Calming Signals: YOUR Response.

Photo by Sheri Kerley

I’ll start with the bad news. For those of us who grew up cantering in the living room and then one day heard the term “natural horsemanship” and thought it meant we could be a horse in a real herd, I have some lousy-bad news:

There will never be a day when a horse looks at a human and thinks they see a horse. Give it up. It was just a sales pitch for something else entirely. You don’t get to be a horse. Sorry.

The good news is that if we become a slightly more well-mannered version of ourselves and listen in their language, horses will return an in-the-moment relationship so intense, intelligent, and profound, that for the first time in your life, you won’t mind not being a horse.

I’ve written about calming signals since 2014. Calming signals are subtle body messages that horses use to let us know they feel anxiety or conflict; that they are no threat and we don’t need to act aggressively. The signal demonstrates desired behavior from us at the same time. He might look away, stretching his head down as a way of asking us to relax and go slow.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. We tend to be too loud and bossy.

First, think of the barn as a foreign country. Then decide what kind of tourist you want to be. You can play the part of a privileged elitist throwing alms to the poor or a peace-maker negotiating with heads of state.  It’s up to you but you don’t own this place. You are a visitor. Remember your manners.

First, clean yourself up. Take this part very seriously. No, they don’t care what you wear but clean your mind up. Excuse your emotions, you won’t need them. Same with expectations and plans; horses don’t think about the future. You’re the only part of the interchange you can control, so take your time. Square your shoulders and balance your thoughts. Every time you want to talk, breathe instead. Get comfortable with silence. Learn to love the peace in waiting because it’s real.

If quieting your mind is hard for you, consider a yoga or meditation practice. Do it for your horse. If your emotions rule your life, you’re in overwhelm and horses don’t like that. Sure, you can use your horse as a therapist but why would you want to put those feelings of pain and insecurity on him? (Says the woman who literally went for couple’s therapy to talk about her horse.)

Warm up your senses. Tune your eyes to small things. Listen to your surroundings and slow down your perception of time so that you can be fully present. Each of their senses is more acute than ours so we need to start by being sure we are using the marginal senses that we do have to their full potential.

Think more awareness and less intellect. If you wonder if a response is a coincidence or that you might have imagined it, then believe it was real. With your limited senses, it’s probably true.

At the same time, be strict not to draw human conclusions. A horse might be giving you welcoming signals but doesn’t mean that he’s a sweetheart or a caregiver or a Zen master. Just let him be a horse.

You’ll need to learn their language. You probably know the swear words: pinned ears, bared teeth, the threat to kick. We can avoid those by listening sooner, to the smaller messages. Calming signals include looking away, narrowing eyes, stretching his neck to rub his nose on his leg or graze when he isn’t hungry.  Signals are as varied as there are unique individuals and there will never be a precise translation.

How to answer back is simple. You let your body demonstrate calm. You breathe. You balance and wait. You put your emotions on him but in a good way. You let him feel safe.

Give him a release by stepping out of his space. Let him know that you heard him, that you understand that he’s feeling anxiety and you respect that. Step back. Look for a release in his jaw and mouth, for soft eyes and a relaxed poll.

Nothing good is learned through fear, so let the anxiety pass before doing more. Let him assimilate what happened. Let it rest awhile. Ask again, but discipline yourself to ask smaller this time.

If he swings his head back toward you, he’s volunteering. It’s what you want; give him the reward that he wants. You resist the desire to hug him and babytalk. Instead, give him his space and exhale. You’re training him to trust himself. He’s been heard. Let him rest in that confidence.

Someone asked me this week, after a particularly communicative session with her horse, “Does it feel as good to them as it does to us?” In my experience, some horses are slow to start. It’s as if they haven’t been listened to for so long that they’ve given up. Others yell hysterically for the same reason. Hold steady to the calm and peacefully persist.

Once it all shakes out and they trust that line of communication, they become chatterboxes, always mumbling a running commentary. Horses constantly interrupt me in lessons to say the exact thing I’m trying to articulate. I’m humbled by their brevity.

Do I think it feels as good to them as it does to us? No. I think it feels even better. Equality is the ultimate freedom.

Donkey calming signals are like horse’s, but longears are smarter and hence, more subtle. Are you good enough for donkeys? There’s one calming signal that donkeys are particularly famous for using. We call it being stubborn, but I think they see it as not giving in to loud-mouth idiots who don’t take time to listen. It certainly doesn’t take a donkey more time to answer. They just resent being hurried.

What would happen if humans adopted that particular donkey calming signal? What if we got stubborn about going slow? Stubborn about listening and not fighting? Stubborn about whispering because we’re predators and lucky that horses even consider partnering with us in the first place.

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

70 thoughts on “Calming Signals: YOUR Response.

  1. Terri

    This is magnificent. Thank you for putting it into beautiful human language. It took my Arab gelding three years to get me started on this path. Please keep writing.

    Best regards from Los Olivos, California, Terri Campbell

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    1. Ah, gotta love Arab geldings… lots of this is straight from my old partner, long gone but remembered in these words. Give your boy a scratch from me.

    2. Mary Ellen

      Ha. Terri, it took my Arab gelding much longer than that to get me on track😉 This is relevant oh so useful for someone like me. Thanks again.

  2. Anna, that was so incredibly brilliant. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I appreciate your explaining it in detail to us.

    Warwick Shiller has been doing a video series on calming signals, which I have enjoyed watching but did not quite understand fully. I was mistaken in my thinking that he was saying that we need to calm the horse. You truly enlightened me when you stated this, “Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us.”

    I am looking forward to trying this and just understanding things from my horses’ (yes, I have five AND a Miniature Mediterranean donkey).

    I intend on printing this and keeping it for future reference. I am also looking forward to more information in future posts regards to this topic.

    Thank you again.

    1. Thanks, the original phrase, Calming Signals, was coined by dog trainer Turid Rugaas. Her book might be of interest. Good luck with the herd, and your donkey will let you know when you get it right. 🙂

  3. I don’t have enough words to say how much I adore this. The concept of calming signals was entirely new to me and it has revolutionised the life of my sweet, enigmatic, sensitive thoroughbred mare. If she could speak English, she would thank you from the bottom of her dear heart. I certainly thank you from mine.

    1. Well, your mare doesn’t need to speak English for either of us to hear, and I do know she appreciates your understanding of her. Yay, thank you for commenting.

    2. Shelley Howe

      Oh I just love your words and explanations ., just so wonderfully enlightening as I get it each time I interact with my 2 .. my Arabian first and now my quarter horse is teaching me his.. I just love it .. THANKYOU… thankyou

  4. Lynell Abbott

    This is wonderfully descriptive, Anna, and such good timing! Today was going to be different for our new-to-the-herd TB. Today I practiced your calming signals. The end goal was to pick his feet out while at liberty. Heretofore, he has let it be known that my presence wasn’t welcome when I would approach him. So today my goal was just to be with him. I thought if after acknowledging his signals I could just lay my hand on him for a moment and then retreat without him moving off, that would be great. But as I began to stand from a crouched position, he offered his hoof to me!
    I know I have a long way to go, but I am so encouraged by what happened today! Thanks, Anna. And thanks to all who contribute their stories. It sure helps to hear about them.

    1. Heheheh! That’s the thing about waiting; sometimes the reward is more than we expect. And I agree, hearing everyone’s experiences is the best. Sounds like things are going well in your herd… and going slow is working fast. Thanks, Lynell.

  5. Tracey Sands

    This is so perfectly expressed. It’s so important to be courteous toward horses, and they do respond in kind. And I love the point about their becoming “chatterboxes, always mumbling a running commentary….” Beautiful thinking and beautiful writing.

  6. Every time you post something like this I learn about yet another thing my horse has been trying to tell me that I just wasn’t hearing. And thanks for linking to the original Calming Signals post. That is one of my favorites, ever.

    Here on our farm, all the horses know how to be lead without anything on their head. Everything is buttoned up in such a manner that an escapee really can’t go anywhere, so it’s a super low-risk/stress endeavor to move somebody to where I need them to go with a hand under the chin and one across the nose to direct if needed. Sometimes Allie will quickly jam her head down, out of my hands, to avoid being directed. Embarrassingly, this makes me instantly furious. Now that I see this is a calming signal, I will try to see her reaction in a different light, and try to understand what is causing it.

    Thank you for your insight.

  7. Kristin

    Thank you for your musings on calming signals, it’s been a huge help in my journey. We have 2 BLM burros, and it’s been such a sweet yet challenging experience trying to ‘learn donkey’. Recently we have been doing more at liberty with them, and it’s been very enlightening. Since they are free to walk away, I really need to pay much closer attention to what I’m saying with my body language, and what they are saying to me. When connected with the lead line, I find myself much less ‘connected’, and more in my own desire for an outcome. When at liberty, I have to learn to read what is passing between us. I’ve likened the liberty play to putting on a pair of glasses, it’s allowing me to actually see and start to comprehend the fine print! I so enjoy your writing, thank you for the respect you offer to equines, and especially to long ears, who are so misunderstood.

    1. So you see a rope as a kind of cheating?? Good for you, that’s fine-tuned for sure. And as much as I love horses, and I truly do! I think donkeys are my spirit animal. They inspire me so much. Thanks, Kristin. Give those long ears a scratch from me.

  8. Suzy LaRue

    Anna, I am new to the horse world. Started with lessons and then purchased a 10 month quarterhorse who is now 12 months. My thought was that we would learn together. It has been a wonderful experience. I’m so glad I am learning about the calming signals and how important it is to listen so early on. Obviously, I have much to learn, and she has much to teach, but with amazing people such as yourself and Warwick, I think we may just be okay. Thanks for what you do.

  9. Rachel Rice

    Brilliant. I’ve been lucky enough to witness the response of a horse who had just realized that for the first time in his life, a human understood him and he understood the human. (clinic on understand horse language). He raised himself way way up as far as he could, then let out a huge huge sigh, relaxed his body, and laid down right in front of us and took a 5 minute nap. When he woke up, he was a completely different horse. Calm, attentive, funny. Amazing.

  10. So needed to hear this this morning. Beautifully crafted writing, and it always feels like you are writing about me and my horses exactly, and perfectly. Had this wonderful reminder about the important message the long ears bring us .. to listen. Just listen. But listen deeply with the heart. Gratitude. I work as a senior long term care ombudsman in nursing and care homes. Next time I go in, I will visualize it as the barn, and remember this piece of writing.

  11. Susan Lumen

    I had something similar happen. I trim my own horses as I prefer barefeet and my mare Fancy has been somewhat “snatchy” with her feet and slow to pick them up in the year and half since we bought her. I had been delaying trimming her as I was practicing with watching her cues and trying different responses as well as my own requests for approaching and haltering, but finally the job needed to be done so out I went but with no expectations for an outcome of any sort. As I went into the paddock with the halter she was in her run-in shed and watching me. I stopped inside the gate and looked at her from a side way position. She came out of the stall and went to walk past me so I stepped backwards and dropped the halter and lead on the ground behind me and she immediately stopped and gave me both eyes then came straight to me with her head lowered so I rubbed on her forehead and neck and she chewed and blinked and then I stepped back again and picked up the halter and she came up and I took this to be permission so I held the halter out and she put her nose in the halter and I just put it on and proceeded out the gate to the hitching rail. Now I have noticed she sometimes seemed to not care for being tied tight so I looped the lead to allow it to slip. I tried to start on the left front and she was not willing to pick it up as usual. I did get her to do so by persisting gently with pressure under the pattern joint instead of pinching the tendon but after she gave it to me and I trimmed the hoof I decided to just stop and not rasp it and get my mounting stool and have a sit to she what she had to say. After a few minutes she let out a deep sigh, lowered her head, had a chew and a blink. I took my soft brushes and gave the leg a nice brush massage and then asked for the foot and she picked it up and I finished with the rasping then took a step back and looked at the hind foot then at her eyes and mentally asked if I could go on. I swear this happened: immediately after I mentally asked she tipped the hind forward to the toe and again I took this as permission and picked up the foot and was able to trim this foot with none of her previous issues coming up and I proceeded in like manner on the rest of her feet taking time to listen for permission for each foot and she never once tried to take the foot away or lean on me. A farrier would probably not be able to make much money working this way but I have to say I will never again rush my horses for any reason again. Love how you explain in a way even I can understand. Thank you and keep up the good words and work! Susan Lumen

    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment, what a gift. For your horse and for us… and it took a while but that doesn’t mean it always will. I think they are frequently more afraid of other things… like being tied or confined. They are afraid of being hurried… thank you for letting her lead the conversation. This is just the whole deal: when we stop trying to make things happen, everything improves! Nice job, Susan, as your mare has already told you.

  12. LOL, my Dad was raised on a farm in the early 1900s. He always used to talk about how smart donkeys are! He’d say, “A donkey senses that he outweighs you, and that, just because you want him to move, doesn’t mean he has to!”

    When I started being around horses and donkeys, I totally got it!

  13. Kathleen

    Your words match my experience, but I may also mention that my mare (and probably all horses) has a terrific sense of humor if you listen hard enough. It is subtle and sophisticated but definitely funny. The looks she gives me when I do something that I know offends her are hilarious. This morning I tried to pull a few strands of her mane which is a definitely off limits and the look she gave me stopped me in my tracks. It said volumes. The only thing touching her mane from now on are scissors, lol.

  14. Juanita

    Thank you for your post. I have been wondering what is a calming signal that Warwick Schiller & the rest of the community that follow him talked about. Now is clear to me what it is. Your views on calming signal support what I have read in Klaus Hempfling books, he said most of the time human movements are very loud to the horses as though you are always constantly shouting at them and we tend to talk gibrish. He said to slow down your movements in your body, be very subtle & clear. He even suggested to take yoga or dance lessons so that you can move fluidly. That you Anna, I thing your calming signal can go hand in hand with what I’ve learnt from Klaus Hempfling.

    1. I’ve said before that what we are seeing isn’t new at all. I just liked the term because I thought it was “teachable” meaning it would make sense to people. When enough trainers come together on something this positive, it’s a good thing. Thank you, Juanita.

  15. As much as I love the information in the post itself, I think the most important sentence is in your response to Susan Lumen – “This is just the whole deal: when we stop trying to make things happen, everything improves!” It works with horses, humans (child and adult), donkeys, dogs, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and probably every other animal on the planet. We all could learn a lot by keeping that on the top of our minds.

  16. Mandy

    I think if I would have read this 5 years ago, it would not mean what it did to me today. I grew up riding and have ridden my whole life. In searching for more education if found myself caught up in the “natural horsemanship” movement which I interpreted as “do what I say”, my warmblood deteriorated to the point of “I’ll do anything to get away from you” and started all kinds of bolting behaviors, horribly herd sour. Fast forward 5 years through a horrendous midlife horse crisis and I suddenly came to realize I have to be so much quieter. Ask with zero emotion. Breathe. Don’t work through the issue, invite him to me. Calm yourself, its as if I say “I’ll wait for you”. And now? My horse is calm, willing, forward, no brace, happy lovely boy. I have a looong way yet to go, but suddenly my horses “see” me. And I them. And we breathe. All smiles here!

    1. Mandy, such a good comment. I think it’s the path most of us take. And I’m just thankful there is a place beyond domination for more and more of us. Thank you for commenting.

  17. Adrianne Buschling

    Yes yes yes yes yes yes yess!!!!! LOVE THIS, thank you so much for putting this into such eloquent words Anna!!! Shared with deep gratitude!

  18. Tara

    I have a mustang gelding who is a wallflower that I just started leasing. He’s very untrusting of people. He’s not a nervous horse, he’s actually very calm and sweet, but he just doesn’t trust people. I tried your approach last night. They had just gotten dinner. I tried it for 2 hours. I came in with optimism and without any expectations. I left with a bruised ego. I did my best for 2 hours to be calm and focus on my breath, and I was calm. The last 30 minutes I did my best to remain positive. But it went from he’d let me within 6″ to he wouldn’t let me within 5′. I’m not sure what I was doing wrong. Could I have been bothering him because it was meal time? There were a few times he turned and walked away from me and I couldn’t tell if it was a signal or just eating. Today I went in to try again. It was meal time. I decided to not focus on him, but befriend his herd (thinking he’s a mustang and a wallflower he’d trust me if the herd trusted me and he didn’t want the focus on him). That definitely seemed to help. He came up to me a few times but was only seeing if there was something (like food) in my hand and would leave when he figured out there wasn’t. But I’m wondering if there’s something I was doing wrong? The lady that owns these horses doesn’t have much of an issue catching him, but she also hasn’t worked with him a whole lot, mostly feeds them I think. Help!

    1. Hi Tara, and right off the bat, I never make guesses unless I know the horse is healthy. He might have ulcers, for instance. Without seeing him in person, it’s hard to say. I usually see different behavior than what people report… for instance, I don’t think he came looking for food. If it was meal time, he left food to come to you for food? I doubt it. And I really hate to break it to you, but I’ve sat in pens waiting on horses for months before getting a response. Two visits, both at meal time, don’t count for much more than a start. He will do this at the speed that suits him, not you. My advice is to stick with it, but think less, try less, read a book for distraction if you want. I think his lack of an answer is his answer, for now. Mustangs are smart, give him time and let him work through it. Keep us posted, too, and thanks for sharing this with us. Trust is a big thing to mend.

  19. This post has so many good points. I am very grateful for the horse I have now as he has taught me a great deal about observing “signals” and it is very important with him to leave my stress behind at the farm gate. After almost 3 years together I can “hear” much of what he is telling me. What a gift it is in life to have a horse and to be able to learn something about communicating with another species. Thank you for this very helpful post.

  20. HelenF

    I’m totally fascinated by the effect my baby steps in this area has had on my Friesian gelding 🙂 we initially made a really good connection (I thought!) but now the door has shut again and I feel I must turn myself out for a season like a just backed youngster to grow some more 🙂 he has started dredging up old behaviours from way back which I thought were long fixed and gone, real resistance plus the odd buck or outright refusal to do something I know he is not afraid of and can do with both eyes shut in a hurricane. Health check done and it’s not any of the usual culprits. And now addicted to his stable even walking past not showing off to the mares in season which has never happened before. Ever! He recently had an abscess which took 10 days to clear and I used that time to hang out with him, groom him properly and use the massage mitt. And try the calming signals conversations. So the stable has become the place to be, which is fine, but I guess I did something uninvited and will have to just wait. I know that people say horses don’t ‘test’ humans, but this is exactly how I feel. Tested and found wanting. This is not a ‘poor me’ post, it’s a my horse is telling me something, but I don’t know what!!!!
    Ps: I read your book and loved it, and passed it to my Alexander technique teacher and she loves it too 🙂

    1. Awk! Well, first, as a trainer good enough to stop my young, sensitive horse from telling me he had ulcers, I hear you. Mixed blessings! Those behaviors that were corrected came back, not because they were cured, but because he’s stoic and hid them. Stoic horses… very challenging. (I wrote a recent blog about stoicism. ) So, please, keep breathing. This too shall pass. And just because you are listening better, doesn’t mean that you give less guidance. I think the hardest thing we do is try to balance the line between listening and leading. Meaning I think he is feeling less supportive leadership as you listen and watch. Does that make sense? I believe there is something on the other side of this that isn’t all him or all you… but a balance…. and when the confidence on both sides returns, wonderful. Right now it sucks. Keep breathing and keep asking. (and sheepishly, glad you both liked the book.)

      1. HelenF

        Thank you Anna, it does 🙂 Stoic with a capital F for Friesian! I will look for the stoic blog, thank you. Yes, again leadership of a much stricter kind than I find comfortable is his idea of heaven! I admit I got really angry one day last year after a frustrating day fighting with him, and shouted like a banshee at him, resulting in weeks of perfect behaviour. No seriously ‘..and another thing..’!!!. I was so ashamed, but he was foot perfect for weeks afterwards. I was taught to be quiet round horses and this was completely unacceptable, it happened and he didn’t sulk, he went out in his field alone afterwards because I said in anglosaxon out you go I can’t stand you any more, and he just stood watching me leave and then calmly ate till his buddies returned, no silly behaviour. Boundaries must be consolidated every day so the new listening me must be a bit scary and uncomfortable for him 🙂 I had a think about the behaviours and have changed back to our old saddle, borrowed a gel pad and ordered more of the ulcer support I had for him when he had meds for uveitis earlier in the year. And I’m glad to say he is much happier and actually lifted his back all the way home from a hack yesterday. I don’t think we’re done by a long chalk, but I’m learning about listening and leading, although it doesn’t come easy to me. I’m a libran – you’d think I’d be great at balance 🙂 thank you very much 🙂

      2. Helen, sometimes the change of a word shifts understanding and there is something you said in this comment that got stuck in my ear. Sometimes we listen so hard and want to whisper so much, that we never make ourselves clear. It isn’t that a horse wants dominance or discipline; they just want a clear cue. I remember the way Barbara Woodhouse, used to say the word, “sit!”, she wasn’t angry, but she certainly enunciated. Think of energy without emotion… I’ve been known to yell, never in anger, but to be heard clearly… if that makes sense. That might be the thing for your boy.

  21. Deborah Dyer

    Hi Anna,

    Please tell me how I can learn more about this…I am fascinated and excited…THIS is what I want with my horses!

    1. Well, I know a book is being published this summer in Norway, by Rachaël Draaisma. I mention it in my blog and one of my books, Relaxed and Forward. It’s the fundamental thought in any training that promotes Less is More… but having said this, you can learn it from your horses. They already know…

  22. Terry

    Less is more. This is so good and makes so much sense when I picture past missed connections! We have one horse in particular who pins his ears and turns his head and I step right in and explain to him why I should be his buddy. OH GEEZ. We will begin again and I will be a good tourist. I get a whole different picture of how this dance should go. Quiet. Separate but inviting. Thank you once again for sharing your knowledge, and the reality of how that knowledge was gained – that you were also once like us.

    1. It’s easy to say Less is more, but harder to embody what that means. Patience is another case in point…do we know what patience really looks like? Thanks for your kind words, I smile at this heartfelt comment. Sometimes people tell me they wish they knew me 30 years ago, but NO, YOU DON’T. I’ve ripened with understanding, just like you are, you good tourist, you! Thanks Terry. I just loved your comment.

  23. Charlotte Roe

    Thanks for this conversation. My 18-yr. old, now 21 years young, Andalusian-Appaloosa-Thoroughbred was the first to start me on a better listening path. He used to act “dominant” mainly because he’d never had an owner or rider he respected or vv. When I tuned it back and let him tell me sweet things, he changed. First signal would be a turned head and a big, comical yawn. Then the eyes, oh how the eyes soften, like he’s seeing his human-in-training might actually get to the next grade without flunking. His whole demeanor is different now, as if he’s saying “nothing like home.” I especially like your suggestion that after getting a signal, we simply take a step back from whatever we’re intending to do. It’s that pregnant space between messages.

    1. Wonderful. And yes, that pregnant space… it’s the place they answer from, but we have to allow it’s existence in the first place. Great comment, Charlotte.

  24. Excellent piece. It took my old pony a long time to get this through my thick human skull, but he never gave up on me, and eventually I started to get it.

  25. Pingback: Shut Up-And Listen – The Sports Model Jackass

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