Calming Signals: How to Show Love

“How do you show your love for horses, then?” A clinic participant asked me at the end of a long day of listening to each horse tell us that we stood too close, that we were too loud, that we tried too hard. Horses are dependably honest and listening to their calming signals is not always flattering. After ten or twelve horses consistently looking away, shallow throat breathing, and shutting down, they made us uncomfortable enough to eventually believe them and oblige by taking some steps back. Everyone could see it.

As we get a bit farther from them, we’re rewarded to see a release of anxiety. We know that licking and chewing is a good thing. It means the horse is returning to his parasympathetic/restorative system. His eyes go softer, his neck longer, a few yawns, even better. For the horse who shows anxiety by shutting down, we might see his eyes come back to life, he might shake his head or stretch his neck out. Seeing a horse visibly relax is a beautiful thing, and for those of us working with troubled horses, it might be the turning point we’ve been seeking. But how could we be the stressor? How could we cause them to move toward their sympathetic/ flight, fight, or freeze mode when we just want to be close?

“How do you show your love for horses, then?” she asked, with real frustration in her voice. I think I answered by reminding her that most professional horse trainers don’t write love poems to horses. Poems with calming signals in them, egads.

Still, her question has stuck with me all year. Why is it so important to show love to horses? We have always needed horses more than they have needed us. We’ve railed against those who use horses harshly, while we cling to them with a girlish passion, perhaps edging on desperation. We all cheer when a country bans clipping whiskers, but when it comes to mauling their muzzles, we can’t keep our hands to ourselves. We coo and cajole, and literally bribe them, while taking every flick of the ear personally. We give them power they don’t ask for or want. Our love prolongs their suffering in old age. We think we are the center of their world because they are the center of ours. Humans are a bit too needy with horses and if you pay attention, it makes horses uncomfortable.

Still, we obsess over our love for them. We need a self-help book like Horses are from Mars, Women are from Teen-Angst Venus. I know I’m treading on toes here, but it’s not like love has been perfect for all of us. Love can be fickle, gone in a day. We cause great pain for others in the name of love. We almost brag about having a broken heart, caught in the romance of drama. I understand the ideal of love but also know that many of us sought horses when human love failed us. No wonder horses seize up a bit at our grasping.

But what can we do? We’re besotted girls, giggling with each other about this eternal “pony phase,” as if loving horses takes a rare sensibility. We show our love by taking good physical care of our horses; vet care, tack that fits, and a few hundred dollars of extras; supplements, chiropractic, bodywork. And horses continue to give us calming signals. We pride ourselves in putting their needs above our desires. We complain when our horse wants to graze (a misunderstood calming signal) instead of stare into our eyes, then cheer their eventual release, maybe a lick and chew, but is it possible to be with a horse and not create that anxiety in the first place?

What would we have to do to change ourselves to be less of a threat to horses? How often do horses think we are afraid of trailers? Do we scare horses with our worry about dressing a wound? Does our love feel like a ball and chain? How often does our anxiety about life trickle down to our horses?

I can be operatically emotional about horses; I just don’t share that with them. My own emotions would get in the way of much of the work I do with horses and cloud my perceptions, and frankly, horses are much more interesting than my feelings. Maybe the real question is can we use our love for horses to change ourselves for them?

Horses tell me that breath is more soothing than chatter. That rhythmic movement is more calming than standing still. That staying with them mentally is the consistency that builds trust. They like space to stand and time to think. And if we are affirmative, their confidence will grow. If we let the air be quiet, they will volunteer. Like magic, they will gravitate to us freely if we trust them enough to give them liberty.

The more quiet time I spend with horses pondering this question of love, the more I wonder if they might not have something better. Human words may not grasp the full reality, but I watch them standing belly to belly eating, craving horseplay and napping through fences with each other. Standing head to tail, swishing flies in the summer, sharing body heat in the winter, fearing nothing but separation. What if they have something even better than love? Part belonging and part acceptance, regardless of bloodlines or colors or age, with shared safety for all and the goal of peace. It isn’t an emotion but a way of life together. If we understood horses better, we might spend less time trying to make them over in our image.

There is a passion for horses that is the very center of my life. Horses have given me so much that it would be the height of selfishness to ask for one more thing, so no, I don’t need or want their love, if there even is such a thing. Having horses in my life is gift enough. I’m grateful beyond all.

Here is a love poem about calming signals from a besotted but serious horse trainer ~with every best wish for horses, and peace for us humans.

Did he want to be invisible? As still
as wood, his head holds solitude in
the corner. This bay gelding does not
have a lightning bolt blaze on his face
or tall white stockings that pull my eye.

His coat the color of honey in tea, his
mane and tail a shade darker. He is
elegance in understatement. Close enough
to touch, I’m greedy to feel his warmth, to
run my fingers though the texture of his

mane. But I stand away. His body is not
mine. My eye travels the flawless arc from
his back, along his neck, slowing at his poll,
he’s aware of all that I want. Gazing finally
on his eye, cautiously on guard. So still,

so unmoving, and so exquisitely profound in
his silence, that I exhale my jangling desire
to show him courtesy. Let the air hang in
peace. I will wait for the acknowledgment
that is his to give, not mine to take.

-From Horse Prayers

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

34 thoughts on “Calming Signals: How to Show Love”

  1. This:
    Let the air hang in
    peace. I will wait for the acknowledgment
    that is his to give, not mine to take.

    Wise words for today. Thank you. ❤️

    Reply
  2. “I will wait for the acknowledgment that is his to give, not mine to take.”
    To the horses that come into my life; I vow to do my very best to always abide by that simple statement.
    To you Anne; Thank you for every word. You have enriched my life and more importantly, the lives of my horses.

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  3. My gawd, this just created an epiphany about the difference between my relationship with my first horse, who was the equine love of my life, she by whom all others are judged, and all those who followed.

    I “met” my first mare when I was 11, and she was 6. She belonged to the director of the riding program I belonged to. I was utterly enchanted and amazed by her, and my first thought upon seeing her ridden was that I wished someday to be a good enough rider to ride a horse like her. I got to ride her the first time when I was 15. I could not adequately describe how we “fit” after every opportunity I had to ride her, but I knew it was incredibly different from all the other horses in the program. Sure, I had a few other horses I was fond of, but nothing could compare to Susie.

    I was invited to become an instructor after being away for 4 years finishing college. One of the things I loved to do was take groups of students out in the 10-acre pasture to sit down and study the horses from a distance. We talked about conformation, markings, biomechanics of movement, hierarchy. “My” mare was lead mare of 36 horses. She had two besties, also mares, and two geldings who made up her royal court. I spent many, many hours studying them. When the land we leased was sold out from under the program, I was finally blessed to be able to buy Susie. I was 26, she was 21, a spooky, snorty, aloof, thin-skinned red Thoroughbred mare.

    OK, as usual, I’m being too verbose. Sorry. But between my years of devoted observation of my mare, and when she was finally mine, and the herd split in a million directions, I recognized her need to acclimate to her new environment. I took her on walks all over the area on a 20-foot long line, allowing her to graze and scope things out. As much as I was dying to ride, I swore I would give her two weeks. The day I was sitting against a tree out near the lake behind the new barn when Susie came and stood with her head over me, hip cocked I had to force myself to stay still, remember to breathe. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same relationship with my next few horses, though they all taught me lessons as well.

    OK, enough I do have a question. I’m pretty confident I have the breathing down. What I’d love clarification on is rhythmic movement. Because of my health and balance issues, I tend to go out in my herd of 3 with my walker which has a seat. Can you suggest a rhythmic movement that would be effective while seated?

    Thank you again for a wonderful, thought provoking post!

    Reply
    • Good question. Without seeing you and the horses, I’m only GUESSING… but first, try to avoid abrupt movements. Beyond that, nothing is stronger than rhythmic breathing. Deep and slow. Then experiment… maybe small steps with the walker, maybe sitting in the walker and rocking side to side a small amount. My bet is that you are doing it already… but let us know. And wow. A horse like that changes a life, right? Thanks, Shelley.

      Reply
  4. Dear Anna,

    Thanks you for all the precious insights I’ve gleaned through your blog over the last few years. I’d like to share my story with Moe 23 this year, 1/3rd Appaloosa,1/2 Mustang, the rest 🏔 🐐 and donkey maybe… just as agile and brave. When I met him in 2001, among other stuff, he was « sticky »… all over me, exhaustingly so. We ride western and my various trainers all insisted that we first worked on putting some distance between us, respectfully, fairly and… here it comes, the word from hell… consistently. Sometimes, just once in a while, all I wanted was to relax focus, let him lean in for a hug and maybe a sweet nuzzle in the neck… Eight years ago Moe started losing his sight and went totally blind over a period of 4 years. He also went totally still in the darkness and began learning… fearlessly with confidence. Developing touch, voice and sound. Smell is his secret weapon. And then I read your article on calmness training and had an epiphany… on the what made him so still and calm…so trustingly receptive to my help. Unbeknownst to me, all those tedious years of distance training may have created the calmness that allowed it to happen.

    Reply
  5. I’m keeping this, Anna, to read again and again and again till I ‘get it’. Beautiful. Thank you. Best wishes to you and your barn.

    Reply
  6. I wasn’t a lovey dovey kind of kid, but I loved my animals and I now crave that connection of just BEING with them that I had, co-existing as fellow creatures without questioning it or trying to make it something it wasn’t. Maybe my memory now romanticizes then. I certainly take better care of my animals and I’m kinder now than I was then. Maybe it wasn’t better, but it was easier to be more THERE. Thank you for providing a guideline from pretty much here to a little closer to there. And I love that poem.

    Reply
      • I have started working with a trainer well educated in ‘natural’ training techniques. It is opening my eyes to the incredible sensitivity and intelligence of horses. I have ridden my whole life but have never known such a connection. It is not based on emotional ‘love’. It is more an intimate conversation. But…just when you think you know your horse, they do something unexpected….like licking your hand to say hello. Merry Christmas, and thank you for championing respect for our beloved friends.

        Reply
  7. I’ve been wondering about this very thing the last few months. My herd is three, an intact group, with additional guest herd members from time to time, for 22 years. We go back and forth between horse language and human language, in every conversation. They react immediately when I read signals I hadn’t noticed before or try out new human signals. They are definitely saying, “What took you so long?”

    Reply
  8. Anna you are both a gifted horsewoman and a beautiful writer who captures words those of us sometimes have trouble expressing about our most meaningful moments with (our) horses. A few years ago I worked with a retired police horse who helped me through the guilt and regret I had of not being with my beloved Father when he passed. I was so grateful for that equine experience. After some time, one day as I entered the large paddock “Major” saw me and came across the field to greet me. I breathed deeply and quietly absorbed his gift without touching him. It was one of the hardest things to do….not placing my hands on this horse who willingly came to me. I felt it was the only way to honor and respect him and to show him my appreciation of the lessons he taught me.

    Reply
  9. “Our love prolongs their suffering in old age.” Fear of loss in us runs as deep as fear of separation in them. I work in animal hospice and end-of life care. When talking about quality of life, I always bring up Dr. Frank MacMillan’s idea that in order for anything to affect an animal’s quality of life, it has to matter to the animal. Owners are both shaken and empowered by this idea; they find they can both enjoy the time with their animal and let go with meaning and dignity. Thank you for the lens.

    Reply
    • I write about death often, always losing readers in the process. In training, brain science has changed so much and this idea of MacMillan’s is great. So succinct, thank you for sharing it, David.

      Reply
  10. What an aha moment this is for me. As David said, what matters to them is what matters. It is a blow to our egos to have to acknowledge that our expressions of love fall flat at their feet. Indeed, we make them prisoners of our “loving” advances.

    I invoke the ET test. I take a finger and offer it toward the universe in the general direction of one of my equine friends. In return, I get an outstretched nose with a faint touch in return. How cool is that?!

    Thank you, Anna. May I say I LOVE all your photos, the poems and prose you so generously share in our direction!

    Reply
  11. Anna, thanks for this. You absolutely nailed it in my case. I have a Rocky Mountain “snuggle bum” and a very assertive Arabian who constantly rebuffs my efforts at affection. From now on I will respect his need for distance and stop expecting him to respond in “my” way. I’ll work on the rhythmic movement and breathing too.

    Reply
  12. Dear Anna,

    Thank you very much for this ‘lovely’ blog…. Althought I feel more at ease with horses than humans, they do not have to fill a gap. The more I spend my life surrounded by these wonderful creatures, the more my respect grows. I aknowledge they are masters, who teach me. Working hard on my own personal mastery – it is confronting sometimes how many mistakes I still make… the more I grow, the more I see there is further to grow! Your blog opens my eyes again. Thank you… I will take this with me, to hold space, observe, and stay very conscious and aware. Instead of my love, I want to show my deepest respect to all horses I meet.

    Reply
  13. What a beautifully expressed entry. Thank you for these insightful thoughts. I couldn’t agree more. How true it is that we seek to complete our emptiness through the relationship with our horses. They do perhaps complete us on some level but it is a level we humans create as the horses just ARE. My amazement with my horses is in the BEING with them. The presence of mind it requires to just BE with them. They pull me out of the past and away from thoughts of the future— into the precious present. That unto itself is a remarkable gift.
    Thank you again!!

    Reply

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