Human Calming Signals: What Counterfeit Means

Back in the day, there was a word used when talking about a stoic horse that who seemed almost too good to be true. It appeared nothing was amiss; the horse worked well enough but something didn’t feel right, and with hindsight, the feelings were confirmed. These horses were called counterfeit. I don’t know that it’s a fair name. Aren’t all flight animals unpredictable in unusual situations? Still wild at their core?

Horses come by it honestly. That uncertain feeling during the process of working with a horse isn’t a game of deception. It’s their common-sense effort to buy time in a stressful situation. When there are two conflicting impulses (like curiosity about a human but not wanting to leave the herd) horses give calming signals. If we give them time to figure out the contradiction, and time for their nervous system to self-regulate rather than be rushed to an anxiety-based answer, horses feel safer. A horse who feels safe is more dependable.

What about us? We’re so busy trying to understand our horses, do we even notice our human calming signals? How many counterfeit habits do we have? Some of us howl with bravado because we’re insecure. Some of us habitually apologize assuming we’re wrong. If we do get it right, we minimize our skills. Perish the thought we might feel confident. No matter what shape our body is, we aren’t happy with it. We take everything personally, blaming ourselves. We laugh to release tension. We cry to release tension. If we have any common sense at all, we’re afraid of horses but we are self-critical about it.

We come by our contradictions honestly, too. We were raised to be polite and not offend. Don’t show anger, smile when we don’t mean it. Don’t be too friendly and don’t be too quiet. We acquiesce or we rebel. We have a work persona, family relations can be complicated, and then there’s who we are with friends. Our culture can make us feel like we take up too much space but are still insignificant. Some of us are driven to the dogs, literally. And some of us rush to the barn, the place where anxious people meet anxious horses.

All we want is to be with horses. We love them. And that’s the last simple thought we have.

Loving horses doesn’t mean we can care for them effectively or ride them safely. It doesn’t mean we don’t get hurt. If we are brave and ask for help, we’re hit with a tsunami of techniques, railbird advice, warnings about leadership, and the simple math that horses are ten times bigger than us. We’re told horses can read our fear, which is like being threatened to not be afraid, as if we can wish it away. Instead, we try to hide all our anxiety but like carrying a halter behind our backs, we fool no one. 

In short order, we have a list of things horses can read in us and if we are going to survive having horses in our lives, we need one more persona. Most of us are trying to find the sweet spot between being an evil dominator with whip and spurs and being a pink doormat that horses ignore. The sweet spot would be trust, but if horses read our fear, won’t they know we are counterfeit?

This is the sort of overthinking mental debate that can nearly disable us. It’s easier to think horses are magical healers who love our problems or invent stories about the horse’s past to justify current behavior. But the farrier still needs to come, horses still need to be handled. And anxiety is still simmering.

Stop already. First, it’s such a silly understatement to say horses read our fear. They read our body language, our human calming signals. They read all our fussy contradictions and much of that comes across as anxiety. They can tell if we are faking it. Jabbering “Good boy” when we are frustrated doesn’t fool them. Nervous laughter makes them, well, nervous. Sympathy or pity makes little sense to a horse, they understand clean simple emotions like fear, anger, or pleasure.

How do we untangle this layered human habit of being? How do we rise out of this emotional swamp to connect with a horse? We have to let it go. We need to strip away our failing defenses and breathe. We don’t need more techniques; we need more self-awareness so we quiet our internal noise. We do need to learn about horses, but then we lay down the lists and reminders and judgment. Just let the busyness rest. Focus on one intention. 

Breathe. It doesn’t need to be a special breath, you don’t have to pretend you’re enlightened or perfect or strong. Just inhale and exhale, creating a new habit. Breathing is a human calming signal. Breathing is the anxiety antidote for both humans and horses. Confess the worst to yourself, but breathe your way through. Crying, screaming, and howling all count as breathing, but rather than think you’re hiding it, let it out. Find the person you were meant to be, buried underneath all the expectations and perceived shortcomings. Breathing consciously is the smallest thing to do with the biggest rewards, for both of you.

Your horse doesn’t care if you’re afraid. He cares if you are trustworthy, so tell the truth. Find the honesty we were all born with before we started trying to please people. Think less about horse training and more about being present in the moment. Less about the holes your horse has and more about your own authenticity. Say what is true. Let your body act in accordance with your mind. Find a congruity in yourself and notice the change in your horse. Then notice that peaceful leadership can be a quality that draws horses rather than frightening them.

It’s a profound relief to just say what you mean. No longer biting your tongue, but rather finding your balance in saying what’s true without self-judgment. Breathe the way forward, one step at a time, trusting your horse will volunteer to join you. It isn’t that horses heal us. It’s that our love for horses inspires us to heal ourselves. We need to take credit for that because it’s honest and true. And because our confidence needs to be as reliable as we want our horses to be. Horses would benefit if we stop pretending to be less than we are. What if our honest self is what we’re really afraid of?

 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

25 thoughts on “Human Calming Signals: What Counterfeit Means”

  1. <3 (and what if our honest self is someone we're just now getting to know, and learning to navigate, after a lifetime of absence?)

    Reply
  2. Fear of the honest self or of the reaction one gets when a more honest self? Maybe there needn’t be any distinction. Reality and honesty can have some rough edges, but still, the best places to be. Thanks, Anna.

    Reply
  3. Wonderful as always, Anna. My mare has been a pistol when it comes to taking worming medicine and it has gotten worse over time. Then one day, rather than offering applesauce and treats and going into it armed with memories of each preceding worming encounter, I went into her stall, showed her the paste, told her, “I know, neither one of this like this. It sucks. But I’m done bribing and cajoling. Today let’s just get through this together.” I don’t know if my talking out loud offered more than a held-in breathe, but for ONCE, she let me give her the meds with only a token objection. Whew. Breathe. I can’t say the issue is solved, but I think we are on a better path.

    Reply
    • Kaylene,
      This is excellent. I have been adopting the same attitude — less of the treat-rewards, and more of the verbal thank yous and rubs. I find they work just as well and they are more honest. Despite the apparent dislike (in others) of my talking to my horse, I just go ahead and talk to him as I am grooming, working, and in either riding or ground games. I know they don’t know what we are
      saying, but they seem to understand the idea and intonation in some form, just as one would when learning a foreign language.
      I am convinced that they like this honesty.

      Keep doing what you are doing. It is at such points that we realize we are on a better path!

      Warm wishes,
      Nuala Galbari, Virginia

      Reply
  4. This sure applies to most of our dealings with humans too! Being yourself rather than who someone else thinks you should be.

    Reply
  5. Anna,
    Brilliant perception as always.

    What is this? Today, upon entering the stall, I took a deep breath, breathing out slowly.
    Immediately following that, my Thoroughbred took a deep breath and did the same.
    Was he mimicking my calming signal?

    Nuala

    Reply
  6. Anna, this was such a rich, honest and inspirational piece. It’s hard to take the time for self reflection when life is pushing on you from so many directions, but this piece stopped me in my tracks…….thank you. Scenes with different horses (and people) kept popping in my head as I read your piece. Honesty is such a straightforward concept, yet so easily twisted in its application. I think that evolving as a human would be easier if there wasn’t a darn time limit……..and at my age that time limit is drawing closer. This piece will be read again, many times. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

    Reply
  7. I hope we can continue to know our true selves. The older we are the more chances we have had to try. A worthy goal, horses help.

    Reply
  8. Thank you so very much for this incredibly insightful post.

    I am so very grateful for you and I truly appreciate your sharing your amazing insights with us.

    Reply

Leave a Comment