A Calming Signal Way of Being

 

I have to credit a decent mid-life crisis for changing the course of my horse life. Not that I wanted to change; I had two great horses and we were livin’ the dream, competing like I’d wanted to my whole life, and having fun doing it. I had good friends at the boarding facility and a trainer who understood me and liked my horses. I had a career that I loved, I could study horses, and was able to pay for most of it. It isn’t that I don’t know to get paranoid when things go well, it’s just that I was getting divorced often enough that I thought I was safe.

Then, like getting hit with a sturgeon on the back of my head, I lost the lease on my gallery and studio. I had ninety days to vacate. I sobbed and howled. I felt really sorry for myself. But you can only cry for so long before getting bored and I had a nagging itch. So, I took a leap and was gone in days. Fifteen years later, I wrote a book about this time called Stable Relation. Long story short, I found a small farm that next weekend. Buying it was the smart and rational thing to do because I had horses and they would need a place to retire eventually. When I got there, both horses went dead lame. The farm was not their dream.

I had the usual outdoor clean up to do. A shed so full of old paint cans that it qualified as a toxic waste site and the county had to come. I used my truck to pull out the chain-link Pitbull runs. They were a serious eyesore. But then, one person’s home-at-last farm is just sticks and dirt to someone else. Meanwhile, my horses were settling in and coming sound again. These dressage horses who I knew inside-out, who I’d started as youngsters and together, we’d learned to dance. Well beyond drama by then, we were flawless partners. I was so certain.

Working long hours outside, I noticed the horses were having non-stop conversations with each other and the new llamas and goats. They had interesting goings-on all day that didn’t include me. Growing up on a farm, how had I missed this? I’m not saying that I was lonely, exhausted, and depressed, but that’s when the Jane Goodall fantasies started.

I began to do research; I scrutinized behaviors and wrote notes as I demolished a broken-down shed. No visitors, no one to impress, and everything slowed to a crawl. The horses got curious, more active. I took notes about that. It was obvious I wasn’t the center of their lives, but only a part-time hobby. I got over myself. I stopped wagging my tongue all day, and the quieter I got, the more the animals all spoke up. I practically took dictation, writing even more notes, and reviewing them at the end of the day while sharing a happy-hour beer with the goats. They ate some of the notes, so I went into the house and made a plan. When I did start communicating again, I chose their language and their conversation. I developed a body-voice. The horses told me I was on the right path, so it stuck.

My career floundered after 9-11 and I did a slow-motion butt-fall into professional horse training because you know the money is fabulous. With more equine input, I developed affirmative techniques that aligned with horses, not against them. I found out that understanding horses got better results. Sure enough, even rehabbing damaged rescue horses went well, they were just slower to speak up. After so many years of working with animals, it felt like I’d discovered a new world.

It’s always right about then you find out someone knows what you know, they wrote a wonderful book about it, and they gave it a perfect name. Calming Signals, written by Turid Rugaas, and it’s about …dogs? Her book made so much sense, that I first blogged about Calming Signals with horses in April of 2014. It went viral a few times, more credit to Turid than me. Calming Signals have found respect, supported by horse books, like Rachaël‘s. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve written or given clinics about Calming Signals, but the thrill never changes. Being able to converse with horses still feels like discovering a new world each time.

On this anniversary, a new primer. I think I can articulate it better now.

We were taught to march in with a stick and correct everything horses do. We ask-tell-make them go when they aren’t ready. I’ve watched people land in a round pen like a helicopter, terrify the horse to near collapse, and then make a list of bad behaviors that hadn’t existed before. Have we always been so arrogant? We only prove we’re predators. Some of us rebelled from those methods and became overtly loving. Now we invade their space and lurk, acting like stalking coyotes. Predators again and predators are famous for thinking it’s all about them.

Rule one: human logic rarely works on humans and almost never on horses. We overthink in our frontal lobe, intellectually or emotionally. Horses don’t have the same frontal lobe; they don’t tell themselves stories about training humans. Horses exist in the physical awareness in their body. Survival depends on their acute senses focusing on the environment. If we want to converse with a horse, we need to use that same part of our brain. We need to stop intellectualizing and be more aware. Let the first question be about them. Then, listen from that place. Politely wait for his answer.

When a horse looks away, either with his eyes or whole head and neck, it’s a calming signal. He feels pressure, sensing the person’s emotion or agitation, and wants the person to calm down. He sends a calming signal, this time half-closed eyes maybe, to let the human know he’s no threat. He’s flashing a peace sign. In the horse’s mind, he’s being clear and polite.

There is nothing mystical about calming signals, they’re no more complicated than learning Spanish. I think it’s listening that we don’t understand.

Listening requires patience and a shift in perspective. We need to see the horse’s side, but not as it relates to our emotions or agenda. Let that go. Horses only care about how they feel. We must prioritize the horse’s concerns and acknowledge that the things that matter to horses matter to us, too. It doesn’t come naturally to predators. It takes a conscious effort but once you do that, it’s amazing how many seemingly unrelated training issues disappear.

It was always about the horse’s anxiety. When the horse tells us that he’s no threat, we have to understand it means we are the threat. When we relieve that anxiety in ways a horse understands, the horse will finally feel safe. Training becomes obsolete. He’ll work with his whole heart to do anything you ask because he knows his worth. You become trust-worthy together.

Words are only noise. Listen to his body. Then answer with yours.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

40 thoughts on “A Calming Signal Way of Being”

  1. Beautifully and simply described…with so much heart and wisdom. I know every new horse encounter I have will be wonderfully different in the future because of your sharing. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing! I am recovering from a pretty bad riding accident at the moment. My young horse Dante bolted out of the blue … I wasn’t able to read him at all. I think of myself as an experienced rider and in tune with my horses but maybe I didn’t read his signals that day. This will hopefully open another door for me to learn more about horses. I really appreciate it!

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  3. Thank you for sharing your journey. Where can I find the best synopsis of equine Calming Signals – sort of a check list of them and how to interpret them? Does such a thing exist? Any videos displaying some of them?

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    • The link to Rachael’s book is good, there is a poster online but it’s deceptive, and many horses give conflicting signals from time to time, just like people. I think it’s like Spanish, you can get a Spanish-English dictionary but it mimics more than educates. Short list: Any time you see anxiety, like what looking away, grazing when not hungry, lippy or nippy, pawing, rubbing his nose on his leg, sour ears, and so many more than I can list here. We talk about Calming Signals all the time in my online Group. I’ll be giving an online Calming Signals clinic soon where the participants can share videos. Check my website for more. And you could search on my blog and read other blogs I’ve written. Thanks, Jerri. I hope this is a start.

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  4. “When we relieve that anxiety in ways a horse understands, the horse will finally feel safe”

    I’m still struggling with how to relieve her anxiety in ways she understands. Would you please give a few specific examples of how to do this?

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    • Without seeing her, I can’t say for sure, but I can give you general ideas. First be as certain as you can get what caused the anxiety. Not what you think she anxious about, what she thinks. Make certain she isn’t in pain. Lots of calming signals and anxiety are about pain. .. if it’s something you can fix, fix it. Stay at least 3 ft away, don’t touch her face, keep the rope slack, when you see anxiety, exhale and say good girl. Sorry, I don’t have more. This is very general, but again, I can’t guess without seeing her. She needs her voice in this conversation, too. Thanks, Alice.

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  5. “When the horse tells us that he’s no threat, we have to understand it means we”–underscore “we”– “are the threat.” Another dot added to the connection!
    To benefit from your trials and tribulations is humbling and feels somewhat sneaky, Anna, but my gratitude is sincere.

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  6. I find it difficult to come to understand fully the “calming signals” myself, but continue to try. My 8 yo quarter horse mare was sent to a pretty non-confrontational trainer – and would not do anything for him. So brought her home and tried to apply some of the things you have said and made some progress with her, but yesterday she did not respond to me well. I went into the stall to put her halter on, and her normal procedure is to go to the other side of the stall, flatten her ears a bit and look away. I have been successful taking my time, breathing, and slowly putting the halter on. She is a dream after that. But yesterday, when going into the stall to halter her, she flattened her ears totally and tilted her angry face and head toward me, bobbing up and down like she was going to charge. I found it impossible to calm down and breath calmly, so went out and came back 15 minutes later and it was better. I wondered if it was possible she would actually charge or what the optimum reaction on my part could have been……. any words of wisdom about what would have been the best way to handle it????

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    • Are you certain she isn’t in pain? I would need to see her; this isn’t something I make wild guesses about. When behavior is extreme, out of the norm for horses, I usually call the vet. If she is just back home from the trainer, those changes are hard, I would think she has ulcers perhaps? Without seeing her, having her included in the conversation, I can’t guess. Step one is to find out the cause. I know that disciplining a horse in pain is futile. Good luck, Suzanne. Let me know if I can help more.

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  7. Very insightful and thought provoking, thank you for sharing. I find the interaction between animals and humans to be distinct. I’ve found in training dogs that the first thing they taught me was to think like the dog. I’ve learned to read body language, signals, and think their language. I still have much to learn, they teach me just as your horses do. Several nights ago one boy hid behind some furniture I had pulled out in painting walls. When one of the girls revealed him to me, after much searching inside and out and calling him, he was discovered. His whole body and face told me he knew he had pranked me and was quite happy!

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  8. Hi Anna!
    As usual, your words speak volumes and are a treat to read. I am loving that I have taken the time to slow down and listen to my horses and how they speak to me. Thank you for the time and thought you put into your writing to help us humans better our horses lives:)

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  9. Fantastic read ,very helpful . I am a spiritualist and tune into my horses .
    If I feel they are uptight about anything ,I work with my hands on them like healing . They become so relaxed well apart from the thoroughbred who can lead me a merry dance at times .
    Thank you
    Sally

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  10. Thanks Anna. As usual , so beautifully written and thought provoking.
    I am still rolling on the floor with the visual of being hit with a sturgeon.
    I have found that my relationship with my pony has got a lot quieter. I am a
    Zippity doo dah good morning type’ and he is ‘not the morning person type’ . He shows classic calming signals and is still anxious about some things but slowing it down – and breathing seem to help a lot. Also the not touching(read as smooching and loving on him) his face so much – which I find incredibly hard – helps him.
    I would be interested in the online clinic too please.
    Thanks a million for all that you are and all that you do. Jen

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    • I understand, my mare is embarrassed by my enthusiasm and wishes I’d tone it down. Thanks, Jennifer. And I’m not sure which clinic you are talking about, there are four. So use the contact form on the clinic page and then I’ll send details.
      Thanks, again

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  11. Anna,
    Years ago I learned a touch (or hardly touch/energy) technique that I used on an aging horse to enhance his comfort. The idea was to move one’s hands along the the horse’s energy meridian along his back feeling for tension. When a spot was located, you would just stay their or lighten your touch further and wait for a “release”. In retrospect, these releases were calming signals; which then it would follow that the horse perceived the human as a threat during the experience. The thing that puzzles me is that, not only did my horse seek me out to perform this technique, but my other 3 horses would line up (as if waiting to get in a movie) and take their turn. I would love to hear your perspective on this.

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    • Are you talking about the Bladder Meridian? Yes, bodywork is a time there are lots of calming signals, but without seeing them, I can’t say what it means. And it could be a release of tension or the human presence, as well as a couple other things. It’s like a treat then, if they know they like what you do, and feel safe about it, they would return. It would be odd for all horses to respond the same, even if they were siblings, so I would not take a guess what it means to each one but it just about has to be different. Many calming signals are about pain, too, so that’s in the mix. So many possibles. I think horses habituated to good things will continue to do that behavior, and I’ve seen a waiting-in-line behavior for different things, especially grooming here. Like a line at a barbershop. Would your line be different if the horses were in a different order? It might be that one is keeping the peace. All I know is that horses are very conscious about space and intention. Going forward, make notes about which calming signals each has, just for curiosity, and how it changes. Thanks Laurie. Good question. Video!!

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  12. Hi Anna,
    I read this before heading out to the barn to ride one of horses. We happen to have new neighbors who were racing around on their four-wheeler. Both my horses were spooked not just by the noise but with the newness of strangers. I was feeling anxious and my horses picked up on it. The horse I had planned on riding stood at the end of their pen with his butt towards me. He turned to look at me a couple times but didn’t budge his feet. Normally I would just walk in and put his halter on. But hearing your words I stopped and waited on him to turn around. He didn’t so I walked away. I came back a few minutes later and grounded myself and cleared my mind of any expectations. That horse, who is usually aloof and doesn’t like to be loved on, walked up to me and showed me all the spots he would like to be scratched, something he has never done before. That connection and time we shared was so much more valuable than a ride. Thank you for posting your wisdom.

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  13. While reading this, I found myself taking deep breaths and smiling. Thanks Anna. If we can just get out of the way, miracles will happen. When we think we know what to do, we should do less.

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