Calming Signals: Trust Above Training

It was my job to haul him to his new trainer. He was a bright young gelding, some would call him hot, as if having too much anxiety was just how some horses are naturally. I’d call him low on confidence, not a crime in a young horse. He pranced a bit on the lead, I told him what a good boy he was, and then we stood behind my horse trailer. His owner so certain that it was going to take a while that she pulled up a chair, but he was curious, I was breathing, and he walked right in. After all, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what it means to stand at a trailer’s open door.

At the new barn, his trainer took over. The gelding got in trouble for his energy. He was eternally wrong, so the corrections were endless. It was soul-killing but also common training practice. Some horses of other breeds might just shut down to stop the fight, but he didn’t even know how to try that. He was particularly anxious when confined, so the trainer left him tied up. It wasn’t considered cruel; just let him fight with himself was the theory. He was tied in a stall, no water or hay all day, until he stopped being fussy and then he was released. Ulcers roared inside him, pain contributing to his “bad behavior.”

It’s a method that might work for some temperaments, I suppose, but not this horse. Day after day, tied short and dancing all day long, his hooves never still, always trying to run but not able to get away from this stall and these predators. When he was on the lead, he was circled as punishment. The trainer said if he wants to move, make him circle until he is tired and then push him farther to exhaustion. But the horse was filled with adrenaline. He didn’t give in, but instead, he got hysterical like a toddler in the grocery store who can’t stop crying.

When the farrier came the horse was like a kite, and the owner circled him each time he moved a foot. The horse got more frantic, he couldn’t tell if the circling made him anxious or if the humans did, but now he circled when he was anxious. I intruded, fearful that the farrier would quit all of us, and his frustrated owner was glad for the break. We breathed and this young horse was praised when he tried to stand. Not perfect but his feet got done, without the circling groundwork that always scared him.

The humans were sure their training methods worked on all horses, so they doubled down. The methods that didn’t work on the ground, didn’t work in the saddle either. I understand what they thought they were training, but what this young horse learned was that people were not to be trusted. A misunderstanding, but he became more unstable, and riders came off. He never tried to hurt anyone, he just wanted to escape us, and he was even kind about that. Hollow, in pain, and so constantly anxious that he seemed crazy.

Why do we think horses are crazy when they don’t trust us?

What was missing in his training, besides knowledge of how horses think? No one listened. They knew he was disobedient, but the messages he was giving went unheard. The louder he got, telling us that he was no threat, that we didn’t have to fear him, the more we pushed him. People had the idea that they’d ride through it, keep applying pressure and eventually, he’d give in. He didn’t. Something was wrong, either the training or the horse, and everyone agreed it was the horse. Even this young gelding, sealing his own fate.

Meanwhile, there was no inter-species conversation. The trainer mainly lectured in that method of training because it’s easier than trying to understand how horses think. Knowing that a frightened or anxiety-drenched horse can’t learn should be common sense.

“I can’t unsee a horse’s calming signals.” That’s what clients say; behaviors once disciplined are now understood to be signs of stress. Not that reading a horse’s emotional state is new. Classical dressage trainers have been teaching it for centuries. It’s our foundation; that a horse must be both relaxed and energetic to be comfortable under saddle.

I think the problem is how humans think about training. If it didn’t sound so lame, I’d say we put the cart before the horse.

We think training will make a horse trust us, that techniques are the most important thing. We try one approach and if we don’t get the result fast, we push harder and scare the horse into a reactive answer. Or we quit and try a different approach, with so many contradictory ideas in our rattled minds that our horses are confused by our inconsistency. Finally, the two of you have something in common, at least.

Anxiety and trust do not cohabit; they are oil and water.

I believe the more enlightened path in training is all about creating a safe place for horses. We must prioritize calming signals above any training approach. Their emotions over our desires and the conversation with a horse above a demanded response. A training method is only successful if the horse comes away with confidence. Trust grows when a horse feels safe, when he is free of anxiety.

Want a concrete example? Say you’re riding or working in hand. An obstacle appears, perhaps as simple as a tarp on the ground, but your horse resists it. What’s your first thought? Do you leap into action with a technique to “fix” him by pressuring him forward? Did you cross a line and become adversarial? What are your emotions doing? Is there an edge of something your horse would read as anxiety because you’ve judged his resistance as wrong? Is your anxiety a cue to him?

Training techniques work when they support our relationship with horses, but only when we are each a partner, not a slave. I mean slaves to our natures: the age-old posture of humans becoming aggressive and horses warning us they are no threat. Predator against prey. Training techniques versus calming signals. We’ve got it turned backward.

Responding to calming signals is more important to a horse, and ultimately us, than any technique to make a horse do what we want. Resist becoming adversarial with horses. In that instant, slow down and listen. Horses are happy to return the favor and stay in the safe place with us.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

55 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Trust Above Training”

  1. So exactly how I am coming to see my interactions with horses! And so grateful to you for giving me a way of understanding my feelings as something other than “sentimental” or “letting the horse be the boss”! Yikes! That is SO not what it is! I shudder to think of how many horses like this young gelding just get harmed and then sold to a new abuser – and God save us from the abusers who don’t think what they’re doing is abuse!

  2. It must be so very difficult for you to endure watching the endless loop that is the human instigated fight with a horse struggling to avoid just that. How you bear witness to the desperation you see in their eyes is beyond me. Thank you Anne, for your courageous and patient yet persistent efforts to educate humans. You are every misunderstood horse’s “human unicorn”.

    • And I weep to think of what happened to this poor boy. My bred is one that really isn’t very stoic and what I’d call “honest” they let you know where they are at and if you don’t listen they up the volume. This makes it hard to send them to MANY trainers, as the situation is just as you described and yet once you’ve EARNED their trust and respect they’ll give you 110% and take care of you.
      Thanks as always, I hope the owner finally realized the “training” wasn’t working. Of course, now the horse was a re-hab and much more work to gain the lost trust.

  3. I’m surprised at the level of understanding and tolerance you have for recursive human behavior that exacerbates the horse’s apparent “problem.” While the current thinking may be that horses learn best when brought to the edge of anxiety, there must be relief for the brain to do its job. Constant stress is so counterproductive to learning; yet it’s the predator’s way, the way of dominance. As a thinking species, you’d think we’d have reasoned our way out of what doesn’t work instead of falling back on a losing playbook. Thank you, Anna, for being a thinker, for seeking the true causation in behavior.

  4. These kinds of situations happen daily and everyone who recognizes the unfortunate horse is sadden. It shows just how superior the human falsely thinks they are by overpowering the horse to teach it a lesson or beat it down to submission. Why is there no compassion shown? What makes me cringe is this type of training behavior is passed on, especially from a “trainer”. The other part of these situations is when the owner thinks the horse is “impossible” and then tries to sell him with all the “problems”. They don’t try to find the cause of the problem, but just treat the symptoms. I really appreciate your articles and wish those people who need to read and understand them would too.

  5. I cherish the affirmation of “going slow, with permission” with my three mares. They all have different levels of experience and are different ages (9,12,20 now) but all need to be listened to and in that regard are all in the same place.

  6. Regardless the ‘trainer’, I shall never stand idly by and allow that sort of technique to continue. A comparative novice by most standards, one does not need to be a ‘professional’ to recognize abuse. I saw it once, years ago, in a yearling colt Arabian halter class. The horse trembled in terror. The other handlers flashed glares of disapproval but said nothing. That horse still haunts me. Whenever, wherever I might witness it again, I shall intervene. Not as an emotional bully, but certainly requiring accountability. Human ego has harmed legions of animals.

  7. **sigh**
    I just lived through this with my gelding. I mistakenly thought I was doing him a favor by sending him to a trainer. Luckily for us both, I happened to read several posts on this site and realized that the kind of training being used on him was never going to work. I believe we are headed towards peace, trust and harmony now. Thanks so much, Anna.

  8. Many thanks for the reminder of how important it is to consider the horse’s perspective! I appreciate every book and blog that reinforces it. Although I know it and truly believe it to be essential, I sometimes lose my way and get lost in my desire to get something done.

  9. I was blessed with my first at age 61. LOTS to learn, they are my miracle. I have three, plus two rescued minis. I am very fortunate to have found a certified trainer/instructor who shares our views and emphasizes my hands-on in their education. PS: Thrilled to hear that gelding is with you…!

  10. My wild one had to be made saleable and went through two trainers in a year. Massive ulcers almost killed him. He’s been with me for a year and is still so willing to trust it is an honour to breathe with him. I feel so bad for the poor gelding Anna speaks of. When did we forget about cause and effect?

  11. This one brought tears to my eyes for the horse. I love your teaching Anna! Thank you so much for jolting us with truth.

  12. Anna. We are all so grateful to have someone like you…helping us understand so much we didnt know and to be an advocate for horses. As a society, if we are judged by how we treat those with no voice, we have a very long way to go to be civilized. Thank you for helping us get there one poem one story one workshop at a time.

  13. Hard to read what people do to young horses, mature horses,old horses ect…..I have found staying away from folks like that is best for me.
    Of course I can do that though, I am not a professional. I don’t think I could, would handle it very well. Humans are always in such a hurry to accomplish!!!!

  14. So pleased he has found peace at your place. I can’t relate to “trainers”, from early days it seemed I was the one they got along with. Anna you use your term “calming signals” for what I call “reading the horse”. Ladies and gents, the trainer wants your money, the quicker the system the more clients cycled through, and if they succeed then more clients, the price goes up, the troubled horse the trainer’s failure. I did have a good man to start mine, bosal and “do what you will” he rode loose, then bitted he rode loose, such that they were almost untouchable. In the right hands, superb. They came nicely into the bridle over time. That man admitted he didn’t know if he could ride a buck jumper, because they never bucked! My motto “Ask before you tell”. The difference is “Might you…?” or “You must!” No one likes being told what to do, stood over and threatened, chased and harassed, least of all a horse, with no language or communication skills except to fight and defend. Frazzled. Thanks Anna, very powerful wisdom at sunrise.

  15. That sounds like a horrible, terrible, very bad training situation. And yet…when I was a kid, that’s the sort of thing I saw and was told was how to do it by adults. And I know that adults are still passing on bad training methods to younger people. (There was a sickening video in one online forum, clearly taken clandestinely, of a young man “training” a young stallion to show off for a halter class…threatening it with a whip, and then whipping it…with a bunch of older men watching and encouraging him.) The “Don’t spoil him!” crowd is still around. “You have to make them pay attention! Make them LOOK at you.”

    There are therapists for autistic kids, and teachers for some very unlucky students, who insist on the kids making constant eye contact–never looking down or away. I knew better than that with our autistic son. But you sure do find it with a lot of horse trainers…the horse is supposed to be watching you, if you’re working on the ground with it. I ran into that attitude this week, in fact, along with “if they aren’t looking at you, it means they’re dangerous and will run over you or attack you.”

    And yes, the more sensitive, or anxious, or high-energy a horse is, the more it’ll be considered bad in some way (just as a child who looks out the window, or looks down because the teacher’s angry expression frightens them, will be jerked at with a loud PAY ATTENTION! LOOK AT ME! and a high energy child will be scolded for swinging a foot, twirling their hair, tapping with a finger or pencil.)

    • This type of training is common where I live. When you consider the range of vision a horse has it’s pretty hard to get out of it, but what a silly thing. And I’m with your son, I need to look away, probably the most common calming signal. Thanks Elizabeth

  16. Anna, this article rang so true with me… you could have written it in direct reference to my boy… although I now know I am not alone in the mistakes I made with him. He is a more contented horse and learns better now that we can have a conversation instead of a lecture.

  17. Anna,
    This is the most truthful and excellent article, as are all your writings. I grew up with horses, most of whom were trained in traditional ways by an uncle who worked with Irish horses, especially Thoroughbreds. If he were here now, my uncle would place a gold stamp on your methods and thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness? Is that not a key word?

    In Ireland, during my youth, there were professional grooms to do most of the work, and we were given a leg up, rode and then handed the horses back to the grooms; not a learning trend, particularly. Yet, I was also aware of a horse’s disposition and how he responded to a kind action. I saw, from youth, that all the horses I worked with liked gentleness (even though they can be rather violent with one another), soft voices, and patience. We all deserve such handling.

    I have witnessed some outstanding trainers in my lifetime, as have we all; however, I do acknowledge that while they may be very good riders and expert handlers, the handling is still predatory in many cases. Your description of this horse’s handling is rather heartbreaking; such horses end up in slaughter.

    I have been writing to you for some time, and I have now worked with my OTTB for eight years. He has become softer, kinder, more relaxed and willing to do his light job (by my preference), over the years, while relishing our quiet, in-hand walks and other fitness activities, mixed up with some riding during the week. I have written about him before (Captain Jack), but the point I wish to make is that there is so much trust between us, he will put up with my own failures or errors, as he seems to perceive that I mean no harm. My complete aim is softness and calm with him, and he responds ten times more. When there is occasional worry about something he sees, as long as I am calm, he is calm. I only work in softness and by request; if he should not respond, I simply ask again but still with softness and hopefully, thoughtfulness.

    He is a sentient being; I am a sentient being — there is a place where we can find balance without lack of kindness.

    Thank you for your outstanding articles. If we all read your articles frequently and practice what you teach, few horses would suffer in the manner this poor being did.

    This horse was trying to understand, trying to communicate; how sad his efforts fell on deaf ears.

    Nuala

  18. Hi Anna, I’m glad you wrote this, but I found it very very hard to read, feeling so sorry for that poor young horse who was screaming to be heard and no one listened. Breaks my heart. I am SO glad I didn’t have to witness it because I wouldn’t have been able to keep quiet, and would have come to his defense. I hope you were able to rescue him. And to think most of us, just a few years ago had bought into that theory that behavior should be disciplined rather than us listening and showing the horse we trust them and want to have a 2 way communication. One small step at a time, I guess.

    • I know it’s hard to see, but for me, I need to be stronger so my emotions don’t put more on the horse. I know the desire to step in, and I have at times when the person was angry enough to come for me. Usually what happens is they take even more out on the horse. No one changes behavior from being called out in public, so I have eventually come to believe that the best I can do (for the horse in that situation) is stay calm and breathe with him. And I can model a better way. Thanks, Judy. I hear you.

  19. Ironically, we want to get angry at someone when they are not doing what we want – just what we don’t want to do with a horse! You’re right, and it’s so challenging, to stay calm and breathe when you just want to react and scream at the person. This is a lifestyle that we actually should extend to humans as well as horses (but humans can be so much harder to relate to!)

  20. Thanks so much for the reminders and guidance. Reading this post, I realized – for the first time – that we are the predators in the prey/predator relationship. No wonder horses are able to read humans so well. Because cause a horse is so big and powerful, I had never thought of them as a prey animal until couple of years ago when I became reacquainted with horses, close up. Thanks – I appreciate your blog posts.

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