Calming Signals Aren’t Calming

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

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine ProBlog/FB/Email/Author/FB/Tweet/Amazon

Planning our 2019 clinic schedule now. Email ambfarm@gmail.com for hosting details or to be added to the email list.

49 comments

  1. “…loud bravado that humans mistake for “alpha” behavior, but then humans are always confusing rude habits for celebrity.” Hahahaha! Love this serious, thanks for all you do.

  2. Individuals all – each with their own personality, quirks & “after-effects” from how humans treated (or mis-treated) them. Sad that so many humans dont comprehend that individuality. Their loss!

  3. I wanted to thank you. I so very much enjoy your posts, and have loved the “Loudmouth Party-Pooper mini-series.”Wishing you and your herd a happy and warm holiday season!Lisa

  4. Beautifully written. My hope is that my old gelding finds me “more interesting than grass”, but I don’t kid myself. He loves his pasture 24/7.

  5. You had me laughing. You had me crying. Most of all, though, I am grateful for this and the concept of calming signals. My horse reminds me often and I am trying to pay attention. Thank you.

  6. My horse Phoenix came to me a nervous, angry wreck. I was her 7th owner in her 13 years. She is now 20 and although she has permanent worry lines above her eyes, I finally realize I can’t make them go away. She is no longer the nervous, angry wreck she was when I got her. When she gives me calming signals I now know what they mean and respect them. Sometimes I have to give her calming signals too. But hanging out together, especially in front of her favorite tree, is one of our favorite things to do and that is as good as it gets.

    • Worry lines above the eyes? There is one here (not mine, belongs to the boss) with permanent sneer marks above the nostrils, which in most horses only appear when the ears are pinned and they are in attack mode. Horses hate to be sold on, and on, and on, while the very best are never sold at all. I had my “keepers” as I bred, and very much disliked to see years later what had become of those which were sold so we could keep our “keepers”.

  7. So many signals misinterpreted and people taught they mean something they don’t. Sigh, We have two horses here both of whom have been returned through no fault of their own, just people who got them who couldn’t or didn’t listen to what the horse was trying to say, until the horse had to speak so loudly the people were on the ground, and then of course, it is the horse’s fault. Since both of these guys are horses we have bred, we have a responsibility to them, we brought them into the world! I read your words and know at one time all of your herd were babies fresh and new, and life did not treat them well. (Don’t even get me started on the poor PMU mares and foals!) Many people seem to think ALL horses are the same, which is why I especially love reading your descriptions. You truly SEE the animals you care for, the individuality of them all.
    I don’t know if we will find places for our boys, but I do know they won’t end up in a kill pen through no fault of their own. I just wish there were more Anna Blakes in the world!
    Merry Christmas to you and yours!!

    • Thank you, Jane. Most of all for being an ethical breeder… that might even make you a rare breed! And thanks for being part of this tribe, we appreciate your geldings, just as they are. Best to you and yours, as well.

  8. Perfect follow up to attending your Calming Signals clinic at Lucky Pup. I haven’t looked at my horse the same way ever since. I’m less focused on his “bad” behavior (which I think is his way of telling me to chill), just trying to understand what he’s telling me. And I ALWAYS turn off my cell phone now, no distractions. Helped that I couldn’t get a signal at the clinic unless I was at the house on the hill 😉 Lesson learned!

  9. What a lovely herd you have, loved reading about them all and I love how you’ve helped open our eyes! I am so thankful to be able look at my horses through a new eye and heart. And even when what you say is the opposite of what we think, party poopers or not it’s such EXCELLENT information. I hope I can be a better horse owner, a better listener and I know our relationship horse and human will flourish. ❤️ Thank you Anna! – Diana

  10. Anna, some how I managed to delude myself into believing that I was pretty “chill” in the personality department, until I hit my forties; that’s when I got involved with horses. It turns out that they quickly and efficiently pointed out my personal misinformation. 20 years later, I’m still learning about the merits of being truly “chill”. The horse’s calming signals are a constant reminder. Thank goodness they are patient with me when I forget and get too big or too loud with a request. I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that this will always be a struggle, but a struggle worth pursuing.

  11. Love hearing about your herd. Grass seems to trump anything I could do to be interesting, but it is nice that they seem to like me hanging out while they graze. I get more soft eyes when I pay attention to their calming signals.

    • Grass is medicine, the best is out in the lane, unpolluted. First thing I do when I take Cassie out of the yard (living on hay) is drop the rope and leave her for 15 minutes or so. And she’s watching me like “Is this really OK? You actually trust me not to run off? Such unheard of bliss.” For me its part of our deal. You cart me about safely and in great style, and I will treat you like the queen you are, in joy and light. She no longer maddeningly snatches at grass when we ride out, her belly sucking on the juice as we go. Not mine, I’m working her for my boss.

  12. I’ve loved reading your Calming Signals posts and I’ve also found a couple of wonderful books that delve deeply into Equine Body Language by Sharon Wilsie. Horse Speak and Horse in Translation are both a fabulous resource for learning more refined communication and she offers a way to give the horse our own ‘calming signals’ (she calls it Zero or using an ‘O’ position). I highly recommend both her books as one is very pictorial and shows all the nuances of communication, while the other has no pictures aside from one diagram but talks about her journey and experiences that brought her to learn and now share equine body language and how we can learn to do it too. I’ve had horses for 50 years and considered myself quite adept at ‘reading’ them, and worked as an instructor for many years teaching natural horsemanship. I now see there’s a whole new level of communication that can be achieved if we understand and learn the horse’s language in far more detail first.
    https://www.wilsiewayhorsemanship.com/

  13. Anna, Trixie sends a big thank you… She loves that you keep reminding me to stop and listen, to slow down and to smile, to quit over analysing everything and to find the middle ground. But most of all she thanks you for reminding me to breathe. Thanks for this mini series, loved it 🙂

  14. Yay for you and Grandfather Horse! My sentiments exactly with my dear departed appy, Cappy. Though, I admit to hardly ever gotten it right, every once in a while I did get a few nods in my direction. Just wish I discovered your blogs much sooner for him.
    It is wonderful to read the many comments from long-time horse owners who now see the “Calming Signal light” that you have shined on us. When it comes to my horses, I had always deferred to those who I thought were much more experienced than I; and yet for many things I had a nagging feeling theirs was not THE WAY. Yay for me to have found the truth as seen through your writings. Yay for my horses. Yay for all of us!

  15. Well what an interesting group of characters in your little herd. I thank them for being in your life. They teach you..you listen..you teach and share with us..we listen. At least we try to. It is like learning sign language. Is bowing down..legs stretched out in front like a dog considered a calming signal? For about 6 months now Mr Wynn meets me at the gate every morning and does the bow/strech thing. I laugh (I cant help it) and I mimic him and do my bow/stretch thing. Then I tell him what a good boy that was a beautiful stretch! He then steps closer for our usual morning hand sniff, face sniff breath share ritual. Little Mama Cass (she is 30 inches tall) does the hand sniff greeting then walks away lol and says “follow me my dear and give me food”. I thought the morning stretch was a happy good morning greeting. But now I’m wondering..what is it? Calming signal? Tension release? Hmmm. I have a lot more listening to do. =-)

  16. “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.” OMG I love your writing so much Anna! There are so many parts of this post that made me well up inside or chuckle through watery eyes. I couldn’t post every word again so I chose this about Clara. Please put your Calming Signals series in a book so we can learn and savor it over and over again.

  17. Loving me more than grass? Well, that is certainly something to aspire to , right? . i would say that would be quite a leap at this point. I’m just happy I can move my horses’ heads out of the grass ( or the hay) and on to something else. That was not always the case without a battle of some kind…
    I have loved the Calming Signals blogs, and look forward to whatever is next. …

  18. I know these people: “stubbornness is a calming signal” and “being calm is for saps.” And the day I can be “more interesting than grass” and know what the hell I did/thought/breathed/imaged to achieve it, I will have reached the pinnacle.

  19. Hi Anna, thank you so for your series on Calming Signals…
    Pondering how stubbornness in donkeys is a calming signal? I’d love to understand that better (and does it apply to people too maybe??)
    Happy Festive Season and New Year to you and yours.
    Cheers,
    Katrine

    • The thing we call stubborn is shutting down, isn’t it? When things get too loud, I do think people do it as well. Thanks, Katrine. Best to you in the New year.

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