Lots of the people who come to Calming Signals clinics are bright-eyed and hopeful that I have a signal to give horses to calm them down. Most of us prefer a horse who is calm and if I had a fool-proof hand signal that I could teach, can you even imagine how many rescue horses I could afford?
“Calming signals” is a great turn of phrase originated by Turid Rugaas, Norwegian dog trainer, to describe the social skills, or body language, that dogs use to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs. I’d recognized similar language used by horses after moving to an isolating farm a few years before and first wrote about it in 2014.
I love the words Calming Signals but to be an honest loudmouth party-pooper, people get it backward. We don’t calm them, they mean to calm us. We are the loud ones and the more we over-cue them, the more they try to convince us that they are no threat. We think we’re training, but to them, it’s always about survival.
Horses would like us to know that they don’t live to please us. They have fully dimensional, sentient lives in the herd that don’t revolve around us. Safety is the goal, but peace can be boring. It isn’t all hearts and kisses; they have rivals and favorites. Some enjoy roughhousing, some have senior sensibilities. Some are born leaders, compassionate and protective. Some struggle with confidence and behave with loud bravado that humans mistake for “alpha” behavior, but then humans are always confusing rude habits for celebrity.
Herd dynamics is subtler and more nuanced than we appreciate, and as much as we love seeing sweet mutual grooming sessions, it’s never that simple. Then just when things settle, everything changes. They evolve as they learn and grow, and it’s our job to try to keep up. Smart humans give up thinking they know anything.
On a personal note, as I bring this Loudmouth Party-Pooper mini-series to an end, I thought I’d share some opinions from my barn, straight from the horse’s mouth, translated to English with the intention to not anthropomorphize, the Real Loudmouth Party-Poopers of Infinity Farm:
Andante is a coppery chestnut who started as a skittery draft-cross PMU baby. His rider was committed to improving through lessons and now he’s fourteen and they have built an enviable relationship. The more dynamic his work under-saddle, the more he grew in confidence, and eventually he became our gelding leader. We never dreamed he would have the temperament but affirmative training impacts everything, even herd behavior.
A year ago, Norman came to the farm. A talented young draft-cross who tried so hard that there were permanent worry lines. Losing his herd was a challenge, changing barns is always hard, but Andante moved him from hay pile to hay pile, kindly and consistently, again and again, until Norman knew just where to be. Then he could relax. His rider reminds him to breathe, the wrinkles are gone, and he blows as the lesson’s warm-up begins. He loves to move in the arena and he’s the first to lay down for the morning group-nap. Happy boy.
Clara is the only mare here at the moment. Her leadership style is to flag her tail, gallop churning circles and scream, “We’re all going to die!” The geldings try to ignore here but she persists. She would like you to know the world is out of control and being calm is for saps. You have been warned.
Bhim is thirty-six inches tall but has more horse in him per square inch than the draft horses. Do not minimize him by calling him cute. His bravado is fear-based but listening to him gives him the confidence to sometimes sniff my hand. Four years later and he allows his feet to be trimmed. He has a long memory and it’s on me to prove humans aren’t all alike. He teaches the gargantuan thing called trust.
Nubé, our most sensitive horse, seems to protect his feelings more. Namaste, the worrier in the group, doesn’t get corrected for it which is almost like having less anxiety. Roo, retired from a therapeutic program, is starting to like the idea of company again, but not much. Pearl, the neurologic donkey foster has gained enough weight and opinion to play. She dotters crookedly after us, ears flat; sometimes it’s good to be bad. Cupid, the most recent decrepit foster has finally allowed that weird animal, Edgar Rice Burro, to groom him for a moment. Cupid’s more open to him than me. No shade thrown, I understand that. Edgar Rice Burro’s our moral compass after all, for his long-ear eloquence. All donkeys become geniuses once you understand that stubbornness is a calming signal.
My home herd has blossomed since focusing on Calming Signals and my training practices have evolved dramatically. I worry that this practice of reading calming signals encourages too much thinking on our parts. Sitting in a pen staring at horses is only a start. We must get into the conversation ourselves, learn to communicate in their language, and make ourselves more interesting than grass. Riding well can be a very healing therapy for a horse.
Calming signal conversations in the saddle are affirmative training at its finest.
Finally, a nod to my Grandfather Horse, I’ve written about him often. He was never the sentimental sort. He bore my passion like a rock under his saddle and did not suffer idiots (me). In my fantasy world, he isn’t loitering at the rainbow bridge. He’s young and strong, training some other hard-headed horse-crazy girl-woman, but maybe on a particularly good day, if I’ve managed to help a horse, he might look over and give me a small lick and half-chew. He was stoic and the loud-est-mouth party-pooper-iest horse ever… until we negotiated a democracy.
…Join us at Relaxed & Forward Tribe, Intl., with Anna Blake
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