Calming Signals and Feculence

I’m responding to a request to write a few words about poop. “BM, defecation, excrement, fecal matter, the deuce, sh*t, meadow muffins, fertilizer, dung, feces, number two, crap, guano, manure, night soil, or my personal favorite, horseplop.”

There you go. A few words. Get it? But alas, I’m just not willing to be all that funny about manure.

Here is how I lost my sense of humor about all things fecal. I know people who think their horse has a master plan to embarrass them at a show by dropping a load at “X” or spraying a green arc out from a 20-meter canter circle. Some take it as a personal insult if a horse poops within 10 feet of them. Some go nuts because seven days a week, their horse’s stall looks like a frat house on Sunday morning. Some rage against the inconvenience of a horse peeing in the horse trailer or their stall. 

Or you might be like me. I might pick up a turd for a closer look and there’s a good chance I’ll smile. You know the glee of colic resolving with moist manure. Or the call to the vet for the old horse with chronic guano stains. You understand the need to help a horse with projectile excrement. There is always a message being sent by way of poop. Some of the messages are health-related and some emotional but every action a horse takes is a message. The horse is telling us something about themselves. 

A bowel movement is just one part of the horse’s digestive system that starts with the horse’s muzzle and travels through a digestive system that is truly frail, considering ulcers and colic, and on to the anal end of the path. Humans say we get a ‘gut feeling’ but for horses, it’s even more literal. Many internal changes happen when a horse goes into a sympathetic system (flight) response. Heart rate goes up, but the digestive system slows. Body tension, muscle constriction, and pain can impact (sorry) the system to a life-threatening point. Horses that are anxious or overwhelmed will have several large bowel movements in a short time, including mass elimination and eventually diarrhea. A stress poop is a call for help or calm. 

How about crap as a calming signal? Have you noticed some horses leave a deposit just before stepping into the trailer, or starting a jump course, or approaching an obstacle? Imagine that it’s a release of dread like a lick or yawn, but on the other end. In some situations, when a horse leaves a turd pyramid, it’s an affirmative answer, right before the physical volunteer. It’s a release of a lower level of anxiety, he is ready for the task. That deserves a good boy. It’s a sign that the constipated logjam of over-cueing and anxiety is ready to clear. 

I had a young horse who was proud to drop-and-pee, splashing a circle of people standing close, and know others that needed to go back to the privacy of their stall to pee. Those are statements about confidence. A horse who is relaxed enough for a normal sort of urination or bowel movement close to us feels safe. When I’m mucking and one of the horses walks over, turns his butt to me, and loads my fork, I say thanks for the trust.

I swear, some of this is basic common sense. Horses don’t like to splash wee on their legs any more than we like to clean it off. Best to wee in deep shavings. That’s what they’re for, right?

Some horses have a habit of seasoning their water bucket with shite, a message of discontent or not feeling safe, in the limits of the stall or other areas of their life. While some stallions will stack several efforts into a soft cairn, other horses will pulverize each fecal fleck, you really want to listen there. Horses are herd animals; confinement and isolation are hardwired causes of anxiety. Not a choice for them. Your horse needs room to move. We might see a stall as a convenience for horse-keeping, but it is solitary confinement for them, something that can cause humans to rub their feces on the walls from stress. 

Perhaps you take poop personally? Do you think your horse’s digestive eliminations are meant to embarrass you or mock you? That your horse has a long-term goal of driving you mad with planned feculence, creating a landmine field of meadow muffins precisely timed and located for your demise? Do you fantasize that horses are capable of intentional negative behaviors for psychological purposes or manipulations? Are you spending emotion and anxiety complaining about your horse’s personal habits? That their sole purpose in life is to get your silly white clothes dirty or mystically insert horsehair in your underwear. Do you think you should be able to control a horse down to the insult of a deuce pile in an inconvenient time or place? In a world where horses can dance, where the goal of oneness in movement with another species exists, are you kidding? That’s just horseshit, a word synonymous with nonsense and foolishness.

The science is in on this but maybe it bears repeating. Horses do not have the same neocortex that humans do. Our frontal lobe is used for higher cognitive functions such as like problem-solving, social interaction, and impulse control, not that you can tell by looking at our bank accounts. It’s also the part of our brain where we criticize and disrespect ourselves and others; where we make up stories that are hyper-romantic or demeaning and paranoid. These are mental activities horses are free of. Horses do not cheat or pretend to be stupid or plan elaborate practical jokes. Horses are not capable of deceit. Isn’t that why we prefer their company to humans half the time?

The gift for humans who strive to understand calming signals and work with the horse in an affirmative way is that we learn to welcome all information to support our horses more deeply, in the hope we can become more trustworthy in their eyes. If we are in horses for the long run, if our commitment is true and our passion aimed for their welfare, we should be more concerned with the horse’s emotions than our own. Part of that is making friends with poop, embracing it in all its varied beauty and eloquence. 

Because eventually, we face the saddest day; the last dung pile you will ever muck up from a heart horse. You might leave it where it fell for a day or two, sentimental and reluctant to let go of this final organic blessing. Can you really love a horse without loving his horseplop too?

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

Want more? Join us in The Barn. Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.

Ongoing courses in Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, Fundamentals of Authentic Dressage, and Back in the Saddle: a Comeback Conversation, as well as virtual clinics, are taught at The Barn School, where I also host our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.

Visit annablake.com to find over a thousand archived blogspurchase signed booksschedule 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.

Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

17 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Feculence”

  1. Fabulous, as always, Anna! I thought I was mad for thanking my herd for pooping next to me. It’s good to know I’m not. Finn will always choose to come and pee next to me if I happen to be in the paddock when he needs to go; what an honour if it means he feels safe with me.

    Reply
  2. Can you really love a horse without loving his horseplop too? Giggles and grins at this line. So needed a good laugh today. And the muck crocks and jammy pants, priceless and worth a hoot to boot. Horseplop, new to my vocabulary.

    Reply
  3. Lol – the wind was just right today to greet my return to the farmette with parfume d’equine. It takes me back to the days of changing into riding clothes in the family station wagon after school as we headed down the lane to the lesson barn.

    Most days Val assists with the mucking chores. If I’m paying attention, I can position the wheelbarrow just so to catch the load, or the manure fork if I was distracted. Mucking the pasture satisfyingly bookends my days. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Reply
  4. Hear-Hear, Anna, for addressing this topic with solemnity. There’s nothing funny about colic, but lots to laugh about as you’re picking up poop! Many times I would call out to my husband “Towel Boy!” or “Garçon!” signaling his services are needed on “Aisle 9!” I have had a few episodes myself of strategically placing the wheelbarrow just in the nick of time. Then there’s being on poop patrol during a parade. While the horses in front of us are crowd-pleasers, the biggest cheers come when you show up right behind them scooping their poop!

    As for our barn, we have four loveable poopers and wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Reply
  5. I regarded them apples with newly found appreciation this morning, and this is coming from someone raised on appreciation for a well-done turd bird in every souvenir shop.

    Reply
  6. This is a good one, Anna.. I tell my visitors that if they are LUCKY I will allow them to assist me in my morning mucking meditation. Very satisfying to clean up the poop in the horse pen while thinking deep thoughts.

    With Bear’s tummy issues, IBD, I keep a watchful eye on his poop.

    Bear rarely poops near me or when we are working together; I don’t think he feels relaxed enough to let it go ! On the other hand, Cash poops frequently, way more than any horse I’ve known. Kind of like a ‘nervous’ thing.

    Isn’t it wonderful to have friends who are as interested in poop as we are ?

    Reply
    • When I have visitors I watch them tiptoe, fearful of poop. Kinda cute. Good to have friends not afraid of poop. Thanks, Sarah.

      Reply
  7. Hi Anna!
    Wonderful post, with giggles and seriousness too. ? We all love poop! All my horsey girlfriends have had more than a conversation or two about our horses poop, haha, I think the non-horsey would think we are nuts! There’s nothing more pleasing then to see the manure knowing all is well. (And seeing the signs, time to call the vet) And we all find solitude, comfort and even bonding moments mucking stalls. You said it all best, and from one horse lover to another there’s a lot to say about horse poop! Thank you for your insight, calming signals training and all you do for the horses and the horse world!! ❤️? ~Diana

    Reply
  8. In a barn with five horses, I can identify piles by the horse who left them. Not kidding. When you’ve gone through a few colics with your horses, every nugget is gold and what those nuggets look like tells the story. Poop is serious business, but can be funny when they park their fanny over the muck bucket. Or not so funny when they park said fanny over the warm water trough when it’s 10 below. Cleaning the trough when everything freezes instantly just isn’t that much fun. LOVE the jammies and crocks!

    Reply
    • Kaylene, what an eloquent poopologist you are… I walked past a particularly spectacular pile and said, “Really, Clara!” but I was the only one who thought I was funny. And I don’t even want to think of water tanks in an Alaskian winter… well done to even have them. Thanks, Kaylene

      Reply
  9. I thought it felt right that often when I go out to work with my horses, they poop and then step forward to volunteer! ?

    Reply

Leave a Comment