Human Calming Signals: I Want my Horse to be Fearless.


So, you want a horse that doesn’t spook? Don’t we all? Great, you wanna look for something over 25 years old. Not a bad idea to plug cotton in his ears and put blinders on his bridle. Not what you had in mind?

Then a railbird has a suggestion. “You know horses can read your fear.” Hearing this always makes my blood boil. It only encourages riders to think they can control the universe. Or it batters down any shred of confidence a rider might have mustered and now they think everything the horse does is their fault. Blaming the human is as silly as blaming the horse. Besides, the railbird probably overheard a 4-H kid say it. I was a 4-H kid; it’s a good start.

The keyword is start! Step one in any training plan is to stop listening to railbirds, especially the one in your head. Railbirds are such fatalists. Besides, it isn’t that horses read our fear, it’s that they read everything. Try a new perspective.

If you want your horse to be fearless, you must not use fear as a motivator.

We trust that you don’t hit your horse or lunge them into a lame stupor. But we have been using fear-based methods for so long they look normal to us. We are the ones numb to loud, nagging cues. We recognize harsh hands… unless they are attached to our arms. We pull on their faces without noticing. We corner horses to halter them and swing ropes if they aren’t quick enough for us. Call it passive-aggressive, we’re in a hurry. There is no blood, it doesn’t rise to the level of cruelty. But we often intimidate horses in quiet ways that matter to them.

Now imagine your senses are as keen as your horse’s. Is it possible that you’re a teensy bit loud as you overcue? Does the lead rope pull his face because we leave without asking them to walk along? Maybe during savasana in your yoga class, you plan what to cook for dinner. It’s easy to miss messages and calming signals if we haven’t trained our minds to focus. Maybe we confuse our horse’s behavior with our own fear and constantly try to slow the horse down but end up unbalancing them enough that they lose confidence. They taught us to be quiet around horses but if it leaves us acting like a coyote, it scares horses. Maybe we are so bound up in our love for a horse that we seem grasping and needy. Is our love an anchor, but in the worst way?

The question isn’t if horses can read our fear. It’s that they read our dull wits, our complacency. Our worry and our neediness. Our blank pain and confusion. What if we are so much in our own thoughts that they can’t read anything in us at all? What does an overthinking analytical mind read like? Is it a mass of letters and numbers gibberish floating around?

Horses give us calming signals constantly. Are we aware of the human calming signals we send? Everyone says they want a better relationship with their horse, but it’s a nebulous goal. And it gets worse; relationships are built on a foundation made of tiny bricks. Little unintentional habits that we aren’t aware of. When working with horses, we should be focused on those tiny mannerisms because they are important language.

Try an experiment, give it the benefit of the doubt. Remember a horse will always be a horse. Their instincts will always take over. Consider this good news because it means there are no wrong answers. So much pressure for perfection falls away. Now we can proceed to listen with clean ears and no blame. We’re better already.

Rather than always looking for the response we want, and not liking the one we get, let’s look to ourselves first. Behavior is communication, every single time. It’s true for horses and it’s true for us as well. We might need to clean ourselves up a bit, from a calming signal standpoint. Here’s my top ten list:

  • Hold your distance. Stand a few feet away and let the horse have his space. Yes, it’s his space. Be a polite guest.
  • Look at the horse less and inhabit your body more. Breathe rhythmically.
  • Use your peripheral vision more and soften your eyes. Notice the full environment rather than using tunnel vision.
  • Be quiet. Hold your tongue. Listen. Let your breath speak.
  • Use hands very little, and never above your waist. Horses see nuance and don’t need semaphore.
  • Feel the earth under your feet. Think with your feet; move with eloquent purpose and warm focus.
  • Feel your heart beat, feel energy in your solar plexus. Let your body be fluidly alive. Percolate.
  • Relax your face and jaw and smooth your forehead. A smile is a human calming signal horses understand. Empathy and sympathy faces look a little creepy.
  • Discipline yourself to one emotion. Let it be affirmative and readable. Become reliably consistent.
  • Video yourself. Learn to like what you see. Have patience. Humans aren’t trained in a day.

I know some of these things go against worn-out traditions. They didn’t get me the relationship I wanted so I had to change.

Instead, try leading by example. Hold a quietly confident intention of “safe equality.” Be the calming signal you want to see.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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30 thoughts on “Human Calming Signals: I Want my Horse to be Fearless.”

  1. I resemble too much of this – lol. My mind was singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “slow down you’re going too fast” before I read it…

    Thank you. Your words work for me :).

  2. You have changed the way I interact with horses and for that I will always be grateful and thankful. I’m sure you know that, but it’s worth repeating because I trust what you do is not always as easy as you make it appear. I laughed out loud at Empathy Creepy Face! This post is another one that is getting printed. Thank you for being ‘reliably consistent’. We humans sometimes need to be reminded again… and again.

    • Ah, you see behind the curtain! Yes, I pretty much say the same thing again, I try to use better words, but we learn through repetition and where would I be without my past trainers saying the same thing over again. Thanks Kathy

  3. And I was singing “I feel the earth move under my feet..” and now I’m pondering “safe equality.” Good one!

  4. Thank you for this post. I have been riding with fear for about 18 years. My horse Maximus passed away in October 2021 and I had always been afraid of him. I bought him when he was 4 and had no-one with me who knew anything about horses. He was a Friesian and “a lot of horse” for someone like me who didn’t really know how to ride. I believe I did everything wrong from the get-go and after he passed I promised myself I would do everything different the next time. This blog is now my place for new and gentle information so that I can try new ways of my behavior to have my new horse and to have fun with him along our way together. Thank you.

    • I’m happy you are here. Most of us have had similar experiences, trust me! You are not alone in your thoughts and memories of Maximus. I remember my first horse as a teenager and oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now! What we do now, with this horse, makes all the difference. We just keep learning, often STILL making mistakes, at least I do! Thanks for your post. When I think of “Leo” and the things I didn’t do and should have done, I will know I am not alone in mistakes along the way.

  5. I think your top 10 list should be used in most human circumstances in life – not just with horses. We’d all be more content. Less anger, less emotion, more patience, more breathing. It works wonders in all parts of life.

  6. My mare is 26, and she used to be the fearful one. We got over that and then boy did we have fun. In the last 2 years I have become the fearful one – not of her, or of riding but fearful FOR her. Scared about her aging process, and am I managing pain, and keeping her in enough shape. I know that does her no favors, and your blog today drove home the truth in that.
    Today we walked side by side together in the woods with George Winston and Elton John buoying our steps. We were not “teaching” or “learning” and not worrying, but just walking together and we both breathed alot… and I wasn’t scared for her, because we were alive and feeling the earth, and we were in rhythm. I can do this.

    • I remember that kind of fear & concern – my boy was 28 when he was put down. We, all of us, have to somehow put that kind of fear away & just enjoy the time we have – thats true with all of our interactions with animals. Time is short but boy, is it full of wonder!

  7. I had no idea what I was doing when I had my first horse. I knew cows some but not horses, though I desperately wanted one. I had a western rider magazine and one book to look for ideas from. My wish from that time would be that caring for a horses feet would be a more included item in all books and magazines. I had no clue, other than cleaning the muck out, what had to be done to keep them healthy in between farrier visits. I didn’t know what the configuration of a hoof entailed or what to look for for problems. I don’t see that knowledge included in any of the horsey groups I visit, I just think it would be as important a subject as trail riding. Just a rainy day thought. Thank you for the thoughtfulness article you shared, a very necessary topic !

    • When you learn one thing, another unknown shows up. Hoof care has changed over the years, hasn’t it. Thanks, Phyll

  8. You are absolutely right about calming signals. Novice riders can make a horse very nervous as they go rigid when THEY are fearful and the horse responds by looking for the dragon that made the rider scared!!! Also, when approaching a horse that is free in a field, the horse looks at your body language before deciding to approach. If you are leading a horse – its push – dont pull. Walk at the horses shoulder, then it is confidant. Fortunately there is a new pheromone available that makes horse calm, if you rub it into their nostrils. I am a vet who has to treat horses and find your advice on calming signals excellent!

    • You don’t often see horses at their best… yes, calming signals are important. I also love the approach of a pheromone. What a help for a fearful horse. Thanks, Cheryl.

  9. I just love this! Yoga reference cracks me up. Now I just try to just breathe 5 breaths in a “happy place” which is currently picturing the Northern Lights to quiet my mind. When with my horse, “Good boy” is my mantra. Still working on eliminating the aggressive training methods I’ve picked up over the years. Haha the hands at the end of my arms! Thanks, Anna, for your reminders and encouragement while I fumble towards being a better person for my horse.


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