Calming Signals and the Thing We Call Stubborn

In celebration of Edgar Rice Burro’s birthday, he’s asked me to rant a bit about the thing humans call stubborn. Donkeys call that same behavior common sense. Are you in a hurry to find out what this is about?

Edgar Rice Burro says in good time. He has had it with donkeys being referred to in such a callous, misunderstood way, so he asked that our example here be a horse. It might be a breed like a draft or draft cross, a Fjord or Haflinger type, or even a stoic sort like a Quarter Horse. Ponies are usually at the top of the “stubborn” (common sense) list. Mules, of course, Edgar says, are smarter than horses for the obvious reason.  Bottom line: use any horse who enjoys having time to reason things out. It’s a quality, isn’t it? A horse that doesn’t leap to conclusions, but instead thinks about his options? 

There you are, with a thoughtful horse at a first-time obstacle. Let’s pick something people might be a bit afraid of like a plastic wading pool with old rubber hose in it. Does the idea of that obstacle make your eyebrows go up, your breath a bit shallow as you think about it? Good. That means you want it. Add on top that the instructions are that the horse must stop with his hind two feet in.

Now you lead your horse toward the pool and he’s a bit curious. He stretches toward it, maybe stopping a few feet away. You’re smart, so you let your horse approach it one step at a time. And the split second he takes one step, you ask for another. No, you didn’t say thank you. Instead you said more. MORE NOW.

The horse is thinking there is something the human knows that he doesn’t, so he’s on alert. He senses human anxiety, it might be need/ambition/want in our thoughts, but of course, he pauses because of his common sense. His curiosity stops dead in the face of a human’s desire, which reads as anxiety to a horse.

It’s at this point in the example that Edgar Rice Burro wants me to scream a bloody rant. This part really makes his ears hurt, but I explain to him that humans are sensitive about their arrogance and we must stay polite to get the point across. Edgar believes those who are not polite in the first place… well, you know. We compromise on me saying this: 

When your internal and external body language are in conflict, any donkey or horse can tell. Like a small sound in the distant trees, it sets off a predator alert.

About now the horse’s hesitation becomes a problem. After all, he was taking steps just before and now he isn’t. Humans read that as a refusal. And the clock, the one horses have no idea exists, continues to tick. The human asks again, with a bit more volume. It might be a habit from a previous kind of training that used the Ask-Tell-Make rule, or it may just be our impatient nature as humans. We’re famous for liking to have our way.

Edgar says RANT! The idea that something contradictory would become clear if it was just yelled louder is so ridiculous, he can’t stand it. As if equine hearing wasn’t twice a human’s at birth. As if a prey animal is even capable of ignoring a predator. 

The horse shifts his weight, a small action to see if that’s what the human still wants or if the human’s behavior is about something else entirely. Because it kind of feels that way, but just at the same instant, the human cues again. And then cues one more time…

…as if the horse is a total idiot with a one-second memory. Memory is their equine superpower, remember? Edgar says, “In a polite conversation, one person talks at a time and waits for an answer. We need a moment to think but humans interrupt. Why do you correct us for thinking? 

Now more time has passed, not that horses care but humans sure do. And maybe people are watching. Humans always have anxiety around other humans, horses notice. The wading pool innocently looms, it hasn’t changed a bit to the horse’s eye, but the human is swinging ropes and clucking and pulling his face. What started as a bit of curiosity has turned dark and the human is tense. It might be impatience/frustration/desire/anger, but it all reads as dark.

Edgar politely tells me that my making excuses for human rudeness has gotten on his very last nerve. He is taking over now, and I’ve agreed to politely take dictation from him. Edgar says, “Flooding the air with your cues is distracting noise. Aren’t you behaving like a toddler who wants a treat? Now is a good time to ask yourself who the stubborn one really is.”

The human takes a breath and looks up at the sky.

Edgar says, “The more impatient you are, the longer it takes.”

A random idea comes to the human’s mind, was it something written somewhere? Or something she heard?

Edgar says, “Being stubborn is the answer to an adversarial question. No one likes to be forced, not even humans. Can you give us equines time to volunteer instead of always being nagged and hurried?”

Just about now the human takes another breath, but this is one of release.

Edgar says, “What if you use the time waiting for an answer to reflect on the nature of partnership?”

(Okay, I have to chirp in. Anna says, “You’re right. If I hadn’t been such a bull-headed stubborn human, I wouldn’t have the donkey dictation skill I have today. I credit equines who didn’t like being hurried for everything I know. BTW, I have no idea what day Edgar was born so we celebrated it on the Grandfather Horse’s birthday.”)

Edgar says, “What if being stubborn is a calming signal, a physical cue, to you humans that we don’t want to fight?”

Then the human stills her mind, her body comes pure again, breathing and curious to see what her horse will choose to do. She’s ready to say yes to any answer from the horse, so the conversation can continue politely, and exhales in relief the adversity has ended.

Edgar says, “Thank you, Human. Confidence is best demonstrated by going slowly. An exhale means you’re listening.”

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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Anna Blake

59 thoughts on “Calming Signals and the Thing We Call Stubborn”

  1. Happy birthday Edgar! I wonder if you’ve ever experienced “positive reinforcement” of the type where the human marks the behavior they seek with a click and then gives you a treat. It seems to me that it would eliminate the guessing on your part, but still be patient with the deciding. On the other hand, I could see where it might feel like being treated like a toddler rather than a partner (although a toddler can be a partner!). Thanks for sharing your feelings and ideas, it helps me a lot!

    • I’m very familiar with clicker training, I have friends who are clicker pros, it’s certainly one path. I’m looking for something else. Thanks, Susan.

  2. This is great-especially from Edgar’s viewpoint. Too often, we forget that our horse may be thinking of his next move and, instead, we go blithely on our way because WE want it now! I know I’m guilty of thinking this way and probably re-acting that way, too. I feel fortunate that my current riding horse is a calm soul and he remains that way even when I’m not. Our mini is not what I would call calm and I need to bring my “A Game” when I work with him. Maybe that’s a good thing as he keeps me on my toes, so to speak.

  3. Bravo Edgar Rice Burro! And happy birthday! Donkeys were my first equines and I am forever grateful for their lessons. They have taught me so much about patience and thinking like a prey animal. Just last night both of my donkeys took what seemed like forever to back on cue. I actually enjoyed the wait, as ‘Edgar’ suggested. 😉 It’s like meditation and love all wrapped up in one sacred conversation. Thank you for your wise words Anna! This one really made me smile.

  4. Another great article. “In a polite conversation, one person talks at a time and waits for an answer. We need a moment to think but humans interrupt. Why do you correct us for thinking? ”
    I am a thinker and I desire polite conversation with humans and horses. I think before I speak.
    Long ago my supervisor gave me feedback that some of my coworkers find my thinking silence uncomfortable. They are uncomfortable waiting for an answer. I guess that 20 seconds of waiting seems like a lifetime to wait to some.
    So I now, if I need a moment to think, I apologize for the wait, and explain that I will give an answer, I just need a moment to think. That seems to put them at ease while I take a moment to give them a thoughtful reasoned answer.

  5. Anna,
    A very Happy Birthday to Edgar Rice-Burro. Working on the second edition of my children’s book, a donkey has joined the story and there is a portion of Edgard Rice-Burro in his character/personality. The donkey’s name is Edmund Christopher, by the way.

    So my OTTB, Jack, has taught me the same lessons. My trainer used to shout, “Trot…”and Jack would think for a moment. Then she would raise her voice, “I said, Trot NOW!” Jack didn’t like that, nor did I. It was even worse with canter. I would tense, and make Jack tense. I would resist (internally) but push (with aids) and this totally confused Jack, who would pin his ears. He worked, but when asked to do something, just requested a moment to decide for himself. We are not in competition, what did it matter? As long as he kindly fulfilled the request in a moment or two.

    Now, I ask and wait for him to answer. Often, he will exhale in a relaxed fashion. In a moment, I will ask quietly, once more.
    I don’t see this as stubborn, any more than his request to take a look around, before crossing the path to the arena. It’s perfectly natural he would wish to survey his surroundings, before proceeding. Lowering the lead, and giving him space, encourages him to go forward as does a quiet request with voice only. It’s the same under saddle. Soft reins and a quiet voice, and PATIENCE!

    Your article perfectly explains our endless push — we cram so much into small pockets of time. The horse asks: Why two hours only, and all this rush? On some days, I spend the whole day, and go back and forth to barn or paddock, taking tea breaks, doing other work, hand-walking and/or riding. Back and forth tells him I am there. No rush. “I’ll be back!” I tell him. He lowers his head to eat hay or grass. “I know,” he says. He knows when I am leaving, even if I say nothing. Sometimes he looks sad.

    Each day is a gift. Put away phone, and try to forget time. Just be. The horse will thank us.

    Thank you to Edgar Rice Burro — who looks wonderful on his birthday.

    So, a birthday wish for Edgar from the East End of London:

    ‘appy burfday to you
    Squashed tomatoes and stew
    Bread and butter
    In the gutter…
    ‘appy burfday to you.

    Many Happy Returns, Edgar Rice Burro.


  6. Yay for Edgar Rice and his wisdom! Living with our two miniature donkeys Rafer Johnson and Redford has taught me so much about thoughtfulness when it comes to equine behavior. Donkeys are not stubborn, they are stopping to think things through, and we humans benefit from doing the same but are often way too impatient to do it. I have a strong streak of impatience that is born of my desperate desire to Get Things Done. I’ve learned that many times slowing down and listening and just being in the moment gets things done far more quickly and much more pleasantly than trying to rush through. You can guess who taught me that! 🙂

  7. Happy Birthday, Edgar Rice Burro , and gratitude for the memory of Spirit, Grandfather Horse.

    The person I worked with BRIEFLY on trying to help Cash often hollered out to me in criticism. ” Why are you so slow?!” It’s so gratifying to find a place where slow is not necessarily a negative in horsemanship…and in some cases, even a positive !

    It occurs to me I often felt paralyzed by the pushy command to get on with it, and surely that is how our horses, donkey must feel as well.

    This is a great blog, wish I could send it to all my Ask-Tell-Make comrades. .. well, I could, and I do send them your essays but I never hear back so I don’t think they actually read them.

    • Trainers who yell at clients? The worst, for the same reason. I notice I’ve developed a longear-like turn of the head when I get rushed. Kinda proud of my impression. Thanks, Sarah.

  8. Being stubborn is how One Being characterizes the Other Being for not doing what the One Being wants. How should the Other Being characterize the One Being, I wonder. Edgar may agree with my Dad who used to call One Being: “One-Way Ike”!

  9. ‘One way Ike.’ I love that, Lynell. Fortunately I have a horse who demands respect from me as I do from him.
    We talk a lot.
    At 66, much of my talk is that ‘going slowly’ is perfectly fine.

    I will reinforce your comment too:
    No one expects turtles or tortoises to move fast. The slowest animals on the planet are the longest lived, too.
    That’s something worth remembering.
    Although my ex-racehorse was ‘designed’ for speed, he gets along perfectly fine with slow work (active walking and trotting, and cavaletti or a tiny (1 ft) crossrail. He is calm in the arena under saddle and in groundwork. He literally ‘hangs out’. I have ‘suggested’ to him that he doesn’t need to be faster (unless by choice in the pasture), that he can work or play, whatever he likes.
    I believe they under much of what we say, when it’s sincerely said.

    No ‘one way Ike’ for him for the most part (unless a storm approaches during work and I need to get him in quickly, but then he fully understands). I have encouraged/suggested that he work freely (lead rope over his back) in some exercises; now he follows my requests by his choice with only voice for back ups, turns on the haunches, forehand and side-passes. Encouragement, rather than force.

    I think Edgar Rice Burro, being an independent and intelligent soul, would fully agree.

    I enjoyed your post!


    • Nuala, I can only imagine how your ex-racehorse reacted the first time you introduced the idea to him that slow is okay. “Who is this person who gives me time to think? I simply must get to know her better!”
      Thanks for the aha moment with your analogy of turtles and tortoises. I never expect them to go any faster than the pace they set for themselves. Surely, that is so for the rest of us as well, eh?

  10. Brings back a memory from long ago when I was a teenager – of a beautiful little donkey – who was brought to the barn where I boarded my mare. A really sad horrible memory. She was “asked” to load onto a trailer – actually there never was an ask – it was “what? you REFUSE to go into the black box”? And then it went far downhill. The end result after a whip etc etc was a “war bridle” – anyone ever seen one? It puts pressure on the horse’s or donkey’s poll. The people involved here were supposed to be mature adults! I’m ashamed that I didnt have gumption enough at the time to do anything to stop it. I think – and hope – in the 66 or so years since that there are fewer episodes of this cruelty – I know it still exists – looking at the physical condition of equines being sent thru auctions (some who have been rescued by various rescues and sanctuaries).
    Sorry for my depressing comment – I’m sure many of have similar memories from back when!

  11. Happy birthday, Edgar! I’ve found out that horses can have a conversation about scary things. Probably because no one told me I couldn’t, I just tried. If the horse is still moving forward, no matter how slowly, he gets praise. If he moves away, I’ll just go back and try again. If he moves away a second time and seems honestly afraid, I’ll get off and go touch it myself, or walk in the pool, or whatever. Then I’ll ask him to investigate it again. He gets a treat if he moved toward me standing in the pool. Horses are smart; they get it. When my horse was afraid to be sprayed with fly spray, I stood in front of him with my leg up on a mounting block where he could see, and I sprayed my knee with it. Let him sniff and watch. Then after a few times, I sprayed my knee then sprayed his shoulder. He backed away a little, but then came back to get his treat. After awhile he figured out it wasn’t any big thing and we never had a problem again.

  12. How about the Trainers that insist on “Whoa’s” from you, and your horse. And then correct for not getting it done on a dime. Or, those who that count out the number of steps it talks for the halt to occur. Or, the halt occurs with a breath and a sit; but it wasn’t done timely.

    Now, who is being stubborn?

  13. I’ve been saying for years that I’ve been put on this Earth to learn how to be patient. My mare Gracie is the perfect teacher, and I thank her with all of my heart (mostly). And thanks to you too, Anna!

  14. Since I’ve retired I’ve learned the joy of being able to take my time. I believe all my ‘critters’ appreciate it. While speaking of donkeys, have you ever heard of the wonky donkey? It makes me laugh every time I watch it:

  15. I love this post, Anna, and enjoyed all the comments here about patience and taking time. I have been reading Calming Signals and was surprised to learn about “splitting,” the act of getting between your horse and the object making the house nervous. My own simple example of patience is this: Ryder was in cross ties in the barn aisle, and I had started grooming before our ride. He was becoming tense, and all I could see was a rumpled blanket in front of a stall in front of him. There is no hurrying him, and I have long learned not to demand it. So I released him from ties and began walking at an angle toward the blanket. Ryder ducked behind me, asking me to “split.” I bent over and touched the blanket. Then I moved back. Ryder stood there, thinking. Then he walked right up and touched it with his nose. Problem solved. Relaxed. Back into cross ties.

  16. I spent my life working with ponies. Hairy ones. This is the truth. “desire” is a killer! Thank you for writing this.

  17. Hurray for Edgar’s clarity on this topic. A timely reminder for me as I continue to work on safely having my somewhat feral rescues learn to yield their feet for hoof care. As a human I keep thinking “what’s taking so long?”, but if I would think more like a donkey I would tell myself that “these guys are trying to understand that yielding a foot in these circumstances is not a threat, and eventually they will volunteer”. I’m putting on my donkey suit before I go out to the horses today. Thank you Anna and Edgar!

    • Good idea. And donkeys think when a flight animal gives a hoof to a human it’s a huge trust question…hooves equal freedom. Thanks Laurie. Longear on!

  18. Please thank Edgar for his wisdom. My take on all this develops more and more understanding. I don’t know donkeys at all, very few around, but I understand they are faithful, deep thinkers, and if nicely handled not at all spooky. I’ve always been an “advance and retreat” sort of horse person. They like me, but there is always heaps more to learn, so thank you Anna for this blog, I love it.

  19. Wow Anna (& Edgar). I like to have a moment to think, doesn’t everyone? And I find it so VERY annoying when rushed through my thinking process. My incredibly intelligent crystallographer-biophysicist father needed more moments (infuriating to me) than most to ponder things, probably due to the depth of his brain content! Animals and children deserve the same respect–we usually just need one moment longer–one breath, one heartbeat, maybe even two–to come to a conclusion. It’s something I struggle to have my students understand–we were all so conditioned to not let the horse slow down, break gait–but unbalanced careening around is better?? Why were we all taught that? Every day I see that rider’s reflex-kick on his sides just at the very moment the horse takes a split second to manage his body to suit our request as he perceives it. It’s like teaching a kindergartner how to tie his shoes–the more you rush him, the longer it takes, AND, unless you want someone to tie his shoes for the rest of his life, you’d better let him try to do it himself. Plan ahead, add a few minutes to your schedule, slow your breathing down, slow your heartbeat, and coach the little guy through it.

    “…so you let your horse approach it one step at a time. And the split second he takes one step, you ask for another. No, you didn’t say thank you. Instead you said more. MORE NOW….Why do they correct us for thinking?”

    It’s funny, but my conversations with my horses go usually something like this (Can you…? and…Thank you!):
    Me: “Can you slow down your rhythm a bit?”
    Horse: “Not really–I’m going too fast!”
    Me: “Can you try? Just a little, just a little?”
    Horse: “I’m going to have to shift things around first, though.”
    Me: “Alrighty!”
    Horse: [Grunts with effort]
    Me: “Good! Again? Just a little?”
    Horse: [Another grunt]
    Me: “Thank you! That was hard, I know. Look, things are easier now, right? And you made it through that corner all by yourself–you didn’t even need my reins to balance on–Super!!”

    Something like that.

  20. Oh my! Thank you Edgar and Anna – from me and my horse. This feels like an absolutely vital piece of the cross-species communication puzzle. I will reread and internalize. Yes, the more impatient you are the longer it takes. And as I learned a few weeks ago from a Buddhist monk, patience is the path of happiness.

  21. Great wisdom from Edgar for human to human interaction as well as human to horse (or burro). Just had an interaction with a colleague at work yesterday that was quickly escalating to adversarial (which neither of us meant it to be) out of what was (now clear to me) stubborness. So helpful to be reminded of this. Thankfully we are both women of a certain age and had the good common sense to de-escalate……and laughter and warmth ensued. Always good to relearn this lesson. I wish all of my friends, horse-people or not, would read your blogs and books.

    • Oh, this comment is just great. Thanks, Rebecca. I love it. Bless us gray mares, for being stubborn and also having common sense.


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