed it to just leave all that at the gate before ever walking into the pasture. Thank you.

  16. Tara

    This is the first philosophy I’ve heard that makes sense to me and that feels natural to me. This is what I would when I was a kid first learning about horses but I was told this was wrong and that I need to “be the alpha mare”. After several years of this I didn’t want to make my fiery Hanoverian mare submissive, I wanted her to be expressive and to tell me what her thoughts were. I wanted to be her partner! Everyone scorned me for this, wondering why I wasn’t “pushing her harder”, “she could be such a great horse if you just pushed her harder”. But I tell you what, our relationship grew exponentially more in her last two years when I treated her like my intellectual partner than when I tried to get her to “submit” over several years. I still get friends and family members pushing the “she could’ve been Grand Prix if you pushed her harder” (instead of learning about her and how she danced with me), or that by not making her submissive somehow she was dominant. She was never ever rude or malicious towards me. She was always fair, she was always thoughtful. I’ve realized that most people around me just don’t understand how complex and special these creatures really are. I’ve always considered horses to be my “religion” for just this reason. I’m glad to have been referred to your page, now I don’t feel so alone in this!

    1. Tara

      Oh! And my once problem mare that trainers were afraid of, that kicked down her stall door several times only to run around the property like a banshee, the mare the would buck me off nearly every single ride…blossomed. She blossomed into this beautifully calm, but still opinionated, smart, social, goofy girl. She went from a horse that trainers didn’t want to touch, to a horse that people would grab just to hang out with. She became the “good example” horse that was often designated as the baby sitter.

      1. Oh what a perfect comment, I’ve had a few mares like her in training and I think I might have been just like her as a teenager…. (Did I say that outloud?) Thank you, Tara, for sticking with her and not taking bad advice.

  17. Pingback: Part Three: Riding Above Fear – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

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