Calming Signals and the Myth of Desensitizing


This chestnut mare is all that. Alert. Intelligent. Willing. And in possession of the quickest response time of any domestic animal; seven times quicker than us. Each of her senses is better than ours by a good bit, but then we hardly use the senses we do have. We’re so unaware of our surroundings, we wouldn’t know a thing if horses didn’t warn us. Instead, we overthink training techniques. It’s always easier to have a conversation with ourselves about human logic than to try to understand the beautiful complexity and intuitive wisdom of a chestnut mare.

At a recent professional’s day on Calming Signals, a woman who I later found out was not a “horseperson”, used the word desensitize. I jumped all over it. Then I apologized. Turns out she was using the word in another context entirely. I’d still like it to be relentlessly flogged out of the horse training dictionary. And ripped brutally from our training toolboxes.

It isn’t that I haven’t heard the desensitizing sales pitch. Be clear that logic to humans doesn’t always hold for horses. Do we think horses can’t tell the difference between human behavior and horse behavior? If a training technique throws a horse into their sympathetic (flight, fight, or freeze) system, they can’t learn. We can dominate them into submission but is that the same thing as understanding? Eventually, they will return to their parasympathetic system, and horses are certainly capable of remembering who scared them in the first place.

I understand the theory that some training aids are an extension of the hand, an idea no horse would agree with. Watch their breathing go shallow, see their eyes go dark. The whole point is to threaten horses but they can understand us at a distance. We don’t need a longer arm with an extra digit like a plastic bag or a flag, but the goal is flooding. If you aren’t familiar, flooding is how you feel when you are grabbed from behind in a dark stairwell, and the perpetrator puts a hand over your mouth. It’s a panic response. Be most clear that the term desensitizing is a sales pitch for training that goes against building the trust most of us want with our horses.

It isn’t enough to know that horses are flight animals, we must understand what it means. Horses are fatalists. They think everything is life or death; that’s what it means to be a prey animal. When they are afraid, they must run. If they can’t get away, they fight, rearing or kicking or biting. And some horses freeze, almost like other species might play dead to evade predators. Too often we mistake a quiet horse for a shutdown horse. We cannot desensitize an animal that depends on its senses to survive.

It isn’t enough to know that horses are stoic, we must understand what it means. Horses hide their pain and anxiety. It is dangerous to show weakness to predators and to their own herd. I won’t say that horses lie but they are designed to act stronger than they are. Humans need to remember that and adjust accordingly. The tiniest calming signal has huge meaning from a stoic horse. It’s how they suffer the most at our hands; we miss their calming signals for pain and fear. Rather than seeing what makes us feel good, we need to listen with the mind of a prey animal. Instead of putting them in our shoes, we need to put ourselves on hooves. Maybe horses aren’t domesticated at all, but some have learned to hide their fear better than others.

Horses exist on a spectrum between flight and freeze and we judge them reactive or shutdown. Reactive or damaged horses can almost seem hardwired to spook, almost stuck in the sympathetic system, because of how they responded to our training. Shutdown horses are as dangerous, they will tolerate anxiety and fear until they can’t, again, in response to our training.

How can we change that repetitive habit in a reactive horse’s amygdala to leap to the flight response? How can we awaken a shutdown horse? Or if you are an equine brain geek, how can we form new neuropathways in the horse’s brain, causing new dendrites to grow, literally encouraging mental health?

We could train in a way that the scary thing becomes a curiosity. Then the world becomes a playground. Evoke a different brain response by training with light energy, lots of breathing, and then get creative. Ask questions and let your horse figure them out. When he does it by himself it builds confidence, curiosity turns into courage, and new neuropathways. Creating curiosity takes more energy from us, but that’s also how we prove ourselves worthy of a horse’s trust.

Be affirmative, say YES: The horse is trying. He’s getting closer. He could use some energy. He needs a boost to his confidence, a reminder of who he is. Say YES to hold energy high. YES as the reward for staying in the process, until successfully completing it. Most of all, say YES because it strikes down fear.

Start here:

  • Stop scaring them. A horse trained with fear will never be reliable. Be aware of the tone of your energy. You know they can read anger and fear. Let them read your soft eye as good intention instead.
  • Commit to listening to calming signals. Not interrupting them, but encouraging them by going slow and letting the air rest. When they give a calming signal, we acknowledge it.
  • Practice conscious haltering. It’s our greeting and their choice; if they walk away, consider that. If they look away, go slower. Breathe. Horses certainly understand please and thank you.
  • Lead from behind. Let your horse go first and investigate. If he grazes, recognize it as a calming signal and let it be okay. Cheer his curiosity and autonomy.
  • Under saddle, encourage relaxed and forward gaits. Let him carry his own head, let him stride out, let him breathe. A relaxed horse is a safer horse, and soon his confidence is contagious.

Mostly, I’m worried. What if we are the ones becoming desensitized? Can we intimidate horses and still maintain that childhood love that called us to them long ago? Will the dark energy of flooding and harsh discipline overtake us? Are we so intimidated by horses that we must make them slow and dull to match us?

We must never become immune to the beauty, spirit, and freedom of horses. Instead, let your horse sensitize you. Become aware of the small details of your environment; use your peripheral vision and see things more like your horse. Stand at his flank, be comforted by the warmth of the hair on his withers. Smell the air. Go silent and listen. Become alive fresh in the moment, let their language become yours.

When we stand in a horse’s light, let it be because we have been invited.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

Anna Blake

56 thoughts on “Calming Signals and the Myth of Desensitizing”

  1. Well said and timely.
    So glad you are an important voice of this greater understanding of what a horse is.
    As you know well, the better one understands the neurological underpinnings of their horse’s behavior, the more one can set up situations to optimize communication and direct behavior in a positive way for horse and rider!
    Also glad you mentioned awareness of one’s own nervous system and the horse’s exceptional ability to sense this. Wouldnt it be great if we were reading each others nervous system and the harmony was obtained for horse and rider by both being in a place where they are curious and feeling safe.

    • While I agree with all your points, the term “desensitize” also is used to describe a very specific, and positive, protocol for helping horses build more positive associations, and doing it gradually to keep it positive. So it can be useful to ask people what they mean and what they do to desensitize. It is a shame that so many terms have been hijacked to refer to aversive equipment and methods. Thank you.

      • Perhaps the word “desensitize” has been hijacked like so many other words. I am aware of your usage, it is just that I work with so many damaged horses that I am torn between what it was meant to be, and the mess that misunderstanding has left. I wonder if asking people works because our actions so rarely match our words. There isn’t a trainer in the world who admits they train with cruelty and abuse… Thanks for your opinion, Rise.

        • All great points (trying to leave a reply to your reply, but seems to be posting as a new comment). And for sure, you really can’t trust people’s words unless you get to see them and how they handle the horses, work with the horses, how the horses are reacting with their body language, etc.. Lots of confusion about what it really means to be positive and animal-friendly these days. And no, no one wants to think that they are unkind (let alone cruel or abusive), and I’ve seen MANY examples in both the equine and canine worlds of people who speak about being humane, and then when you get to see their actual interactions… well, not so much. Thanks!

  2. I love this. My thoughts have gone down this same path. I’m afraid we humans have already desensitized ourselves and small wonder we tend to train our animals the same way we frequently raise our children. No need to elaborate on that point. Sigh. The section with the bulleted suggestions is wonderful!!! Thank you.

      • Keep pounding on us, Anna. Behavioral drift is a strong influence, so no matter how much we practice reading and responding with patience and breathing to those calming signals, we will “drift” toward our predator roots so easily. Please, some time talk more about “conscious haltering”– something I’ve been really working on. I’d love to hear more from you on that.

    • Beautiful. The passage at the end took me back, for just a moment, to my young self, smelling the barn and horses, listening to chewing, snorts, and breathing. The wonderful freedom of nothing to do, nowhere to go, but right now. Sensisitized indeed. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. One of your best posts Anna. I appreciate how you take us into the mind of the horse and open our hearts a little more. I am glad you apologized to the woman who was using the term “desensitized “. It never helps to create more division even if we are right. I figure people are at the level of awareness they need to be until they are ready to step forward into a greater awareness. Then they suddenly can hear what a trainer like you is saying, and they want to hear more, then follow you or whomever. I am heartened that so much is changing for the horse in the human world. Thank you for your contributions. I say “ Let’s celebrate!” ??????

  4. This is definitely one of your best and most important ones yet, Anna. That last two paragraphs goes deeper than the usual conversation on this. If we can’t drink in the joy of being with horses, understanding them, and try seeing things there way–because we as humans CAN–then why are we doing anything at all with them?

  5. Lady, first horse, chestnut mare. We’d be across the field at a gallop before I finished the sentence “I believe you” in response to her pricked ears. Love this post, thank you. 🙂

  6. Five months on stall rest: one hour of grazing in hand EVERY DAY, shower in hot weather, vsiting his friends in the barn for the social aspect of his life, letting him sniff just about everything, leading from behind as much as possible; but, what do you do when he ears something you did not and jump on all 4 at the end of the leash knocking you down in the process; I was so scared that I had to put him back in his stall just after 15 min grazing to let myself breath…. And I was still apprehensive after 30 min while he was calling me with all his heart….

    • Oh, dear. Sorry to hear you got hurt… Is he still on stall rest. How long has it been, it feels like forever? Is the option of a friend a possibility, goat or pony or anything. Stall rest is solitary confinement and I know you are doing all you can for him. Your very best for him. But is he as likely to hurt himself and others after so long? I don’t know your horse’s condition, so I can’t say, but perhaps talk to your vet about options. So sorry, Therese.

  7. This is very good-thanks for writing this, Anna. Can you publish, again, what are the calming signals our horses are trying to send?

  8. I only recently found your blog, and I am SO glad I did! I have been blessed to have horses in my life for over 40 years. I now have a mini mare, a real sweetie, and recently became a donkey mom, a continually learning donkey mom. Loved your article on donkeys! Thank you for that. I love what you write and how you write. Thank you for the articles.

  9. I am going through this process with my new mare, she is around 5 and spooky in new situations which is fine and we take our time and she figures it out. She likes to look all around her, I’ve never had a horse that looks so much but she’s calm in her spooking, if that makes sense, it passes and she relaxes quickly. However, or big issue is that she has a big fear of cows. We have had a few panicky situations and now she wont go more than half way up the path to where they may be in the field – even though they aren’t always there. I have tried different approaches including walking in hand to the field next door and letting her be on a long lunge so she can turn circles and have movement in the hope that eventually she calms down, feeding her near them, giving her a job to do hen riding past them like leg yielding or turning her heard away from them. I feel they are coping strategies but none of them are actually cahnging her opinion about cows and that’s where i feel the real solution lies. I just haven’t yet found how to get there. But i feel that flooding definitely isn’t the answer and controlled exposure isn’t doing much either. Unfortunately they are all around where we live so its stopping her from being able to hack out which she needs to build confidence and have fun.

    • What if this isn’t wrong. What if this is just what she needs before she can hack out? I’d recommend leading from behind and encouraging curiosity. Build her confidence in smaller bits than a whole cow to start. Work up to it… she is the one who decides how long it will take. Keep breathing, good luck. She is just a baby.

  10. Thank you for this message today. I am working hard to keep this all in the front of my mind, but I admit it, I need all the help I can get. We are working on it, attempting to overcome so much learned in my youth.

  11. Thank you!!! I have yet to find a local trainer to work with me (and my horse…) who doesn’t insist that I use behaviors that I know (I can feel) are scaring my chestnut Saddlebred mare (a rescue with a difficult history). It’s taken a long time to build a trusting relationship with her. She was shown in hand when she was very young and tends to revert to taught show behaviors when she gets anxious but is trying to please. Unfortunately she’s over 16 hands and a big strong mare, so when she spooks and wants to hide behind your apron she can almost knock me over. I finally found a farrier who is calm and she will stand for him. But if they cop an attitude, she won’t let them near her. She’s actually more challenging on a lead rope than under saddle. Trainers and traditional horse people insist she’s being ‘disrespectful’ or ‘bratty’ (or dangerous). I want to know the ‘why’ behind what I am being asked to do in training — what is the intent of waving that stick with a flag? (or hitting her with it which I’ve been yelled at to do). I want to know what am I asking for and what signs should I be looking for to release pressure and let her know that’s what I wanted? When I ask questions the trainers think I am questioning their ability (authority?). I am written off as ‘indulgent’ or timid which I definitely am NOT! So reading this is a breath of fresh air. I want a safer, calmer horse but I don’t want to anything that undermines our relationship and the trust she has placed in me.

    • Carolyn, I’ve worked with so many mares like yours, and she is intelligent. Smart to not trust blindly and courageous to try to work with you. I’m a trainer, so I hate to hear how hard it is to find others like me, but keep looking. They exist. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Thank you Anna.
    This is what I try to teach to my student (I am a riding instructor in France).

    Most riders seek my help to solve technical problems when most of the time they have a serious problem of language and trust.
    I spend long hours in the forest with my two horses, among them, breathing with them, watching where they look, feeling their chills, their fears, their desires, letting them choose the path they like, watching them reassure themselves when they were scared. What joy! More than being on their backs, finally.

    “Become alive fresh in the moment, let their language become yours. When we stand in a horse’s light, let it be because we have been invited.”
    Your words seem to shape my emotions. Thank you!

  13. I fully support your view on working with horses, not chasing or forcing a reaction from them. People don’t seem to take into consideration that horses can’t reason like humans do. They need to be shown what we want, one step at a time, not expected to just “figure it all out”! Please keep informing everyone of a kinder way to train for a confident and relaxed partner 🙂

  14. Anna, I’m so behind on my reading, and I knew this one would be golden when I finally got to it. And it was. Thank you.
    At work, we were offered a course on mindfulness and I decided to take advantage. So often in class when the instructor asks for examples of what we’re working on; I think of my horses and how “being in the moment” is their very nature (and my life long struggle to attain). Your guidance always reassures me that the path I’m following with my rescues, is the right one. This path is a slow one, and this old gal fears she may run out of road before the partnerships are solid, but I’m committed to the kind way not the fast way. Thanks again.

  15. I am intrigued and curious about all the theories and the “so called” science behind understanding horses. I find it interesting how psychotherapist’s trained in Peter Levine’s Somatic Experience and Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory apply this scientific information to understanding a species in which Homo sapiens base their hypotheses only on observations. Such individuals/groups use information from these Doctor’s work in attempts to present their view points as coming across as scientific evidence; however, this only serves to propagate misinformation to the public at large let alone is misleading. This so-called science could be perceived detrimental to the horse therapy industry itself as it demonstrates irresponsibility of Equine governing bodies. The truth of the matter is our nervous system energies are perhaps transferable; however, could it be as simple as just experiencing the essence of “being” or “self” with such a beautiful animal which is important in healing mental illnesses that is the therapy and not the over complicated misleading information presented by groups identified for example psychotherapist’s whom with a little knowledge are truly a danger to the horses themselves let alone the general public. I am interested to see where Equine and “old school” horsemanship will travel.

    • Great comment. There is very little research done that proves equine-assisted therapy is better than non. I do hope we continue to study the equine brain. I am sure we could help more horses if we understood better. Thanks, Victor

  16. Anna,

    Are we trying to help the horses with human interactions or are we trying to help humans with mental health issues with interacting with horses? I struggle with the human scientific theories being applied to horses as it appears the Equine “experts” like psychotherapist’s apply and present information taught from the human perspective to horses which is misleading to the public whom do not know the difference which could ultimately hurt the vulnerable and marginalized mental health populations. I am involved in horse therapy as a treatment plan which I have seen the benefits; however, the delivery of treatment is directed towards our relationship with the animal to calm (for example my) a damaged nervous system. It’s through building a trusting and non verbal relationship in which I have experienced such deep understanding of this version of conscious self in addition to the added benefits of having a sense of belonging to the herd. I have learned a lot about this and horsemanship. It is through this experience I have grown and radically accepted what and who I am just as the herd has. The real concern is unqualified individuals/groups applying human mental health theories as “so called” Equine (horse) scientific evidence to turn a quick dollar at the expense of vulnerable and marginalized mental health populations. I am still curious to see where this goes however at the moment as observed it appears certain components of this new industry seem to be unprofessional and unethical. Food for thought… perhaps it is just as simple of two inter-species nervous systems coexisting simultaneously in the same place radically accepting one another.

  17. I am SO glad to have found this article. Intuitively this seems so dead-on and the method/practice I want to use to build my relationship with my young OTTB mare. I can tell she has been abused and she is very sensitive-along with being very smart, balanced and willing- if she is in a non-reactive state- (like many of us!) and I do not want anything but gentle affirmation, collaboration and soft, willing practice to happen between us. Thank you so much for your words and this philosophy, it’s not easy to find- and so important, useful and needed!! Looking forward to learning more on your website, thank you-Lisa


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