From a reader: 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? (…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.”)
Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to answer. What a great question.
First, my working definition of stress is being alive. Period. It’s the horse’s health, environment, changes in the herd, the need for free choice feed, and visits from farriers and vets; it’s all stress. Beyond that, it’s our responsibility to train ground manners so horses have a safe place in the world, even when many of our traditional training methods are not well suited to a horse’s temperament, so more stress.
Wild horses have stress without human intervention; harsh land, grazing scarcity, herd dynamics, and predators, just to name a few. It’s a fight to stay alive in that natural world, but not so different from the unnatural world of domesticated horses who live in confinement, face a growing list of chronic health issues, and are asked to work for us in ways they were not designed to do.
And yes, we humans cause our horses stress, sometimes without knowing it, because we confuse calming signals for affection. (I qualify for being a Loudmouth Party-Pooper by debunking the snout-kissing thing.)
Just being alive is stressful for horses, but it’s during times of stress that we can help them the most. The question isn’t whether there is stress, but can we recognize it at the earliest point, and at least, not exacerbate it?
A different reader: You wrote, “We’re even busy-in-the-head about being quiet, for crying out loud.” Busted. Anna, can you help? I’m overwhelmed with the thoughts of calming signals to the point of paralysis by analysis. Are some signals good?
Humans are extremists, aren’t we? Overthinking is our superpower and the more we stand and stare, the less we’re holding up our end of the conversation. First, we shouldn’t take a horse’s emotions personally, it gets in the way of listening.
Watch a horse getting bodywork; they’ll give a wide range of calming signals as they process how their body feels. Please, remember that every moment isn’t forever, it’s just a snapshot-second. Horses live in the present, and by the time we over-rationalize the instant, the moment may have passed.
When reading calming signals in a horse, rather than judging them as good or bad, it’s more useful to think in terms of stress rising or falling. It’s more like taking the temperature of the instant. Horses are always on a continuum somewhere between boredom and overwhelm. We’re looking for the middle ground.
If my horse tightens his lip, I may be too close. If he closes his eye, I may be too loud in my body. If he looks away, I might need to slow down. If I ignore his messages and push ahead without paying heed, his anxiety will rise. His sympathetic nervous system will engage, and he will become tense and resistant.
On the other hand, if I take a breath, give him some room and time to think about it, his calming signals will go softer. Then he’ll stay in his parasympathetic phase where he can quietly respond and learn. He can feel safe with me and trust me to be his leader.
I can give him a reprieve from his life of stress, which is why we humans want to be with horses, (and away from our own stressful lives,) in the first place. We mentor anxiety or calmness for our horses every moment.
Why do I continue to own horses? I can’t stop. Neither can you.
Is it fair to ride horses? Yes, if you do it right. You work for their welfare, give them 23 hours a day of herd time, in the most natural horse-way you can muster, with good vet and farrier care and free choice hay. You thrive on the inconvenience of keeping a horse. You keep your big emotions quiet, so you can hear their stoic messages.
And you make this promise of impeccable care for them until their last day, long past the riding years. You put the horse first, and in exchange, you get an hour in the saddle a few days a week, sitting spine to spine with a beautiful, dynamic creature who tells you everything he thinks. You get to be lifted and carried in a sacred place where grace is exchanged as readily as the air you both breathe. It’s the best trade any of us can ever make.
I get plenty of comments like this from readers, too: It has been about a week and the difference in Asher is pretty amazing. While it is challenging to keep my hands off his face, he is really responding by being much more mannerly. Such a simple thing and yet I never knew to do this till you posted about it.
Most people tell me they want a better relationship with their horse, and reading and responding to calming signals is literally the way to achieve that. If your horse is perfect, has no training issues, is not stoic, lives in a wonderful herd and never shows you any anxiety (?), then you’re fine.
But if you are a work in progress, building a partnership where trust matters, and hoping for a goal on the horizon, then know that your communication must improve. That for every bit of that growth, you must invest in your riding skills. You must invest more of yourself in money, time, and willingness to learn. Being the leader means being the one to do it first.
Am I ruining your horse-crazy girl fantasies with my Loudmouth Party-Pooper-ness? Mine, too. When I was a kid, I wanted to be rescued, not by a knight, but by his white steed. Little did I know the horse needed it as much as me.