Our Barn Rat first met horses when she was three days old. She started earlier than some. Now, she’s tall and smart and brave and what we used to call coltish. Her mom is my friend and boarder, and her little sister is extremely cool, too. Our barn rat helps with chores, does daring feats on the horse swing, and has a soft spot for our geldings. She and I are both between riding horses right now.
We’ve been physical distancing, but they all came out to the barn last week. I kept my mask on, and much harder, kept my distance. Hannah casually announced that she’d seen me talking in a video. “How’d I do?” I asked and she said, “Pretty good,” and we dropped it. It was a better rating than I would have gotten from most nine-year-olds. Andante’s been slightly off and her mom was checking his hooves. He gave a small lick and chew. Our barn rat pointed and said, “Calming Signal.” I yelled “Yes” through my mask but loud enough to be heard in the next county. The more we listened, the more Andante had to say.
We’ve always talked with her about listening to the horse’s feelings, but we don’t use the fancy title. Now Hannah had seen a video that attached the words for it. For the next hour, she and I listened to all the horses as she pointed out calming signals and asked questions. Don’t think this is a cute kid’s story. They were tough, curious questions and I’ve never treated her like a kid. The glitter years were hard for me, I admit, but she’d just connected the idea that calming signals had meaning. Had she understood what she was supposed to be listening for previously? Do you? Everywhere we looked, goat included, we saw calming signals. The barn was filled with conversations.
Isn’t that the thing about calming signals? Once you see them in context, you just can’t unsee them.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a longtime pro trainer or a nine-year-old; a novice horse owner, and a lifelong horse person who has studied with the best trainers. You’re smart. It doesn’t take long to figure out not all training techniques work on all horses, but authentic listening does work on every horse. Calming signals are a way of listening more deeply and effectively. Loving horses is easy, but seeing the world from their perspective is another thing entirely.
In the beginning, you might hear unpleasant things from your horse. Your feelings might get squeezed if you find out that what you thought was a “funny, cute, or unusual” face is a pain signal. Or that look of contentment might be the polar opposite, a sign of stress. If you don’t take it personally, you also have the chance to help what’s hurting or creating anxiety. You can give your horse a break on a rough day and show some compassion. You can open a door to a better relationship, and performance horse or trail buddy, isn’t that the thing we’ve all wanted since we were kids?
Before long, calming signals are louder than words. Cats are looking at you sideways, dogs babble on telling you every secret they’ve ever had, and you’re leading chickens from behind. Eventually, understanding humans even becomes easier.
Best of all, that stoic old gelding has started giving you a different eye. It’ll take time for a stoic guy like him to feel safe, but you definitely want to hear what he has to say. This part gets bittersweet because memories come back of experiences we want to forget. Moments when we failed our horses, even if we did just what we were taught. Or we met a horse who just couldn’t respond correctly (give the answer we wanted) and we got frustrated. We tried a few approaches but nothing worked and then the horse was confused. He’s smart enough to know he’s failed a few tests and now he isn’t sure it’s even safe to try. And the biggest connection the two of you have is that you feel the same way, but now you can’t unsee him. We get emotional about his emotions.
The first step is noticing your own confusion about the horse’s emotions. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to languish here in limbo a bit and take honest stock of where you want to go now. It’s peeling back layers to see from the horse’s side, to understand what it means to be an animal with a flight response in a world where people count on domestication and getting their way. I hope this lands so squarely that romantic notions die on the spot. Because horses need us in the now and reality is better than the fantasy ever was anyway. At this moment you don’t quite know how to proceed.
This is the moment that fundamental change is possible. Take your time, let it be okay to not know everything. You’ll be staring like a coyote and not holding up your end of the conversation, but there is value in acknowledging the unsteady ground. Letting go of old habits doesn’t happen instantly. Acting in dominant ways, even if you didn’t like it, is a hard voice to let go of. If we’re not correcting our horse constantly, what do we say? When we see the horse as an intelligent feeling animal with thoughts of his own, what do we do with that? For all our talk about connection and partnership, we gain a deeper idea of what it means to have two voices in the conversation. How do we incorporate that into how we deal with horses?
We know that answer; it’s just buried under years of misinformation about horses and training. Equine brain science says that horse behavior can change if horses can be encouraged to build new neuropathways and then receive a neurochemical reward. Want that in English? The activity of being curious feels good and is also the key to mental growth and health for horses.
It’s no different in our brains. Did you allow yourself to get shutdown about horses? Have we forgotten the wonder that drew us to horses in the first place? Wake up your inner barn rat. She dozed off right when you got boring but she’s as still as curious as you want your horse to be. Curiosity might be the most affirmative connection we can have with horses. When we get engaged, our brain grows some dendrites and releases neurochemicals, too.
How does that feel? Just like falling in love all over again. But this time we listen better.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Visit The Relaxed & Forward Barn School to see our class schedule, online courses and virtual clinics available on a revolving basis on Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and More. Join our community there. Or go to AnnaBlake.com to find out more, book a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join us in The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more.
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.