Human Calming Signals: Help Your Horse to Take Your Cue

You think it’s a simple task you’re asking your horse to do. You use an affirmative approach, not willing to intimidate your horse. Then you calm yourself and breathe, and your horse does nothing. Why isn’t it working? That Anna person says it isn’t what we ask a horse, it’s how we ask. Well, you’re not being mad or frustrated. You’ve seen other people who seem to do nothing and get a huge response from their horse. Why doesn’t it work for you?

This is the part that no one wants to talk about because it makes us defensive. And it’s intrusive and creepy. Yay. Here goes. 

Here’s an example: I might have a client who is a good rider, but she isn’t used to riding in the arena. All I’ve asked is for them to walk out and it doesn’t matter where they are, just begin walking. I don’t give more directions because the horse is just warming up. You’d think it would be a pretty simple thing, but surprisingly often it isn’t easy at all. Maybe the rider has it in her head that her horse should travel very close to the rail. She thinks the rail is the right place and any other place is wrong. I have not said ride on the rail, not once. But she wants to be right, of course, and the more she tries to steer the horse to the rail, the more the horse pushes away from the rail. It’s a little like a wrestling match and it shouldn’t be this hard. [Horse: What’s wrong with that fence? It’s like others. Don’t see a problem, but the human sees something bad. Do I trust her?]

Here’s an example: An owner needs to load a horse in the trailer. The horse had been hauled before, and she has loaded horses before, but today, she was having a hard time even leading the horse up to the door. She’s got her hand on the rope and she is barely pulling, but he just won’t come. She doesn’t know what the problem is. It’s a brand new trailer, promised to be a good one. There’s a railbird suggesting a whip. She remembers articles about different tricks for loading. Then, while she’s worrying about the time, she replays every horror story about loading or trailer wrecks she’s ever heard. The railbird is watching as if there is a cliff up ahead. It should be easy, but it isn’t working. [Horse: Why is she so nervous about the trailer? Does she see something? She isn’t breathing. I’ll look away or graze, to let her know I’m no threat. I’ll give her a calming signal, so she’ll relax.]

There’s more: You have a month of $30 Gastrogard syringes to use and your horse isn’t wild about a wormer once a year. Your new farrier thinks you’re an idiot. Your new horse arrived, and he isn’t the horse you thought you bought. You get my drift.

It isn’t what we ask a horse, it’s how we ask. It’s a pithy little phrase, but you are not dominating anything. And for once, you, your horse, and I all agree. At this point, it isn’t about what your horse is doing. It’s about what you can do to help your horse. So far, it’s all been a conversation with yourself in your head about your horse. Your horse hasn’t been part of your mental obstacle course. 

Start with settling your mind. Oh great, fine and dandy. That worthless drivel. What does it even mean?

Exactly! We approach horses having logical human conversations with them and then wonder why they don’t respond. Meanwhile, in their world, they read our body language. We are sending messages every second and humans are pretty easy to read. Our body is a billboard next to a dirt road. Our body is a narc, squealing our deepest secrets to the police (horse.)

It isn’t enough to have a flimsy plan and hold it in front of your horse like tissue paper in the wind. The bigger question is do we believe it ourselves? Don’t just nod; your horse reads your body more honestly than any action in your frontal cortex. It isn’t a question of whether the cue is too gentle or too harsh. Any horse will tell you the more dominating you get, the more they doubt you. They understand that bullies are weak. At the same time, when we are so gentle that we fail to give a solid cue, they see all the way through us as if we are ghosts. And can’t give a confident answer.

Read something, get inspired, and feel you really do understand on a deeper level than ever before. It isn’t enough to know. Sorry, but our mental calisthenics read as confusion to a horse. Learning the cue is just the first step.

We have to actually trust the method enough to internalize it. It has to feel natural and undeniable in our mind, so it comes out that way in our body language. We have to embody what we want, in a consistently concrete way. Leave the mental chatter in the bathroom. The human calming signals in our body will always say more than whatever verbal cue we give. Once we trust the method enough to embody it, then horses will trust it, too.

What is this mythical cue of which I speak? C is for confidence, that shy nebulous requirement needed for us to believe our own minds. The requirement for horses to feel safe enough to be responsive. It will be a bridge of fog until we step out on it and wave to the shore.

But we are the silly sort that confesses all our failures but rarely brag about our successes. That’s just wrong. Do you hear me? It isn’t just your horse that reads that in your body. It’s a poison that no one wants you to drink. But sometimes self-poison is easier to swallow than standing in our own light. Can we finally let that go? 

In a nutshell, this is another way of saying we are the ones who must change. We need to embody the cue honestly and hold it until the horse believes it. It will be slow at first but let that be okay. Then, overnight, your disobedient, lazy horse becomes the horse of your dreams. Just remember that dreams aren’t real to a horse. Your body will always be his truth.

When your body and your cues come into alignment, your horse will be the first to know. Have faith in yourself. Your horse is learning more than trailers and syringes. See the big picture. You are building an iceberg while standing on the tip. 

The photo: I’ve been working with a reactive horse who couldn’t be haltered reliably in January. If you want to see how this training approach works in real-time, join The Barn School and follow us at Bhim’s Training Diary Click here.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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14 thoughts on “Human Calming Signals: Help Your Horse to Take Your Cue”

  1. I used to say that I didn’t really know my music until I had it in my ear. This is kind of the same thing. Next comes authentic expression. Great post!

  2. For me, I came away with, be confident in what we NOW know. Therefore, your horse will feel that confidence, which in turn makes him more so, and the wonderful circle of confidence and calm and confidence continues. A ‘confident calm’. That works for me! Again, and as usual, Peaches lets out a breath and thanks you…

  3. Seems to me that picture says it all – that horse all harnessed up & ready to go (or not) has come an awful long way from not even wanting to be haltered.
    Years & years ago,I helped a friend teach her young mare to drive (with huge help from our farrier & friend) – quite honestly, we didnt know what we didnt know – even tho Jack told us over & over. Somehow Lucky turned out to be a really sweet driving horse!
    During those 16 years with my horse, Chico – I did learn more but truly there is so very much more to learn. Always.

  4. This article made me think of why (how) horses react (most always) to children. Horses usually love children. Children are innocent, have no agendas, they have no bad experiences, they just are. They are very simple and I think horses appreciate that. Adults have a ton of baggage and tend to overthink everything. The more we learn as adults the more inclined we are to screw something basic & organic up. Lots of generalizations here, but I think you get my drift.

    • I don’t know that love is the word, but children are safer to horses for sure. I agree about the curse of over thinking. Thanks Lorraine.

    • Your comment resonates with me, and my mare. I have two photos of her, which I adore. Both are with children. The look in the eyes of both gives one pause. As Anna says, so non-coyote from the child, and just a openness from the mare, an inquisitiveness that is not often seen with adults. It is such a study in what makes them tick. An innocence in both. May we all be more childlike with our horses.

  5. I agree, Anna. Some of it is absolutely ridiculous and should be considered child endangerment. But we humans do so many stupid things. In all seriousness I would love a blog by you on general horse care, for the good of the horse. A study just came out that says horses do better when they are around other horses. Really?! Imagine that. Sorry, just had to go there.


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