Calming Signals: Planning for Stress

Calming signals are an animal’s emotional response to their environment, expressed in body language, sometimes in increasing anxiety moving toward a flight, fight, or freeze response and sometimes decreasing anxiety while returning to a relaxed or restive state.

It’s the most natural thing in the world for a horse to feel stress. It might be anxiety about another horse in the herd or the anxiety caused by isolation. A scent on the air or a sudden movement or a sharp sound. Horses have a hard-wired fear of restriction or confinement. We might feel better if we call it a survival instinct, but it’s a stress response that keeps a horse alive in his environment. Part of knowing your horse is being aware of his particular stressors. In a sense, they become our own. .

Add to that, the many kinds of anxiety that humans have around horses because we love them: An ongoing stress that they will get sick, that they will die, that they will hurt people. We might worry that our horse won’t like trailers or picking up their feet or going over bridges. We might begin to scan the horizon for plastic bags or mud puddles. We plan for issues that our horse may or may not have. Horses can lose confidence by reading the stress level of their human. Knowing that horses read our fear, now we have a low-level fear of our own fear.

Yikes, it’s a runaway!

Humans tend to define stress as a bad thing, so we set about trying to force our horses to be calm, as if that was ever a natural state. We might try to control the environment, walking on eggshells, and being unnaturally peaceful, but your horse reads your body language as coyote-like and goes on alert for what is putting you on alert. Or we might think we can desensitize the horse from all scary things, continually pushing him to face the fear that we’ve created for him to learn from. That constant pressure in training can overwhelm, putting your horse into a state of learned helplessness. With good intentions, some of us create more stress, as we try to relieve stress.

Stress is more fluid than we think. Humans can have anticipatory anxiety because we love Christmas or will be leaving on vacation or are shopping for a new horse. And a minute later, the Christmas to-do list leaves you in a puddle, you get sick in the Uber to the airport and miss your plane, or your new horse arrives and is totally unrecognizable from the one you bought. If the same event can flip-flop between good and bad, it seems like a bad idea to pick sides. Rather than leaping to judgment, can we simply keep an open mind?

We’ll keep it simple: Define stress as being alive. And that means stress is inevitable and dependable. It’s time to make friends with it.

Is it possible for us to control a horse’s emotional response? Of course not. The only control we have is over our own response and one thing should be obvious: If your behavior doesn’t contribute to less anxiety for your horse, then change what you’re doing. It isn’t working.

There is a natural behavior that toddlers have. Perhaps they stumble and plop on the ground. It startles them, so they look to a parent to see how they should feel. If the parent looks alarmed and confirms the danger, the toddler cries, but if the parent, seeing no injury, smiles and cheers, the toddler will become more confident in his exploration. Toddlers are born with a survival instinct, but we can make a choice of how to negotiate that. We can choose what calming signals we give, looking beyond the instant of a small stumble, with an eye toward the big picture. Isn’t confidence always the goal?

We also know that horses read human facial expressions. What would happen if we became more focused on the messages our bodies send, rather than the latest training technique we saw. What if instead of trying to evoke a response in our horses, we paid more attention to our own response.

Just as you know the things your horse is likely to feel stress about, you also know his favorite calming signals. Can you offer him an opportunity for self-soothing? Can you bring the release of anxiety rather than being the cause of it?

Embrace the normal status of stress with less resistance. Everything doesn’t have to include suffering. Hang a hay bag when tacking up. Give the horse an opportunity for an affirmative calming signal in the release of his jaw chewing, rather than standing in cross ties with no way to move. Plan ahead with gastric support for a trailer ride, knowing it is always a challenge. Wouldn’t an antacid be a positive step, even if your horse walks right in? Think less about how you should control the horse’s response and more about how you might help him feel safe. Empathy is a universal language that we all understand, but traditional domination training methods make us feel wrong for being weak, when in truth, vulnerability is the finest goal for a horse and human relationship. There is strength in having compassion.

Horses and humans both feel stress as a natural response, but humans have more choice about our response. It takes energy and focus, but could you trouble yourself to smile? It can feel counterintuitive to be affirmative in the face of stress, but could you put a genuine smile on your face when you look at your horse, whether he’s doing exactly what you want or falling short of the mark? Could you give him a smile to relieve his stress; give him a smile to remind him that you’re not that person who is impatient, not that person who has a temper, not that person who thinks nothing is ever good enough.

The world will always be chaotic. We will always face the things we never saw before, and we cannot desensitize our horses or ourselves to life. We can learn to lay down our natural leaning toward dread and train ourselves to say yes. To become the sort of human a horse can rely on. They say horses make us better people, but the work is ours to do.

Go to The Barn School for classes in Equine Calming Signals and Human Calming Signals.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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34 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Planning for Stress”

  1. Oh, I am already stressing about July 4 and fireworks. Every year I sit with my horses, with a glass of wine and my little bottle of Rescue Remedy. Two years ago I was given a sample pack of Confidence EQ gel and although highly skeptical, I used it just before sunset and it worked very very well. My little herd tends to be fairly level-headed when the fireworks start, and over the years I’ve learned they need room to move but not the entire pasture, and that if I keep them on their respective sides of the barn, where they share a paddock fence line, they can be “together” without going into the herd at full gallop mode. They can easily trot around their paddocks if they need to move, but they’re up at the barn, and safe, and I’m sitting there trying to model calm for them. 🙂 I keep the barn fans on as a sort of white noise buffer, and many years the cicadas are so loud they provide excellent white noise for us. The horrible part is if neighbors shoot off the fireworks in closer proximity (our immediate neighbor has done this 2x in our 16 years here) not only is the noise very loud, the flashing super close, but the smoke is terrible. I get angry that people don’t care about the impact of their behavior on everyone around them, and every animal that has to live outside, but in the end we get through it. I have my Confidence EQ gel ready and I need to get a bottle of wine for me. Something special to celebrate our own herd’s resilience. Someone should maybe cook up a Confidence EQ gel for us HUMANS! :)))

  2. So many golden nuggets in this one Anna. And if ever there was a barn hanger, “They say horses make us better people, but the work is ours to do.” would be it!

  3. “We can learn to lay down our natural leaning toward dread and train ourselves to say yes.” Wonderful words of wisdom for horses and for life. Thank you.

  4. Great thoughts to keep in mind though out the post. Love the last paragraph especially. Thank you for all the helpful insights and reminders.

  5. Anna,
    Ever since I discovered your outstanding writing/posts, I have been working on myself, as my horse is fine as he is.
    In the words of my barn owner/trainer, “He’s one of the coolest, most easy-going Thoroughbreds I have seen; he’s a good guy.
    Yesterday, she said, “He knows more than you think he does.”

    This is not actually true, but I agreed with her. He is a professionally trained OTTB who knows many things, but accepts my limitations, is gentle with me, and is non-competitive, so happy to live a more gentle life — if all indications are accurate.
    We are reading them, and we are imperfect beings.

    When I worry about something (in or out of the saddle), my heart-rate increases (normal for all of us); so it’s important, as you say, to breathe. When I take a deep breath, he often takes a deep breath shortly afterwards. After our short walk warm up yesterday, we turned toward our trainer who asked us to ride a huge circle (half the arena). As I turned him to begin his trot, I said, “Deep breath! Half Halt!” He exhaled, calmly, and sprung into a lovely trot. It set us up for a very good session where he was active, yet relaxed.

    On the ground (which is 75% of my work with him), if I notice any concern, or he becomes a little ‘looky’ as they call it, I look towards the ground and exhale, or even do a little dance. It works most of the time. This sort of signal is calming to him.
    You can find what is calming to your own horse (as you note) — but I also smile — yes SMILE — use his name, and begin talking quietly to him, even using a silly voice will help. The main point being that he knows when I am calm, happy, relaxed.
    And I am there, beside him (rather than on him) most of the time. He used to be less calm if the TWH, Simon, was not with him.
    For the past several months, when my husband returns to the barn with the little horse, he will not follow, preferring to stay with me, while my husband does other chores or makes coffee. This change in his is recent, as noted, and I think it shows he is calm
    with me, even if the other horse is taken back to the barn. He will ‘squeak’ at him or answer him, which is funny — not a full whinny, but just a little silly squeak, while he’s eating grass. Still, when encouraged to return to the barn, he prefers to stay out
    with me, just the two of us. The important point here (and it mirrors what Anna is saying in her post): I used to get worried when my husband took the other horse back to the barn, as they are very closely bonded. I decided that I was causing the problem — my worry traveled to him and he worried. Now, I stay relaxed and I don’t encourage him to go back with Simon. So, he stays relaxed. It works.
    Thank you, Anna.


    • Sounds like your boy listens to your voice as much as he feels your feelings! Really sweet.
      On a different note, I got a call from my granddaughter in Ocala this am – asking me if I remembered any “tricks” to catching a horse who decided not to be caught. Considering she now has more horse experience than I do – having worked as barn manager in several different barns – was more just calling to talk. She was getting ready to trailer horses to a show this afternoon & bringing them in – bathing them & settling them in their stalls for a bit, I guess. Anyhow – this particular one who usually is NOT a problem decided today was the day. Just got an email saying she had left him in the paddock by himself for a while , brought the others in & finally he started pacing & was ready!
      Had my horse “fix” for today – in a manner of speaking. Love to hear whats going on in her world as much as I do in this one (Anna’s blog)!

  6. So much good stuff today, Anna, not the least of which is encouraging us to be…trustworthy!
    My husband of going on 40 years this August, has a natural talent with people and animals in this regard. I recall a time when my TB Dover got a cut just below his eye. Not too serious but needed tending to heal properly. I watched amazed as Dover lowered his head just enough to allow my husband to clean and apply the necessary medication. He stood still through the entire procedure. There have been other such “boys will be boys” incidents with our guys. They each trust they will be safe in his hands.
    Years and years ago (yes, that many!) four of us were out on a “three hour tour” in a small sailboat. The weather changed for the worse; the winds picked up and the water became choppy. The boat didn’t respond even when we turned the engine on. The sky became dark from first the storm and then the time being stuck out there. While the “fearless crew” were obeying orders from Captain Hubby, our little dog — equipped with her own life jacket — immediately put herself behind Captain Hubby, and stayed there until we finally were able to get to shore. That little dog knew without a doubt Captain Hubby was the key to our survival. Again, she had trust; he was trustworthy.
    Sorry if this is off topic, but these two memories sprung to mind as I was reading today’s excellent essay!

    • Not off topic. I don’t think it’s natural for all of us, but animals are truth detectors. You should keep that fella.

  7. One piece of advice I’ve heard you give before is: Put some hay in the aisle and forget the cross-ties. Ryder, my 21 year-old Arab, prefers that. He will stand in cross ties for the farrier and when necessary, so it isn’t true that I’ve spoiled him, as some say. Other things Ryder has taught me: 1) Be quick about grooming before a ride. Then just do my front feet, and let’s go. After the ride, groom all you want, and see? I told you my back feet were fine. 2) We’ve done this exercise 3 times; let’s move on. Ryder issues that opinion by picking up one hind leg and stomping it down. I must be hard of hearing, he thinks. I move on! Sometimes, I have to be reminded not to go for perfect when “good enough for now” is best. 3) The wash stall is fine for a full bath, but Ryder prefers a cool-down shower outside at one of the pumps. I have my own sprayer that I attach to the hose. In short, he’s taught me what he likes, and it’s no skin off my nose to deliver.

    • Well Jean. One reason to love the breed. Yes, if we say we want a partnership, those have two voices in them. Thanks, great comment.

  8. But something I found out, just because they are eating doesn’t mean all is good. A lot of times they go to eat, to avoid what is happening, and when they come up they go “Yikes, what is happening!” But yes we do need to listen to our horses.

  9. OMG, an awesome post Anna. The piece de resistance of some of your previous posts on this issue.

    With your posts in mind, I’ve been focusing on my anxiety level as I interact with my “HSP” Thoroughbred (the horse equivalent of a Highly Sensitive Person, which I am). I’ve seen it time after time that until I have calmed myself, he has a difficult time finding calm. Now when we do anything, I frequently check myself for tension and anxiety. If I feel it I focus on normalizing my breathing and relaxing my body. Almost invariably and within minutes he will take a relaxed breath and his eyes will soften; whatever it was we were doing becomes easier. It has been an amazing change for us.

    Thank you for sharing your horse wisdom. It’s been invaluable to us.

  10. Have you written any posts about assuming intentional negative behaviors of a horse, specifically when a horse chooses to use the bathroom in the stall as opposed to going outside (stall is open so they can go in/out)? I am reading a group discussion where someone is incensed because her horse is doing this and she’s determined, and getting much support for the idea, that the horse is doing this to “be a jerk, be a shit, give her the middle finger, mock her, etc.” Ditto when she is mucking and the horse walks up, turns his rear, and drops manure.

    These are people who are all trying to figure out how to allow a horse to have access to a stall but they do not want the horse to use the bathroom in the stall. Nor do they want the horse to use the bathroom near where they’re mucking. The current recommendation is to get a whistle and train the horse to use the bathroom on command!

    I would love to link to a post that discusses how horses actually think and how this manifests in their behaviors.

    I cannot even fathom thinking that I would have stalls with bedding but not want my horses to use the bathroom in them. Should we humans not use our toilets because someone will then have to clean them periodically? Good grief!

    • Are you sure she can read? Sorry, did I say that outside my head? No current manure posts, but I’ll put it on the list…

      • These people live in a very horse-centric city and are very involved with trainers for the most part. Showing, riding, training, etc. I was honestly shocked to see the post, all the reactions, and then a second post taking it even further. I know and have experienced the basic phenomena of attributing negative intentions to various behaviors under saddle or in hand, but I really didn’t think it would extend to a horse using the bathroom in his/her stall!

        What more can we get angry about and try to control? Sigh.

  11. LOL. I needed to read this today! I made one comment to the discussion saying that when my horses drop manure near me while I’m mucking I consider it a gift and them being helpful. That seemed to kick off even more examples of how horrible and mean horses are being to do this. The initial poster is actually a nurse and has always posted loving things about her equines, but suddenly, this. On the human side, it’s clear a lot of women are displacing frustration onto their horses’ behaviors. I am so interested in the horse’s side. I live with a bunch of geldings who run the spectrum when it comes to keeping their stalls – from super tidy to being a slob. I say the slob thing lovingly – Keil Bay is a big horse and even in a double stall when he turns around he’s going to stir things up a bit in the bedding. He’s also lived his life as a horse with people to clean up after him and who have done it happily, so he simply goes with that flow. It doesn’t occur to me to do anything but revel in manure and urine as healthy by-products of a healthy horse that I can pretty easily turn into amazing compost.

  12. Lovely post. Smile through it and for sure it will go better. Funny how that works, for more than horses. Kind of like fake it till you make it.. surprisingly effective!


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