Say you’re learning to read calming signals, so naturally, you’re scrutinizing your horse. Staring like a coyote. Very quietly staring hard, when suddenly, he blinks funny. Your eyebrows wrinkle. What does that mean? Then he freezes. “Is he even breathing?” you wonder, holding your breath. “Does his lack of breathing have to do with being a rescue horse? Could it be a health issue, is he choking? Did he have a rider who…”
Humans aren’t multi-taskers. We just think we are, and that’s the problem: we think. It’s possible to be externally aware (feeling our surroundings with our senses) and think at the same time, but more often, when we intellectually engage it seems to cancel out our sensual awareness. It’s like our brain is a warm little bed and we’re old deaf cats. We like languishing in our own minds making up stories about mice, rather than trying to catch one. Now let’s say we were in the saddle.
This is how we get reactive, we chatter away in our minds, telling ourselves stories, and then wake up in the middle of something real our horse has been trying to let us know about for a while. We’ve missed the first handful of calming signals and now he’s starting to feel abandoned. Fair. We react abruptly because we’re startled. Of course, that startles the horse because we both have autonomic nervous systems and it doesn’t matter who goes “sympathetic” (flight, fight, or freeze) first. It’s contagious.
Once that fear dynamic starts, we get defensive and our instinct says grab hold. Legs get tight and hands pull reins and we assume everything the horse does is wrong because we’ve had a mental runaway. *Some horses handle this better than others.*
We get defensive. We stop being partners and become restrictive in our bodies as well as our minds. It’s enough to make carrying us around a chore for horses. We kill Funktionslust, that German word meaning “the pleasure taken in what one does best.” We kill our horse’s desire to go forward.
Think of it this way: Forward, having a ground-covering fluid gait, is the foundation of balance and comfort for a horse, mentally and physically. In order to partner with a horse, we need to become mentally forward in the saddle. Instead of reacting to what just happened, we want to be thinking ahead. In other words…
Less correction, more direction.
The best remedy for thinking too much is being more sensually engaged with the environment. Rather than thoughts, emotions, and rat-on-a-wheel overthinking, take a breath and stroll through your senses: Touch, taste, smell, sight, sound.
Slower, how does his back feel? Are his ribs mirroring his slow breathing in a way your calves could follow? Encourage that. Is there a stale taste in your mouth? Or is it clean, fresh saliva tells you you’re relaxed, in the parasympathetic phase. You probably did a lick and chew to figure that out, good girl. Now, smell the air, always a bit better a few feet off the ground. Deep breath, feel the air cool on your throat, be here now.
What do you see? If something concerns you, excuse it with an exhale. Breathing is a recurring theme, but breathing is life and cueing your horse to breathe is a primal connection. Finally, what do you hear? The rhythm of his footfall is the metronome for his life, movement flowing with energy. Unite with him, here in the present real moment.
Listening to calming signals is the action of affirmative riding.
Consider a bit of reverse engineering. What do mounted calming signals look like? Is he counter-bending or looking to the outside of the curve? It’s like looking away on the ground, what loudness is he resisting? Are the reins any different than the lead line? Is your inside hand pulling or threatening or working like a parking brake? (If your horse says yes, you are.) Let go of the rein, even if you’re just lurking on it, he feels it on the bit. How is his forward? He’s lost rhythm, hasn’t he? Use just your sit bones and ask for a longer stride. The answer is to let him move, always.
Mentor the turn in your body, by turning your waist, not pulling your hand. He isn’t trying to be a pill, bits are literally painful in his mouth. He’s right about your hands, he always will be. Use your body instead and help him find balance with a mounted massage. That’s a better outcome than frustration and anxiety, the mental argument.
Is he dead to leg cues? No matter how hard you kick, he doesn’t go? Feel his ribs under your calves. Is he tense? Look at his ears, is his poll braced? Right now, don’t change your legs, just feel what they are doing. Are they totally still or muscle-tired? Then you’re clamping them. Are they just banging away? Then you have over-cued him for so long he’s ignoring them. Do you escalate cues, ask-tell-make, and he’s bracing his ribs for the pain to come? Does your horse think you’re still pulling on the rein, meaning giving a conflicting cue; go forward and stop simultaneously. Instead of judging what he isn’t doing, feel what you are doing. Know that horses shut down to avoid our over-cueing noise. Apologize, start again and do less.
Ask for a tiny thing lightly. Allow him to move on without correction. Reward him whether it’s good or not. You owe him that. On an arc, ask his withers to the outside by pulsing in rhythm with his barrel, a whispering inside leg to the outside shoulder, as you turn your waist into the curve. Using just your sit bones, ask for a longer stride. Reward his immediate response and promise to be lighter. Listen for his breath, for his jaw to release a lick and chew.
And by now, a million thoughts have tried to distract you from the sensual awareness of the real world. Politely excuse them; you can meet them later over a glass of wine. Love old deaf cats, but show up for your horse.
Engage your senses and listen. That place of sensual awareness is where horses exist, the place to build a partnership. Engage your senses and listen. Calming signals are language exchanged, and understanding its own reward.
26 thoughts on “Calming Signals from the Saddle.”
So, so, so right on! About horses, people, AND cats! You have me laughing [about old cats…and those of us like them :)] and upping my awareness of how I can do better at the same time. Pretty much as always with your lovely posts. Thanks ever so much!
A nod from my geriatric tabby, Squirrel. Thanks, Sarah.
Thank you Anna. Thank you from my horses, and from the bottom of my heart. xx
Thanks, Pam. If I keep writing long enough I’ll understand horses….
Another home run blog in a long line of ’em, Anna. Blessings for sharing, always!
Thanks, Joyce. Calming signals change everything.
Thank you for another wonderful blog post, Anna. I’m trying so hard to put my overthinking everything away when I get to the barn. It really is a struggle at times, but I think my horse is worth it.
That’s the thing, Celeste… exactly. Thanks.
It seems that most of your posts are reminding us to be present and ‘feel’ the horse and as a newer rider I am challenged at finding that feel – I know I don’t have it but I want it so bad. My coaches tell me it will come with time and practice (my poor patient horse!) so I keep trying. I am one of those thinkers you talk about, I try to let the brain stop and just feel but have a hard time.
‘Let go of the rein, even if you’re just lurking on it, he feels it on the bit’ – I’m trying to find this place – it’s somewhere between ‘you need to maintain contact so your horse knows where you are’ as one coach tells me and ‘quit pulling on his mouth and use your other aids’ but please ‘don’t just dump the reins – he can’t feel you’ …..I wonder if I will ever be able to just feel it? My horses is almost as green as I am – how confusing it must be!!
I see these beautiful partnerships between rider and horse and want to get there – but man, it’s a long road….I guess as long as he’s willingly tucking his face into the halter when I come for him, he’s still willing to let me try – thank goodness for good horses. I promise to keep breathing whenever I can remember to….
Oh Dena, I love this comment! And we are all works in progress, riding is an art. Your horses know your intent, they will be fine spending a life helping you along. Best wishes to you, this is the fun part. (PS, I use the word feel in the literal sense. Literally, feel his barrel between your legs. See? You have feel already!) 🙂
Lovely blog, so descriptive I don’t know how you do it breaking it all down like you do and making it understanding for us humans. Inadvertently I’m doing more calming signals than I was aware as my horses are my sanctuary, my escape from my busy, demanding job. My schedule lends itself to seeing my ponies everyday since I work graveyard shift at a veterinary laboratory. I’ve been working these hours for over 30 years so I’m beyond use to these hours. I’m so thankful for all the barn hours with trail rides, turn outs if I’m too tired to ride, or just letting them be horses out together grooming each other, heaven!! I’m finding that I stop a lot and breathe, watch them, listen to my horses as best I can. Your voice and descriptions help so much, confirm what I see, and am thankful for my WONDERFUL time I spend at the barn.
What I want to practice on one horse I own is your calming signals in the arena as I exercise him huntseat. He is 21a retired hunter but gets tense sometimes as we trot around. He’s much better when I relax which makes sense. He’s a warmblood, beautiful flea-bitten grey. My other Bay roan is only trail riden as she has a broken stifle that is all healed but arthritic, walking does her wonders and she’s just WONDERFUL on the trails. I breathe often on her especially if she sees something afar. Such a great mare! She’s the one who’s changing me and my perseptions of horses and especially mares. I’ve always given mares a bad rap, being difficult, mean or moody. She is none of these things, so sweet, so demonstrative with her actions that I stand back and listen and learn. A horse can teach you a lot if you take the time to see things through their eyes. I’m learning. Sorry to go on so, you get me thinking, feeling and excited to be with my horses, to look at them with a new eye, heart, mind. Owning a mare and a gelding at the same time has opened up my eyes as they are so different, they amaze me. Thank you for all your words when you put pen to paper in our virtual world! – Appreciatively, Diana ❤️
Thank you, Diana. What a beautiful comment. I think sometimes when we are tired, we bring our best selves to our horses. And is it just me, or is your mare teaching you how to ride your gelding?? 🙂
Haha! YES! My mare is definitely teaching me to ride my gelding. I never thought of it like that, by golly, that’s just so COOL! ❤️ Thank you Anna! ?
Hi Anna, I’m relating to all this, but I simply call it “reading the horse”. I listen for the grand sigh that tells me the horse has relaxed, let go, and is ready to listen. When all is well, relax, when all is crazy, relax. A horse cannot fight me, as I refuse to fight. It takes two to fight. A horse cannot pull if you give him nothing to pull on. As I read recently “The horse was born to go forward, but we impede him!” He is not pulling to run away, he is pulling because the rider is pulliing, too much collection and not enough relaxation. Horses only show resistance when they are hurting somewhere, or remembering old hurts. I love this site. Louise.
Thanks, Louise, for the kind words. And welcome.
This is an especially inspiring post for me today. I’m early in my riding journey and looking to buy my first horse. Last week a beautiful mare I tried felt like riding a cloud. My trainer kept reminding me to breath and “light, giving hands” and I was so rewarded. I rode a second time with the owner watching, and afterwards she seemed so pleased… apparently I spontaneously called out in delight after I had exhaled and the horse responded to my breath alone…what a wonderful feeling. I think this could be a start of a true partnership. Just remember to breath, and “stroll through my senses.” Thank you. I have much to learn and this is exciting!
Yay, you! Thanks for sharing, Diane. (This is how they set the hook!)
Oh Anna, this so resonates with me and what’s going on when I ride my sensitive red boy!
Glad to hear it, Ruth. Gotta love red boys.
Oh yes -” It’s like our brain is a warm little bed and we’re old deaf cats.” !
That could be the beginning of another poem…. 🙂
I wonder if anyone has lessons these days, where they are riding with eyes shut, with stirrups crossed, with arms folded? Surely a good way to shut up the mind and get to the feeling?
I usually let them have a neck ring, but I do confess, I have been known to torture thusly. 🙂
Great! So pleased 🙂
So beautifully put. I can feel the mare beginning to melt under me, drop her head, and take a Big breath. That’s both of us on the Big breath! Thank you Anna
Amen on the big breath! Thanks, Toby.
I will definitely be paying more attention to Mr Wynn’s calming signals and breathing, now, on the ground, and when we return to driving this summer. I have heard of and seen a couple of terrible carriage accidents and this is a big fear of mine. It is not easy to shut these thoughts down but I will always keep trying to relax, stay present and breath with him. I treasure all your helpful advice Anna. =-)
It’s weird to say, but once you have a runaway, it’s easier (?) Good work, Deb.