Calming Signals and “Happy” Horses

I’m now officially calling this my Loudmouth Party-Pooper Series. Today I’m writing about love and happiness, for horses, not us.

All I ever wanted was to study horses. I wanted to understand them, not just sit the saddle. I wanted to go deep to their true nature, and as much as possible, see the world through their eyes, learn to speak their language. It would be a heartfelt lifelong scientific and experiential education. And sure enough, horses communicated some very unflattering things. I decided to love them enough to listen to what I didn’t want to hear.

(I’ve been stirring things up by writing about horse’s calming signals that are commonly confused with affection.  Ouch. I followed that with a reminder about how sensitive a horse’s muzzle is and suggesting that we keep our hands to ourselves. Lots of slap-back on that, like the other 99.5% of the horse wasn’t enough to touch.)

A reader asked this week how she could tell if her horse liked her. She isn’t new to horses, but she’s re-thinking old assumptions and growing into new eyes. I think it was meant to be a deeper question.

Let’s start here: How can I tell my horse is happy?

Already, I have a problem. What is happy? We humans fixate on the word. We roll it around in our self-aware mind. (Animals, humans and horses both share what science calls consciousness; we know we’re alive. Only humans have self-awareness; we think about our thoughts.) So, as we have an intellectual debate with ourselves, we’ve mentally separated from horses already. Horses live in constant situational awareness, they would have been removed from the gene pool otherwise.

There’s a great word some behaviorists use to describe what horses and other animals feel. Funktionslust is a German word meaning “the pleasure taken in what one does best.” It’s birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and horses gotta run. They need to feel autonomy in the glory of their own physical body. And more importantly, horses gotta hang with the herd. Horses gotta be horses.

When talking about reading calming signals, the example I use of a “happy” horse is always a photo from Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, one of the most successful, longest existing facilities in the US. The horses live freely, have special friendships, run and gallop, and graze the seasons away. And in all my travels, they are the most sane horses I’ve met. Each horse had a heart-wrenching rescue story when they came, not that it matters now. Mel didn’t do extreme micro-managing of care or faith healings. She did something much harder; she let them be horses. The horses healed themselves and each other.

I went with her to check the herd one night at dusk. We stopped the cart a few times and some horses kept eating, others looked at us and went back to eating. Sometimes a horse would make a choice and wander over to sniff and get a rub. Most of the time, they chewed and pooped, hung in self-chosen groups, kept an eye on each other, and this is the biggie, lived pretty-close-to-natural for domestic horses. Funktionslust.

Do the horses have a “bond” with their caretakers? Undeniably. They just don’t need to prove it constantly. The other word for that is confidence.

I think of this herd as my calming signal control group. They are what “happy” looks like.

Learn to read calming signals: Does the horse go still in his eyes, throat breathing when you’re close, almost like he’s playing dead? That’s anxiety. Does the horse act pushy, or have a trying-too-hard energy? That’s anxiety. Define anxiety as being alive, but how a horse manages anxiety has more to do with his lifestyle that we admit. Once we learn to create less anxiety for them, we can be better partners.

Party-pooper pronouncement: Horses can tell we aren’t horses. I spent half a lifetime trying but I was not once mistaken for a horse. We acknowledge that horses are sentient and then still think we can pass? No.

Do horses love us? Well, I think you know my loudmouth party-pooper answer. Love, as we understand it in our self-aware mind, no. I’m not sure we have a word for their equivalent. It might be wellbeing, as in a sense of safety/species companionship/free choice food/peace.

Does it seem like they might love us? Yes. Here’s my theory: We know horses sense our fear. Then clearly, they would feel our love, we never try to hide it. Is it possible that what we see in them is our own love reflected back? For most of us, our love is visible at fifty miles. Do they take on other emotions or insecurities of ours that create anxiety? Perhaps even parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of? Of course.

We lie down with horses, claim they kiss us, hug us. If those words were true, how do these behaviors benefit horses? Sometimes we get caught up in a narrative. It’s what we want to see and how we want to feel. We expect horses to fill our emotional needs, mitigating the things missing in our lives. We confuse our own perceptions about love and happiness with the horse’s reality, what matters to him.

Am I romantic about horses in my own mind? Yes, I’m besotted. Isn’t that just a bit selfish?

But is it possible to put that horse-crazy love into action? Possible to put their needs first? For all that horses give us, we need to be more mindful about what we give back. Perhaps not let our complacency make assumptions, think before touching, stay present in the moment and listen to them. Go so quietly, so slowly that even your old horse becomes curious, a natural state in horses.

Finally, how can you tell your horse likes you? He looks like a horse… peaceful.

I’ll give Melanie the last word:

“Horses spark our imagination and awaken the very best of who we are. They
give so much of themselves – but, aside from food and shelter, what do
they get from us? Watch your horses when there are no demands on them.
When they have the freedom to make their own decisions, to move, sleep,
eat, drink, and interact with their herdmates – this is what a happy
horse looks like. The greatest gift we can give them is to remember that
they have an intrinsic right to their own life beyond serving mankind.”

Melanie Sue Bowles
Founder/Director
Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary

Also an author, please consider her books about Proud Spirit, available everywhere. Amazon link here and follow Proud Spirit on Facebook here.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
Planning our 2019 clinic schedule now.
Email ambfarm@gmail.com for details or to be added to the email list.

47 comments

  1. We made what turned out to be a bad decision to sell our fifth horse, a young Saddlebred, 3 years ago. He was just turned 7. He’s doing fine, but was resold twice, violating the contract the buyer signed, to return him to us if it didn’t work out. We found out where he was when our vet called, stating that the new owner needed us to transfer his microchip.

    Several women came to see him over several weeks when I advertised him for sale. They all said that they were looking for a “soulmate”. I asked them how they could see that in a horse, and they replied that they “would be able to see it in his eyes”.

    To be charitable, I would have to think they meant they were looking for a “kind” eye. Otherwise I would have to conclude they live in a fantasy horse world. What happens when they perceive a rejection by the horse when the horse behaves like a horse, not a “Velcro” dog like my two Golden Retrievers?

    • I wonder if they married the first man with a “kind” eye. Oh, how we love to romanticize. Hope he has landed well now, great comment, Kathleen. Thank you.

  2. Interesting that it is less stressful to let my guys alone to be horses. Our interaction is mostly at their discretion. Every day each one gives me a nod as I tend to my barn chores. It is enough for me.
    Thanks Anna.

  3. Anna, in my old age, I have become very interested in paying back to the species that has so enriched my life. Trying to better understand what can I do for them rather than vice-versa. Your blog is a gift that I share with many. Recently I came across the book Horse Speak by Sharon Wilsie, and then read her second, Horses in Translation. I haven’t worked with her ideas enough yet to make informed first person judgements but you and other readers of your posts may find some additional ideas for being better humans around the horses we interact with. Thanks always for what you share, Maureen ________________________________

  4. Loved this, Anna. Peaceful-that really sums it. A friend told me she thought my horse looked ‘happy’, content. I said back that I felt that too, as all their needs were being met. They have hay, abundant, clean water, shelter from the cold, wet & wind, and a free-choice, clean & dry barn to hang out in. They also seem to feel safe as they lie down, sometimes together, and sleep. They all nicker whenever they see us and come right up to us for pets & scratches or to see what is happening-are we going for a ride, are they going out into the pastures, getting brushed, or are we just hanging out with them? I know we love our horses and whether or not they feel love for us, if they’re feeling peaceful &/or content, that makes me happy!

  5. I don’t get to go home-home very often. And truth to tell sometimes I do run out for hugs! They tolerate the fawning and yet tell me when enough is enough with politeness.

    And I guess that’s what any Joan-Living Being is based on; respect and sufficient humility to learn from each other.

    But thank goodness for my boyfriend and our dog who both need the hugs and kisses and rough housing as much as I do.!

  6. I LOVE your Party Pooper Series! But it has made it even more difficult to watch the barn mate who is constantly throwing both hands over her horse’s muzzle. Thank you for really paying attention for so many years . . . and for sharing your experience with us. I love – “I didn’t want to just sit the saddle.” Now, that looks to me like a wasted life.

  7. You’re spot on, and I don’t think it’s “party-pooping.” Once you let go of that wishful, they love me, sort of thinking, and see the horse for what it is, I think our horses are much more rewarding to be around. There’s nothing like the quietude that comes from standing in a field with a content horse. I think that people want all of their animals to relate to them like dogs do- obviously gleeful, tail-wagging, hellos, followed by the “let’s engage” body language. Letting horses be who they are in relationship to us is much more difficult, and leads us open to all sorts of self-questioning and doubt when we don’t get get an unequivocal message from the horse (as we do from our dogs) that they want to be with us, doing what we want to do. (And, yes, I know that many people don’t read their dog’s body language either, but you get my point 🙂

    • Great comment, Terry. Thanks. And with dogs, we have such a wide range of breed temperments to choose from… it’s different, but you get my point. 🙂

  8. Thank you for your honesty Anna. I am now practicing watching for calming signals and am realizing how much my horses are teaching me to just be.

  9. On the whole I agree with your “party-pooping” too many people teat their horses like live, on-demand my little ponies. But there is another side too, at least from my experience. I breed Arabians (30 years now) and have always kept them in small groups. When I walk into a paddock I am instantly mugged, with ponies sniffing, licking, grooming me and presenting bits of themselves to be groomed, pushing in front of each other to get attention. They surround me for as long as I am there, the best therapy in the world. My daughter also rides and has chosen eventing for her sport, so now she is too tall for the Arabians she has moved onto thoroughbreds. She has two off the track (love me a recycled horse) but we bought a yearling at the sales this year to see the difference in one that hasn’t gone through “The Business” When anyone goes into the TB paddock this baby is all over them. It’s the only flat paddock so Dani does a lot of her ridden work in it, and while I watch it is me having my face squished and kissed, my hairties removed from my pony tail, my clothes licked and groomed. You can push him away as much as you like but he will come back, and if you absolutely insist he will stand a metre away snoozing. None of this is forced, I like my horses to come to me, but if they are busy or not in the mood I’m not worried.

    • Helen, I respect your experience, and I’ve had Arabians, as well. From a standpoint of calming signals, I’m always cautious about busy-ness being anxiety. If you are happy with their behavior, then the best to you. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Such timing! I was just watching a video by one of those roundpen gurus, talking about how to get your horse so he likes being “loved on” … and the horse he used as an example of one who was “at that stage” was giving several calming signals. In one video, the horse was even giving the “foal face”. Totally clueless teaching the totally clueless …

    I do think that horses bond, make friends, and feel affection … and that can just as easily be directed toward us. But calm and peace are what they seek, so having them seek me out, and just want to be there, in soft contact (often they will place their muzzle against me) … their choice, is my biggest measure that affection exists.

    Your words may not be popular with everyone, but it’s important that we not lose sight of the horse as an individual, rather than a romantic being or a piece of recreational equipment. Keep up the party-pooping!

  11. Anna, Your calming signals series has changed the way I see my horse and I am grateful. William is my first and only horse. I adore him with my whole heart and have always wanted to hug him, kiss him, brush him, and love on him. He never wanted that and always politely walked away. My feelings would be so hurt. I was sure he didn’t like me. It weighed on me every time I looked at him. Now I understand his need for space and I give it to him willingly. I don’t take his aloofness personally anymore. Thank you for the work you do in studying and understanding horses so well, and sharing it with the rest of us! Your horse wisdom is just what horses and their adoring care takers need.

    • Oh thanks so much for this comment… not taking things personally might be the biggest lesson we can learn in working with horses! Thank yu, Jeanine.

  12. Thanks so much for your wisdom on horse calming signals. At the horse rescue where I volunteer, a bunch of pregnant mares were rescued, who have since foaled. I wanted to hang out with the foals but didn’t want to use food to attract them. Also, I wanted to be able to touch them without them feeling like they didn’t have a choice in the matter, and I thought about how much I enjoy having my back scratched, so once day I went out to the nursery paddock and started combing the backs, barrel and legs of the mares and foals (if they walked away, I didn’t pursue them).

    After a couple of weeks I no longer went up to the horses, I just went in the nursery paddock and waited for the horses to come to me to be combed. Most of the foals regularly come up to me to be combed, but only two of the mares. That was OK with me, as I do not want to cause increased anxiety in any of the horses.

  13. Peaceful. that is something that all horses deserve to be. My horse likes to have an afternoon nap or meditation time in the paddock. He turns his head toward the woods and stands quietly for some minutes. I only observe this from a distance as if i come up to the fence he will look up and come over to me. Is he napping? Is he dreaming? Is he meditating? Is he recalling ancestor memories? No matter. He seems restored after these little interludes. Peaceful.

  14. I think we can say ” horses love us” as long as we don’t presume or project onto the horse what human perception of love /emotion is.. The horse, I believe interprets as wellbeing or discord in a herd behavior sense.Then there’s the undoubted behavior of loss when a horse loses a pasture mate.Horses have emotional responses but perhaps we would be clearer as to what that looks like if we were to put a pair of Emerald City glasses on where everything looks green! Loved your post as always.

  15. Hello Anna,

    Thanks for your very interesting email.

    A question, when you talk about calming signal, a horse that stands next to you, almost like he is playing dead ( not sure what you mean by breathing from the throats), what is the difference with a horse in a herd in a paddock having a snooze?

    Best, Katia

    >

    • Throat breathing is very shallow, not panting but only a bit of air comes in, and stressful. We do the same thing when we have anxiety. From the side, their flank barely moves at all. The snoozing horse is taking deeper breaths. AND many horses will go totally still when we come close, they freeze. (Some other species of animals freeze or appear to play dead when frightened.) Thanks for asking, Katia.

  16. That gave me goose bumps. Today, I was trying to get a lady to understand to feel for her horse & of her horse, to wait for the acknowledgement back, not just go through the motions (which i think of as being mechanical) for what she was asking the horse to do. She finally saw the difference in how much calmer the hores’s response was when she asked in a different way. Letting the horse be ok & free of anxiety is a pleasure to see.

  17. I love giving them a choice. And I feel a squeeze in my chest when they choose to eat hay or take a snooze near me…when they could wander off and snooze or eat hay scattered in bunches all around their yard. Quiet. Peaceful. Contentment..is a happy pony. =-)

  18. What I am learning from you, Anna, is helpful as I work to understand the horse. What I am left with is that anyone who truly wants their horse to be content will let them “be a horse”. So, from that I conclude that we shouldn’t ride them or handle them but instead, ensure their safety and physical needs are met and then let them alone. Any other intrusion and you’ve made this clear, is anxiety inducing and stressful. So why do you continue to own horses? With a barn and tack and expectations? I will continue to be a devoted reader but I am struggling to decode your real message.

      • Yes, you may quote my question. Wanting to ride our horses or even just be a part of their lives yet wanting them to be at their happiest is a contradiction that I struggle with. They aren’t fully domesticated, like a dog and they are herd beasts. And their responses are instinctual. They aren’t verbal and don’t think in the way humans define it.

  19. I’m really enjoying this series. One of my favorite things even when I was little has been to just hang out in the pasture with the horses listening to the wonderful sounds of grazing and absorbing their calm. Now I have my own 2 little girls and we often hike out into the pasture to give scratches to the ones who want them. We have a new horse we got this past summer. He will often follow us around the pasture even when we’re no longer giving scratches and the kids have moved on to playing. I get the feeling he is fascinated by our lack of interest in him 🙂

  20. Well, I have found your information about calming signals to be very helpful. But I guess I have a different idea about my relationship with my horses. I am not there just to make them happy horses. For me it is a two-way street. Although my horses don’t “love me” the way I love them, they are happy to be around me and they don’t mind if I need to give them a little kiss now and then. They put up with my silliness and that is why I know they are happy with me. Just as I put up with their horsiness. The one thing they do seem to enjoy is my grooming them. Well they enjoy the grooming on some parts of them and the rest they put up with as more of my silliness. But it works.

  21. Its been 3 yrs now since I started saying to any visitors, don’t touch the horses specially on the face, if they chose to touch you just stand still and let them, if you really want to touch them give them a wee scratch on the base of the neck .. and its been incredible to see how the horses have changed. These days instead of walking away, they more often than not come up to be curious, and follow us around. if they ask, by how they position themselves or by nuzzling me I will give them a good scratching, (I have one that specially likes it under the chin between his jaw bones, Ihe has figured out I am good for something haha) I am loving your articles. I have long known something was wrong but had no idea what, and couldn’t find anyone with answers that made sense, but what you say does ..

  22. I have been really thinking about this topic. I went to a clinic recently where Charles deKunnfy was the teacher. A very well respected man and rider trainer. He is in his 80s and an amazing person. What he said about horses kind of shocked me. I can’t quote him so, this is what I took from what he said. “Horses don’t know if they are dead or alive, they live in the moment”. He said this at least 2 or 3 times, just very matter of factly. I felt he wanted us to be very unemotional when with our horses. Be clear and constructive. … Being fair and calm was the point when making a correction Also, he said there is no tolerance for striking a horse ever because they simply do not understand it. In his day, he said one would be banned for the school for striking a horse. Never to be let back in. It was an excellent experience. I am very glad I got to hear his lecture.

    • He is somebody in my world and it’s a blunt quote. I agree with him, I’d add some science but it is how horses exist and we forget. Prey animals are dead if they don’t live in the moment. Thanks for sharing, Evangeline.

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