How to Measure the Heart of a Horse

Have you experienced this? Someone says something that is a throw-away comment, not meant to be anything, they toss it not intending any harm. I mean it, kind people having a thoughtful conversation, and one of them says the new horse is close to perfect and she likes him a lot, but she somehow does not get the feeling of presence, or maybe heart,  she felt with the horse that died a while back.  And now I am stuck in an echo chamber with a comment that ricocheted off the walls a few times and then landed with the pointy end in my eye. I can’t let go because it’s personal.

Disclaimer: I am an equine professional who has studied calming signal peculiarities to a degree that would drive a normal horse-crazy girl (if such a thing exists) nuts. I know what I know. I sometimes wish I didn’t. I’m no fun at rodeos and not a fan of playing pin the romantic tale on the donkey. I like who horses are naturally and want us to understand them for their unique selves. A horse’s experience shouldn’t be dependent on what they give us or how we feel about them.

This statement about one horse having a bigger heart is something we all have opinions about. We go so far as to call some of them Heart Horses. What does that make the others? How is a heart quantifiable? It isn’t like the quality of a trot or the height of a jump cleared. It isn’t crossing a finish line first, if any of us can stand to watch races anymore. Instead, it is a loss-fueled statement that puts the new horse in a diminished position. As if surviving a beloved horse’s death, especially one they never met, is easy in the first place.

We all have a soft spot for old horses and old dogs. Some of that is quantifiable, but in a way we don’t like to acknowledge. They are not as comfortable moving as they once were. They become more sedate when vision blurs and old joints creak. They hide their pain behind a stoic mask and become easier to control. Many of the calming signals for pain are mistaken for an agreeable temperament. We like them sweet.

Or did we change? Maybe by the time the horse gets older, we stop fighting with them and their heart grows softer, not having to defend itself. Yes, it took all of their life and a good chunk of ours to get there. Do our hearts grow larger after we die? I hope so.

Some horses are hard to love. Some are so fearful and anxious, that you might like them well enough at a distance but are relieved that they aren’t your horse. Maybe they have hurt their rider or have an undiagnosable condition that makes for unpredictable behavior. We feel sorry for them; we have both sympathy and empathy, which is like sending thoughts and prayers. It’s truly kind. Are these the horses with smaller hearts?

Is it the horses who frighten us that have less presence? Abused horses have less of that winning personality. Sometimes it’s the spooky horse with small eyes that is aggressively intimidating. They have a presence but not one we like. We want tall calm horses with long manes in pretty colors. We can be a little superficial that way.

I’ve known horses that have been used well in agreeable work, cared for impeccably but not “loved.” I don’t think horses miss what they don’t know. It doesn’t make their heart smaller. I’ve known horses who are loved to cloying distraction and micromanaged to the extreme. I think often it shrinks them; they pull inside themselves as if human love were a kind of domination.

What is it that pokes me so much about the size comment? If I have thoughts about the quality of a horse’s heart or the power of a horse’s presence, what are they?

Let me describe how indescribable I think a horse’s heart is. Hearts are fluid and vapor, boneless and strong. They shrink or grow, by the second or hour, eternally reacting to their environment. Horses are not creators, they respond to their surroundings, flight animals forever driven by a survival instinct beyond choice. Their hearts fluctuate, like the pupil of our eye, but horses find footing when their environment supports them. It’s why they try to trust us, or give up trusting us.

I think a horse’s heart is ethereal. Do you know the definition of that word? The Oxford dictionary says: “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.” We recognize horses in those words, don’t we?

But as they react to us, horses also take cues from us. They get numerous messages whether we are aware we sent them or not. They don’t use fussy words to define us but horses read intention with precision, messages that are small but obvious in our own calming signals. We can practically make them lame by staring at a leg, or we can be so accepting of them that we lay down our critical thoughts and they feel safe. On any given day, horses reflect their surroundings, through a lens of their experience and memory. And for all we think we know, horses remain a mystery to us. Are we sure the heart we are judging is even theirs?

Or, ignore all my rambling chatter and let the question be answered by simple math. On average, a horse’s heart weighs seven to nine pounds, compared to a human’s measly little half-pounder. Not that they judge.

I’ve been getting a master class on courage from a reactive horse I’m working with. Ten weeks ago, his heart was obsidian. Today his heart flutters in the wind like a transparent silk scarf. What his heart will be tomorrow is unknown but I will be listening, open to his reactions to this ever-changing world. Follow his work at Bhim’s Training Diary. Click here.

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35 thoughts on “How to Measure the Heart of a Horse”

  1. Beautifully put as always, Anna. Mulberry was very much like Bhim to start with, it’s taken years to get to the ‘silk scarf’ stage. If I’m honest I don’t believe there’s any difference between the size of her heart and Finn’s. They all offer me what they can of themselves in their individual ways and I love each of them without judgement.

      • As a veterinarian, I have been taught exactly how to measure a horse’s heart as thoroughbreds with big hearts run better when raced. More oxygen to the muscles. Real horse power. BUT… I know the feeling of giving my heart to a horse and receiving their heart in return. My grey pony (actually a wide pony-high QH gelding) pricks his ears and nickers when he sees me coming. Putting my hands on both sides of his head and closing my eyes, calms me. His heart is huge, but his heartbeat slow and kind….

  2. Oh Anna, how I’ve been missing you!!! And reading this just reminds me yet again why…. The problem with humans, I think, is that we give away our hearts and then expect the receiver to hold them gently, which almost never happens. (Or perhaps that’s just me…..?) Animals are much wiser and know that the gift of a heart is a conditional thing, if it’s even a thing at all. What you said about the oldies being sedate is true, and I’m not ashamed to admit that at this point in my life, I like that! But what they give you in sedateness, they take away in worry about them. Anyone who truly feels that that’s all old animals (of any species, including ours) are good for has never cared for one in the way they deserve to be cared for, physically and in every other way. (Bean is doing his demented wandering and fretting behind me as I write this…. 😉 ) But I’ve had my share of problem dogs and horses, and my heart was just as full with them as with my oldies. In fact, I spent 15 years managing my second dachsie Alex’s mental health issues (the only way I can articulate that)…she wasn’t safe to be around for any other human or animal, but she trusted me implicitly and never so much as growled at me. I’m rather proud of that…I was her soft place to land. And my little Arab mare Missy was a puzzle box of a horse to me. but we figured out a way forward. I do believe they all have their own personalities. Not anthropomorphic ones, but there none the less (nature? nurture? trust? pure instinct?), and just as in our interactions with other humans that needs to be taken into account. We don’t like every human we come across, but I’m coming to believe that the lack isn’t always in them, but in us. I AM a big believer in, at the very least, kindness. So I get what that woman was saying about her new horse. I really questioned my sanity in taking in the Bean…comparisons with Bussie happened at every turn. But 6 months in, I’ve come to know, appreciate, and yes, love him. Heart and heads and instincts and physiology and neuroscience…a very potent, somewhat mysterious mix. Thanks, you, as always!

    • Good to hear from you, Paula. I miss my friends even more than my business…
      I think of you, as I think of all the rehabs rescues have sent me over the years… it is always a process and we choose to open our hearts, sometimes with a crowbar, but we do. Then something unfolds that is everything.
      My reactive dog, Preacher Man, has been here long enough to start to get a bit senile. He can sit on my lap now. It melts my heart, which like yours, is so stomped on and stretched out of shape, it’s a wonder I recognize it.
      God bless stinky old dogs. And thank you, Paula.

  3. I agree with all of that but… isn’t there something to be said of chemistry? I loved Hawkeye when he was difficult, before he trusted me, I loved him till he trusted me, and I loved him still now that he is gone. I have loved fierce mini’s who never fully trusted anyone. At the same time, I have not ever felt bonded to some very gentle school horses, while I have adored horses who wanted things from the saddle that I could not provide (and thus stopped riding in order not to frustrate both of us). I find that, like Boyfriends, chemistry defines if I like a horse enough to build the relationship, even when it will take a while for both of us to trust each other. Right now I feel like I will never love a horse the way I loved Hawk – but that is mostly cause I am not open to it yet. And it will be different, but the chemistry will be there.

    • Now I want to write about chemistry, this thing we recognize when we are open to it. As a trainer, I love every horse because it’s how they do their best. It isn’t smart, there is lots of sadness and loss for me, but it’s a choice… to have chemistry???
      Great comment, Teri. Thank you.

  4. “kind people having thoughtful conversation”….resonates with me as I spend time with my horse friends who say things about their horses that make my eyebrows shoot off the top of my head. I know these women all take the best care of their horses that they can, but I struggle listening. I always try to interject a story or comment to bring them to Anna Blake. Of course I go straight to calming signals…most still think “the head rubbing on a front leg is an itchy face”. How do others listen to “heart horse stories” and respond?

  5. I think there is a distinction between chemistry and love. I have never found chemistry to be a choice… I have had fabulous chemistry with people who were not good for me…. and I have chosen to love others with whom I have had no chemistry, but we were put together through the course of fate. I have had animals live in my home, and have loved every one of them, but some of the had that elusive chemistry with me, some with my husband, some just tolerated both of us because we had opposable thumbs. I cried for all of them at one time or another. But I would be lying if I said that some did not mean more to me than others.

  6. When I was younger, “heart” was always what a horse gave in a performance – which I thought was a silly way to describe that as well. I think people easily forget the time (and maybe effort) it took to form whatever connection or bond they had with their previous horse. They also lose sight of the fact that we don’t ‘click’ with every person we meet … sometimes we do, and quickly … sometimes it takes time … and sometimes the people we meet fit the descriptions you give of some horses – we’re just as happy to encounter them briefly. Some horses in our lives do touch us more deeply; but which ones they are can sometimes surprise us, if we just stay open to each as a unique individual.

    • Perceptive comment, Lia. I do love to be surprised by horses and humans. And sometimes I get it wrong, the best surprise.

  7. ““heart” was always what a horse gave in a performance” … that is the definition I’ve heard most often; I have equated that with “try”, the amount of try the horse gave to the performance.
    I’ve always thought “Heart Horse” was about the way a particular horse affected our heart, like our best spouses and friends. They make our heart excited and happy and full of love. I have never thought it was about the horse’s heart.

    • I saw it as try, too, especially with TBs. I agree, Helen, thanks for this clear comment.

      So much of this essay is about what I see as a trainer and how I work with horses and riders. I was told early on to not love the horses I work with, that it would burn me out. True, but the results were never as good if I didn’t. So many of the rescue rehabs had more problems with their emotions (heart?) than training problems, and so calming signals took over so much of my training technique. The most difficult horses where hard to keep an open heart toward. So that was also the best tool.

  8. I think “heart” is a relational term. It reflects what goes between us and the horse. I have no doubt that her old horse seemed to be more courageous than her new one; she’d had more time to develop the trust that is necessary. And yes there are horses that are more timid, spooky, etc. And it might be partly their inborn tendencies and partly their experience. But I have seen these supposed immutable traits change with a relationship with a person. And Bhim is a great example.

    • That’s why I thought about this comment for so long. Bhim had been stuck for years, I kept an open heart but it was a marathon. He is a constant surprise these days. Well stated, thank you, Therese.

  9. Thank you for these words, Anna: “Horses are not creators, they respond to their surroundings, flight animals forever driven by a survival instinct beyond choice. Their hearts fluctuate, like the pupil of our eye, but horses find footing when their environment supports them.”
    When Loopy first came to our barn, he would crib incessantly. Some years later that behavior subsided substantially. But then he lost his leader, Dover, and the cribbing began again in earnest. Eight months later we are seeing steady improvement, a good sign. He surprised me yesterday as I was looking at him through the window from inside the barn. A full ten feet away, he chose to leave the pile of hay he was eating to visit me at the window. Oh, be still my beating heart!

  10. I kept gasping as I read this Anna, thinking she can’t beat this phrase, and then she does! Pure poetry in many places….it deserves many rereading.
    I keep practicing calming signals with the dogs I meet in our travels, and the latest one is fresh in my mind. He and owners are just beginning to travel so anxiety is high but he ended up accepting my place at camp. I think I’m getting better at the “not doing” 😀.

    • Annie, isn’t it the best travel thing? Animals are a bit unstuck. Good job of not doing! Hope you are doing well, I can’t wait to hit the road again.

  11. Anna, this piece conjured so many thoughts about human/horse connection, and lead me to recall the equine relationships that I’ve had the privilege to enjoy. They have been an extremely rich part of my life, but clearly not simple. My feelings are deep when it comes to my horses, but my horses think Tina Turner said it best,
    “What’s Love Got ToDo With It?”.

    • Hehehe. Love is the easy part, it’s all the other realities that we didn’t know about. And are still learning. Thanks, Laurie

  12. Anna,
    Always love your chatter, rambling or not.
    Instinctive, beautiful, and memorable. Heart-centered. Always.

  13. I read somewhere that Secretariat’s heart was found to be twice the size of an average horse’s heart when a necropsy was carried out.

    When you, Anna, were here in Texas, I overheard you say to Zen Bear that he had a heart so big he was living inside that heart , and other horses with less heart would not be alive if they had the same challenges as him. Your words meant so much to me that evening; I was so pleased you could see his huge magnificent spirit.

    That’s all I know about horse hearts today


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