Calming Signals and Boundaries

A request to write about boundaries, in which the Loudmouth Party-Pooper returns.

Am I allowed a pet peeve? I’ve began seriously disliking the “Incredible Bond” photos, the ones where someone is lying on the ground next to their horse, the one where someone is sitting on a naked horse without a helmet, or the photo with the human is looking meaningful and the horse’s calming signals telling a different story. The intention of the photos is probably meant to show off. They want us to know their special connection with a horse but to me, it’s like bragging about poor horsemanship.

They might be “before” photos. As a trainer, I hear all the horror stories. Riders who are working to recover from TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries) or awaiting a series of reconstructive surgeries for their face, or recuperating from a broken bone or destroyed confidence. It’s rude of me to agree that so many serious injuries come from foolish complacency. That’s what they say, yet hindsight is no balm for those who know it was their fault, when it’s too late to undo the damage to themselves and their horses. What about the horses sent to auction or worse because they hurt someone?

Do I sound like a cranky Pony Club instructor lecturing about safety as if you were a child? Have we forgotten that if we aren’t safe then our horses aren’t either?

Finally, for crying out loud, can you tell me how horses benefit from someone lying next to them on the ground? Are we trying to be more like a horse or make the horse more like us? Please tell me that it’s all about the human because it makes my head spin. Is it meant to be bravado, like putting our head in the mouth of a lion? That always seems to diminish the lion in a weird kind of domination that makes no sense. Is the intention to diminish horses, too?

Understand that I don’t mind some showing off at all. How about doing something that takes skill like a good old-fashioned ground tie or a relaxed canter depart? Or being a calm leader who instills confidence when their horse’s courage fails them in front of a vet or a judge or a trail monster. Definitely things to be proud of and I’ll stand to cheer.

What if we respect horses for the sensitive flight animals they are? Can we respect their intelligence, giving them the autonomy to stand apart? Can we communicate with them in a clear peaceful way as equal partners? Why don’t we see them as perfect as the sentient species they are rather than valuing them for how they reflect on us?

The thing we are doing is amazing already. Working with horses is like a building a relationship with an alien, it’s finding an uncharted language and starting a new culture. Why would we want horses to be more like humans when they give us the chance to do the extraordinary? We would do better to be more interested in their differences, rather than similarities to us.

I have a passionate love of horses, but I would no more let a horse mug/groom/maul me than let him eat an entire fifty-pound bag of grain. No more let a horse nibble my fingers or shove me with his nose than I would let him loose to graze next to a freeway.

Rant over. Let’s talk boundaries. Do you know your horse’s? Do you listen to his calming signals? Are you aware of your own boundaries? Do you engage in mutual mugging sometimes, and at other times, do you punish him for being fussy and not standing still? Can you even tell who’s in whose space or do you pretend it’s always your horse’s fault?

Most of us have been taught to plant our feet and demand the horse “respect us” and step back. We shake ropes or poke them with fingers, all the while being within a foot or two of the horse. Notice that deer-in-the-headlights look on your horse? He can’t tell if you’re going to whack him or kiss his snout. He has anxiety because you’re in his space giving contradictory cues. “Who is she today? Am I in trouble?”

A horse does get a moment to sniff, but we should step back. People joke that their horse has no concept of personal space. He’s a prey animal, that’s ridiculous. It’s you that he’s confused about.

The reason that our consistency is important is not so we can become feared dominators, it’s because consistency is a kindness, just like respecting his space. If your horse shows you signs of anxiety, and stoic horses do that quietly, then work to alleviate that anxiety.

If the two of you are in each other’s space, give him a quiet cue to step back, but you take a step back as well. Let him feel the release of you moving from his space and see how much easier it is for him to think when he literally has room. Reward him and then stop putting him in this spot. It’s why some horses are better in the saddle than on the ground, oddly, we’re more out of their space sitting spine to spine.

You say your horse starts it by wanting to be close? Often the things we think of as cute or funny are calming signals showing conflicted stress that we exacerbate by cooing and mistaking for affection. Just because he seems to ask for it, must we oblige? Are we second-class citizens without a vote in our partnership? In the same way that we wouldn’t give a child candy when he cries, or spank him when he cries, could we instead put our love into action toward a more positive leadership that builds confidence and autonomy?

Please, stay on your feet, not just for safety but because we communicate with horses body to body, not face to face. Horses read our whole bodies, so we need movement without restriction. Fully inhabit your body by standing square and breathing deep, using situational awareness, projecting the behavior you want to inspire Trust them to read your confidence as easily as they read fear.

What do I do if the horse is coming apart? That instant when dangerous things can happen? First, I take a breath, it’s hard but I do it so slow things down. Rather than attacking my horse who’s already afraid, I make myself even larger. If he’s in a total panic, I might get his attention by making a loud sound as I get out of his space. I’m a professional, I can make myself very large. Breathing, not braced but moving my feet to hold a position of space, I exhale until he settles. Then I think of all the calming signals I missed because there were signs before it became a huge panic. Being a prey animal means everything is life or death. Did I focus on my horse or daydreaming about something foolish? Apologize for dozing off, go back to the basics, and try to do better.

Trust your horse to mimic you. Put energy into your movements; be dynamically present in your body because it’s your primary mode of communication. Be the confidence you want to see in your horse and then show off: Take pride that your horse can stand in autonomy, on his own feet, in a position of confidence and peace.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

This blog describes what we do in the Calming Signals for People clinic.
Email me at ambfarm@gmail.com for clinic hosting details or to be added to the email list.
Join us at The Barn, our online training group at annablake.com with audio, video, and weekly LiveChats.

Anna Blake

81 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Boundaries”

  1. Good post!

    I usually try to point out the areas that resonated with me the most. This post I had trouble picking out a favorite passage. It’s all good! 🙂

    Thank you, Anna!

  2. Thinking more on this, I’m remembering the old, gruff horseman that introduced me & my family to horses. I never saw him gush over a horse. Now and then, he would feed one a pinch of his chewing tobacco. He would no more kiss a horse than he would kiss a tree, yet you could feel the mutual, quiet respect between him & his horses.

    • Some of this is laying down our emotions and letting that quiet respect rise up… we know it when we see it but there is no faking it. Thanks for both comments, Susan. Like you, I have those rich images in my mind.

  3. Thanks. I’m an equine chiropractor, and as a different form of equine professional I experience a great deal of the same human behaviors you describe that make horses unsafe, uncomfortable or both. Your articles help me react more appropriately when my initial reactions might be misunderstood by the human. I believe I’m a loud mouth party pooper as well.

  4. I think about Christopher Reeve. He was wearing a helmet when he was injured but his hands got tangled in the reins flipping him to land on his head. He talked after the accident about how he was very in tune with his horse on a very spiritual level and that he was worried about a jump further ahead, not the one his horse stopped on. He also said repeatedly that it was no fault of his horse and that he was not in the here and now mentally, he was thinking about what was ahead. Anything can happen at any time and it’s irresponsible for us to think that just because our horse loves us then we shouldn’t worry about safety. Every time I climb on a back I wear a helmet. Every time my husband sees me wrap up my hands in the reins or my feet are too clamped in the stirrup he says- let up on that you don’t want to be dragged. Your relationship with your horse has nothing to do with safety precautions. If anything it should inspire you to take safety precautions. I remember seeing Christopher Reeve talk about the heartbreak of selling his beloved horse after the accident and I do everything I can to be safe. Superman would want us to.

  5. I agree with Joe Pote, Anna. In my case, I really want to comment on at least a dozen things in this essay. I will, however, restrict myself to one comment this morning, and that is: WHEN are you going to publish a simple book similar to Turid’s but obviously using pictures of horses for those of us who are visual learners?

    Shelley, whose screen name used to be Cantrdpart (Canter depart) in the AOL days.

  6. Thank you for this post, Anna. The topic of boundaries was just exactly what I was hoping to read about this morning ! Much to ponder and chew on. Keeping good personal space is no problem with Bear, but with Cash it has been an ongoing challenge for me to figure out how to maintain that !! That would be a five year challenge so far !!

  7. “Trust them to read your confidence as easily as they read fear.” This is something to aspire to, and continually working on it.

  8. I LOVE this. Sometimes I see trainers doing things like this, and I think.. should I be doing that? Because I’m not, does it say something negative about my relationship with my horse.. and his with me? BUT you nailed it. I don’t do it because I don’t feel the need to. I feel more strongly the need to respect his personal space and to be integrated in our energies of thought rather than body. But people often don’t see that kind of connection.. they only see the physical. So THANK YOU for articulating this kind of being together so articulately. And as always, for the work and inspiration you bring.

  9. I rally enjoy your writing Anna. Each piece seems to somehow resonate with me and the current stage my horse and I are at. I was a ‘cooer’ I loved on my horses when I was younger and looking back now it’s probably why they ran all over me. So now 20 years later I’m trying to do better! My horse lives in a paddock within eye shot of house and that seems to keep me out of his face so much. Being content to watch him in his space is good enough! Thank you 😊

  10. So. I have several things to mull over here. Thanks for this post.
    The photos of people on the ground with their horses – I have always taken that as proof that the horses are comfortable enough to stay down when their person comes upon them. My horses, even the one that I feel I have the best connection with, have always gotten up, whether in their stall or out in the pasture. I have felt envy that these prey animals would lie there with their people (not necessarily my horses, but the ones in the pictures). Am I that wrong?

    • Yes, they feel safe. Mine sleep through me pulling the muck cart between them, scooping poop that they might be laying on partially. They pay me as much attention as elite hotel dwellers do when the maid drops off towels. I’m glad that I don’t interrupt them. I don’t expect it would be romantic in a photo.

  11. A young woman who rode in lessons with my daughter for years taught lots of “tricks” to her horse – she did the laying down thing, the standing on the horse’s back thing, and taught her horses to rear on command. Every time she posted a photo of a horse rearing with a hoof coming frighteningly close to her face I would cringe. I would also think about a very old friend who trained horses who had a horse brought to her who reared and went over backward at times (but she was not told that part) – she ended up in the hospital with a broken back as a result. It seems like common sense to me that I want and need clear and safe boundaries with a 1300-lb animal whose response to fear is innately flight, even if I feel I have trained that flight response out of him. It also seems common sense that it’s better for me as the human who pays for feed and does the caretaking to stay very safe so my 1300-lb Keil Bay gets fed and cared for. I adore him and I feel connected to him and I trust him. That doesn’t mean I’m going in his stall and lay down beside him. God forbid teach him how to rear. :0 I can’t even imagine someone wanting to put that into a horse’s repertoire.

  12. Thank you Anna, as always. Could you speak a bit more about making yourself “big”? I imagine your definition has both physical and internal components. This is something I struggle with, and I think the struggle is a combination of lack of experience and lack of confidence. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for commenting, Kate. It is all those things you mentioned, and it’s as uniquely individual as each of our horses are. I have clients who all do it a bit differently, so it isn’t a technique so much. It isn’t something to demonstrate to a horse without reason, but it is something we talk about in clinics. Sorry, that’s my best for typing… 🙂

  13. It is so hard not to make everything I do with my horses about me. But when looking back at all that has gone wrong, it has always been about me. I am soaking in, as best as I can, your words of wisdom (no matter how loud mouthed party pooper they are). Being such a visual learner it looks like one of your clinics needs to be on my bucket list!

    • My biggest doubt about the thousands of hours I have spent writing, and now my online class, is that we are all visual learners and talking about these things when we aren’t with horses feels like it misses the mark a bit… I hear you. For what its worth, I have been wrong often. Trainers have been wrong so much more than amateurs, we get it. It’s more about a desire to keep trying to get it right. Thanks, Pam. Your horse knows your good intention.

  14. BRAVA, ANNA!
    As we all watch (sometimes with horror) this growing trend towards treating horses as some sort of SuperSoftFluffyEquineGodsWhoMustBeCommunedWith I wonder what has happened to safety? They are big, strong, and not toys, they don’t mean to hurt us, but can and do without intent. The law of physics has not ceased, last time I checked. Thank you for saying the words that many of us keep to ourselves.

  15. Hi All, Well there are a number of points I agree with and many are up for discussion which is great, as creating discussion and provoking thought is always good. I, for one, take great pleasure in sitting out in my fields with my horses, matching my breath to theirs and observing their herd behavior, having them visit me, creating the space I need around me or allowing them in, depending on my mood at the time, changing my position, moving away, moving in…I don’t feel like I am putting my head into a lion’s mouth, it is a practice that really grounds me and keeps me very focused and aware of what is going on with them and what is going on with me, or maybe there is not much going, on which is a treat as well. I don’t believe as prey animals it is all life and death for them, I believe there is curiosity, play, seeking, social interaction and that balance between curiosity and the decision they make around moving towards something to get more information and learning and when they choose to move away to create safety for themselves. I think I use the same approach when I am learning as well, so I will continue to do that. Thank you for opening up the discussion. Sincerely, susan

    • Great comment, Sue. The time you spend doesn’t sound at all like what I described. It does sound like my sacred time mucking. I don’t pay to have it done no matter how busy I am. Yes, curiosity, play, seeking, social interaction, napping, galloping. It’s all fun until it isn’t. Once while giving a lesson, a hang glider came in for a landing right next to the arena, behind the rider’s back. It’s occasions like that that are life and death for a horse. The things we can’t predict. Thanks for pondering the ideas.

  16. Anna,
    Perfection in every word, and hopefully, future actions. We all make mistakes, but we should try to be ever-present and ever-aware of our own actions.

    And please, put the cell phones away — BE with your horse, he deserves your full attention and your safety, and your horse’s well-being requires it.

    Added to those images, Anna: Teenagers riding with no helmets in flip-flops, bareback, with dropped reins — scanning their cell phones — this is the stuff of nightmares.

    Thank you for your exceptional grace — I was out with my OTTB (aged 12 this year) this afternoon. We have been together for seven years now and he knows me in every feeling and action. I took deep breaths while hand-walking him around for about an hour, and he took deep breaths now and then to mirror me. We had the most wonderful afternoon, despite grey skies and chilly 40s, just walking together. He used to be a little afraid to go out alone, walking on trails or around the farm, without his little friend, the Tennessee Walker. Now, the two of us have a stronger bond and he’s much more trusting. I follow your teaching, keep a safe distance, talk to him, sing to him, and work on always calming myself; it is having a huge effect on him. Most of the work needs to be done on ourselves.

    • Truth. Thanks, Nuala. (I do recommend riders keep their cells along, too many of us are alone and it’s a safety line, used properly. Also a sweet way to ride to music. Talking to friends, nope.)

  17. Thank you, Anna. I’ve seen those photos and had no desire to even try – I’m far too old to be able to get up and get out of the way fast enough!

    • Oh my, Lytha. No kidding. I don’t know where my biggest anxiety was, the disrespect of space or my chronic fear that if I have an arena full of riders and one horse comes apart, the trickle down will injure 20 others. Thank you… and Ack!

      • I wanted to add that these horses came to this clinic not knowing each other and were thrown together to work it out in a 20X40 ring (the mares were reasonable but the geldings were dangerous!). When asked if I’d like to bring my horse to the next liberty clinic I said, “No thank you.” That the daughter of the instructor was laying on the ground with her head beside her draft’s hooves, ACK is right. The Germans have a word for this type careless behavior (that can lead to catastrophe) – Leichtsinnig. You’ve heard of the Darwin Awards? These people are gonna win. And to think, each participant paid money for that clinic in Leichtsinnigkeit. Feel free to use my photos as a warning to others!

  18. I don’t comment very often. Listenning is my thing. I partner with horses to help people heal. This happens in an arena with the horse at liberty. They get to be a coach not a tool! Horses know energy. This is how they are still here on the planet. A horse’s willingness to help us heal helps the entire universe, since we are all connected. Once we are in integrity they are safe,(their #1 priority!) Communication is through energy. When you are within a minimum of 15 feet of a horse you are in their energy. If you are upset or angry or very excited it can be uncomfortable for them and they would prefer you bring them something that feels safe. They are powerful athletes and require our respect. Knowing their language is key. I used to ride and enjoyed it. I prefer this. Horses have shown me my truth, my worthiness and my purpose as a human being. All they want from me is a commitment to myself so they can graze knowing they have a leader who will jump through fire for them. Thank you Anna for your commitment and this article. No one needs to prove anything to a horse. They already know.

    • Joan, I really thank you for this. First it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read about Equine Assisted programs. Secondly, we are so inflated about “training” things horses do naturally or know already…Proving is the exact word. Thank you. So well stated.

  19. Those liberty clinic pictures show the epitome of stupidity. I work in/around our little herd of 8 on a daily basis and am hyper aware, even when they are in mid-morning group snooze mode. It only takes a split second for it to change.

    I spent most of my early career working on very large farms and safe handling became like my religion. Nevertheless it only took two years of having my own single horse in my backyard to devolve into an idiot. It culminated in riding my tackless horse around the yard, no helmet, no shoes, no brain apparently. Something spooked him, he bolted, ran straight into a fence, dumping me. I got a broken ankle, very lucky it wasn’t worse, and a good reminder that he was a HORSE not a big fuzzy squishy toy.

  20. I went to the site with the photos of horses and people all together in liberty and my impression is that you are putting your horse(s) in a position to take care of YOU. I feel like it’s my responsibility to take care of myself when with my horses whether one on one or in the midst of them. Our barn and farm is set up such that we rarely use halters and lead ropes in the daily routine – the way stalls and paddocks feed out we control things more by opening and closing gates and one side of the barn is separate from the other side, so I can separate them out that way for feeding tubs. While I’m very comfortable being in the midst of this little herd of 5, I am also keenly aware of the herd dynamics and I do not assume the horses will make allowances for me being there. If the pony approaches Cody the QH, Cody is going to move, and he will try to avoid me but moving away from the pony is his first priority. I would never go in an open stall with Cody while the pony has access to walk in. They take care of themselves and I take care of me. It seems only fair.

  21. Yay! I too am a loudmouth party pooper! Anna you have written this so well and invoked a lot of comments. Liberty seems a can of worms opened here. All I will say is I don’t think it is something to be taught, as very few people or horses have the connection and trust to do it, let alone temperament. When it happens it is pure magic, so let the magicians get on with it. Real conjurers never disclose their tricks. Our horse god gives the best to the best, and injures the rest!

  22. And I just had a look at Lytha’s photos and videos. Dumb, dumb and dumber! So many errors. To have one’s arena so close to a riding path. How are you going to keep the attention of even one horse? To have dogs loose, that doesn’t ever happen in Australia. It was supposed to be a horse day out, but it was a dogs’ day out. To have a heap of strange horses loose together, and people expected to be able to not only try and control them, but crawl under them and sit down. Then to get on, no gear, in that environment? I think I’ll stick to older ways.

  23. What could go wrong? A rush and a kick, broken people and broken horses. The rhyme? Sometimes god says “Get off and stay off!” But people will persist if they can, and some become serial wreckers. Hats off to those who rescue, because it was already someone’s wreck, or it would still be someone’s saddle horse. I’m a cynical old bugger, with a strong belief in karma. The horse god looks after his own. Like, acquire a horse to find he has some permanent unsoundness, you keep him but can’t ride him. God has found a nice home for this horse. “You can have it if you can catch it!” “You can have it if you can ride it!” “Take this youngster and work it for me?” OOH good horses god put under me, many just a fleeting one-day experience, some for work, some keepers, some I bred. I never had a stable, round yard or arena, just a gum tree to tie up to. Never had a trailer or truck, just forest behind the place, with miles of fire trails. Never had any real money, spent all I had on shoes and feed. Wore out a lot of shoes. Rarely had vet bills, god took care of that too. Life has been an amazing ride. Was it all pure instinct, or did an angel ride on my shoulder, and whisper in my ear?

  24. Every time I have been injured by a horse was because I let my guard down. I got to comfortable….too trusting. Those experiences have made me a better horse person. I pay attention to every signal my horse gives. I am far from perfect, but so far, so good. We are both safe and happy.

  25. Well Anna, I had the opportunity to evaluate my hard-to-halter rescue’s personal space today. I did a dance of forward, backward, wait and breath until I was standing beside him with halter in hand. He turned toward me and reached his neck out to sniff and nibble the halter briefly. I was so thrilled that he didn’t move away, that I wanted to wrap my arms around him and smother his velvet nose with kisses, but I didn’t. I risked stroking his neck once, saying “good boy and thankyou”, then I walked away. I wonder if he could feel my gratitude, or was he grateful that I walked away?

  26. I think the point is… Stay present and in your body when you are around horses. Honor their willingness and purpose to be with us. Respect their physical power. Be a partner and lead with an open heart. LISTEN to them! Know their signals. Keep yourself safe because they will always keep themselves safe first. In other words…Be like a horse. <3

  27. Love this and the comments! I have an off the track Arabian that would no more want to take part in any of this business! At first and for the first few years that I “owned” him I would bemoan the fact that he never showed any outward sign of affection, why could he let me love on him? After a while and after reading a lot of your blog posts I started to think about his previous life and how that has formed his personality present day. From the day he was born to the day I acquired him, it was all about business, he never had a day that was just his own. Horses, trainers, riders came and went…the days rolled into months and years. I have learned to step back and yes, breathe. He still is very stoic, very reserved but he is also very honest and trusts me to be there for him, I know this because of his acceptance of our work together. Yes I still wish he would come running up to me when I go to the pasture to bring him up for some work, after all everyone else does, but this is the way he is. So I don’t make a big deal out of it, I remove the others one by one until he is the last and guess what, he is waiting at the gate. It’s all good!

    • Catherine, thank you for the great comment. I have extensive Arabian experience, may I suggest one more thing? I know many of them to be very proud. They aren’t Labradors. They were never meant to grovel, their definition, not yours. IMO. Give him a nod from me; that’s enough. 🙂

  28. I think perhaps your Arabian was held up alone for so long he has few social skills, maybe its not about you, its about not getting involved in a melee at the gate. Horses don’t attach and love as a dog does. Self preservation comes first. They do come to the realisation sooner or later that we are the provider, and that we make the arrangements, all of which involve sustenance and safety.

  29. Thanks for the responses! He definitely is not one to grovel! We have attended a few Sally Swift Centered Riding clinics and at the one last summer, I was speaking with the clinician (Susan Harris) about just this subject. It was right after a lesson, Rudy was standing quietly off to my right side, then he reached over and just barely rubbed his nose on my shoulder. Susan picked up on it right away and pointed out that this was his move, I got very emotional. That’s when I realized I needed to let him show me, not the other way around. This blog has provided me with so much insight that I just didn’t stop and think about, after 30 years of horse care and riding, I know we have a better relationship because of it. At 65 I am finally getting (some) of it!

  30. Last week my mare bumped into one of my boundaries (teeth do not belong on humans, ever) while I was fumbling with the clips on the front of her blanket, unable to get one to open and moved more to her front than usual. She leaned over my back and did not nip, but did a grooming-nibble thing on my back. Not at all painful, but…definitely teeth. I erupted from under her neck (I also have reflexes) and as her head went up went “ACK!” She gave me a look. I gave her mare-glare in return. “We do NOT put TEETH on humans. NO TEETH.” Not yelling, but firmly. Then I relaxed intentionally, softened stance and face, and took a breath. She took a breath. Very slowly put her nose forward. I put my hand out, equally slowly. She touched it, very lightly. “I still need to get that stupid clip to work right,” I said. “And you want that blanket off, that’s why you had it hiked up onto your withers. Let me finish, please.” She stood still, I got the clip undone, got the blanket off her. There’s been no further attempt with teeth. I don’t mind a nose-bump, or even a lip, but teeth are teeth and hers are bigger and in a stronger jaw than mine are.

    • What if she needed something? Like the clarity you gave her. Listening doesn’t mean we don’t talk, and horses don’t want to be dominated but they do like us to check in. Believe me, I have a no-tolerance policy on getting hurt. You made yourself “bigger.” At the same time, I’ve been in this same buckle-fumble and there is something about it that makes horses uneasy. Sounds like a fair, mare conversation to me. Thanks, Elizabeth

  31. “The reason that our consistency is important is not so we can become feared dominators, it’s because consistency is a kindness, just like respecting his space. If your horse shows you signs of anxiety, and stoic horses do that quietly, then work to alleviate that anxiety.”

    OK, so can I get you a van with a loudspeaker on top and have you drive around the world with this blaring? 🙂

  32. I love all of this and feel like I should print and frame. The standout though is the concept of backing off myself a little energetically when I ask my mare to back up. Love this. Its not all about my need for space as much as creating a safe space for her to work with me. Oh wow!

  33. So if we take everything we have learned about our non-predatory relationships with horses and use this wisdom in our relationships with humans…..what a wonderful world this would be!

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