Calming Signal Substitutions: Helping Your Horse

Most of us are old enough to remember what a rolled-up newspaper is for. Wacking the dog, of course. Because dogs are destructive and must be taught to behave. The dog would have something in his mouth, like a shoe or a roll of toilet paper or a measly old sock on the way to bury it in the yard. But humans see that as a horrific offense against property and position! So, we cornered the dog and wacked them with the rolled newspaper because that “didn’t really hurt” and we only wanted to “scare them.” And if you came from where I did, it was an improvement over the previous weapons.

We were mad but would never admit it felt good to get that anger out. Some of the dogs rolled belly up, a calming signal when a dog wants to acknowledge another’s dominance. The frightened dog takes the most submissive position he knows, frantic to let us know he is no threat, even as a giant human looms over him, repeating “no” in a mean, slashing voice, followed by a few more wacks for good measure because cowering in fear wasn’t enough. Dogs may not understand what’s happening but they do notice a total failure in communication and demonstrate more calming signals.

A reminder: Frequently self-soothing, Calming Signals are an animal’s emotional response to their environment, shown through their body language as they transition up and down the spectrum between flight/fight/freeze and restorative phases of their Autonomic nervous systems. The signals are a message to calm us, to tell us we don’t need to be so aggressive, that the crouching animal means us no harm. (And a second reminder, the term Calming Signals was coined by Turid Rugaas, a dog trainer.)

Maybe the dog rolls back to his feet and urinates then. A whole new problem, we think, now the dog isn’t housebroken, the entire house is going to smell. Now it will never sell, not that we were thinking of moving. Submissive urination is a response to fear or anxiety, a calming signal. But you know what happens then. “Bad dog!” Wack, wack. Some dogs will shut down and stop playing. Some dogs have fear-biting in their future. Have you ever noticed how many tiny children scold dogs when they are too young to reason it? It comes out if a dog does a behavior that makes the child get a whiff of punishment in the air. When the child anxiously chatters about the “bad dog” without real comprehension, I wonder if they are innocently airing the family’s dark habits. How common must it be?

But I digress. The rolled-up newspaper wasn’t considered poor training for dogs back in the day. It taught fear and respect which was considered a plus. Come to think of it, it wasn’t considered poor child-rearing either but now I digress while digressing.

Some dog trainers always knew better and some owners always wanted to do better, and slowly the general population learned that exchanging a toy for that shoe was an option. Between the choice of grabbing the shoe and wacking the dog with it, or exchanging the shoe for a dog toy, more humans began to understand.

Was anyone curious about why the dog chewed things? Puppies are teething, obviously, but why adults? And that trade of a shoe for a toy, is good but was the initial crime a desire to destroy property, or was it anxiety, a cry for help? What would happen if we exchanged one method of self-soothing, chewing that Italian leather pump, for another, a kong toy packed with snacks or a squeaker toy? Less anxiety, time for the dog to deescalate on his own, and a call for us to resolve the initial core cause. Celebrate the new dawn on the planet! Humans evolved!

Sure, some dogs became compulsive chewers, yet another calming signal because the core issue remained, but it’s still an improvement when people let go of the newspapers we held every bit as tenaciously as any self-respecting dog would a stinky old shoe.

When will we figure this out with horses?

I don’t mean just when will we learn to stop wacking horses with ropes and whips, although that would be a huge change in basic assumptions. When will we finally understand that humans communicate in calming signals, too? If we use that shared language, we could help horses so much more. We could exchange one calming signal behavior for a healthier one, acknowledging the horse in the process. Trust begins here.

Example: Does your horse have a challenging time standing for the farrier? Do you think it’s bad training and we should dominate the horse into compliance? Seeing his side, it would be a death wish to surrender a hoof to a predator. Or maybe he has a sore foot and this is the way he can tell you he can’t put weight on it. Why pretend it’s military school and pop the rope clip on his jaw while holding our breath and feeling shame in front of the eyes of a thousand invisible but cackling railbirds? Why do we make it so hard for horses to try to communicate with us? Why accuse them of having nasty human motives, instead of learning their language?

The horse won’t stand still because walking is a calming signal for a horse, a release of anxiety, any horse will tell you. But so is neck stretching or softening their poll and jaw. In other words, chewing is a calming signal that allows a horse to relax. Would hanging a hay bag be a way of supporting your horse by offering an affirmative calming signal, like trading a toy for a shoe? For some horses, it solves the problem but if not, at least it gives us a non-violent option and perhaps buys time to deal with the underlying issue rather, than wack away at the surface. Can we let the horse self-soothe with a hay bag?

When we see stories about dogs being companions to lions, why do we think that that’s different than our own horses and dogs living with us? Do we ever think about the terrible risk animals take on trying to trust us?

In the past, we punished behavior that was embarrassing or inconvenient to us. We named behaviors good or bad rather than listening to the message. The problem is never that the horse just won’t pick up his feet. Their calming signals are often about pain or confusion, both lousy reasons to escalate to a fight. Why do we search for different training techniques designed to control the horse into compliance? Because it’s easier than focusing on smaller but more important cues that horses give us. Learning to understand calming signals is a call for us to understand the nature of horses better but it’s also a chance for true two-way communication.

If only they can calm us down.

 Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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32 thoughts on “Calming Signal Substitutions: Helping Your Horse”

  1. If only they can calm us down? If only they (and dogs & cats) could! Looking back on the ways my family (& I) “chastised our dogs and cats years ago – Rolled up newspaper, yes, I remember that. So many ways of “being the boss”. Shameful to me now. And having watched people “dominate” their horses? Somehow it was always clear to me exactly what that was. Many times FEAR of the horse! Well, now some of us know better – thanks to you and a few other really caring horse people.

  2. I used to dread the farrier coming when my gelding Bo was on the schedule, because he didn’t lead well and would cause a big scene as I tried to drag him back to the paddock to bring out the next horse. It would take forever, farrier waiting and often helping (he was always nice about it but I felt humiliated because I couldn’t get cooperation from my horse), imaginary railbirds cackling. Looking at it from Bo’s point of view helped me to realize that I was the one causing the scene. I switched Bo to the last spot on the farrier’s list, farrier left for his next appointment, and Bo and I strolled around for a bit, Bo grazing and me relaxing, before returning to the paddock, him still reluctant but me not in a rush to avoid humiliation anymore. Being more objective can bring answers to almost every question!

  3. Love! Yesterday we had hoof trims that ended up coinciding with two changes in schedule due to weather which meant a truck full of hay parked halfway in the barn aisle to keep it dry, a utility line marker guy who had been asked not to come who came anyway and sprayed orange paint all over the place where it was not needed, and I was super proud of the 4 equines who didn’t much care about the chaos and offered up their hooves for trimming. I was equally proud of us and our trimmer when the 5th one did not feel okay about it and we stopped with the haltering and said it’s fine, we’ll get to you first next trim visit. Actually, husband and I will do it this week when the barn aisle and the weather are back to normal. How much stress, little Redford’s and our own, we saved from swirling all over the barn with that decision! But oh my, we all know there are many people out there who would say I just lost a huge battle, if not the war itself, LOL! To them I can only say: go read some Anna Blake! 🙂

  4. Love this, as usual! The haybag for the farrier is a really good idea. We have 2 babies, one who stands for the farrier for trims like a perfect little lady, and the other who continues to want to move away. A hanging haybag might be a great way to help him be calm and learn trims are no big deal. We have 10 horses to trim in a day, and it’s usually routine, but sometimes someone just has a lot of anxiety. I will start always having a hay bag ready!! Thanks for the great idea.

    • Soothing his anxiety will create a better habit over time, why not give him a break? That stomach acid won’t help much either… Thanks Carol. I do it for all my horses.

    • Carol, hoof trims here with my two got 1000x easier when I started giving them a hay net . Not sure why I didn’t think of it from the beginning Nets are a win-win !

  5. Had trims last week for my two horses. When he got to Briggs left hind, which Briggs has trouble with because of his hips, I got the bag of treats out and now my horses’ attention is on me instead of the farrier. Problem solved, I will feed him treats to help make my farriers job easier. Ironically with the mustang I had already figured it out, do her last, keep her in the pen and scratch her back.

  6. Yes, yes, and YES!!!!! How many dogs live(d) on chains? (How many horses live(d) in stalls?) The parallels are astounding! And while domestic dogs aren’t ‘pack’ animals per se, how many live virtually solitary lives always waiting for companionship? (How many horses never feel the touch or breathe the scent of another horse? Even if it’s only over a fence?) How many dogs and horses JUST get to be a dog or a horse in the deepest, truest sense at LEAST once a day?
    We have miles to go before we sleep HOWEVER (and as Mr, Green, my very affirmative Physical Science teacher encouraged us to yell back, “and there’s ALWAYS a however”,) we are well on the path to being fair and respectful of the other species we interact with. That’s the good news. The better news? Our eyes and ears are actively engaged in the pursuit of this kind way of cooperative living and our minds and souls can’t get enough. Thank you, Anna, for bravely and affirmatively leading the way! ❤️

  7. Do you consider cribbing one of these “calming” signs in horses. I ask because I have two full sisters who we raised, and both began to crib before 1 yo. They were never kept in stalls, and spent their youths in pretty large pastures. Mare (we’ve had 25 years) has never cribbed, stallion was known to crib. Still they crib at every feeding. Both mares are very calm most of the time although one does have an attitude about pretty much everything. Both love to be groomed, are very good about farrier visits or vet visits. Following your advice and learning about calming signals has made a world of difference in both – especially the attitude girl. The only info that let’s me off the hook as to why is a study in the UK that says there is a genetic component – but none of the professional people I’ve worked with (trainers, vets, vet techs) seem to think that is possible.

    Hope this is not the wrong forum for this question.

    • Without seeing the horse, I am only guessing… Cribbing is an anxiety behavior, sometimes a calming signal message about gastric discomfort, and some believe it can be hereditary. Again, I can’t guess about your horse, but l do know that horses respond to acknowledgment. Listening, going slow so the horse has time to self-soothe, breathing, are all things that help in any situation. So many things are not diagnoseable, like a pinched nerve; not all horses are born sound. You are not on the hook. Rather, it sounds like you are doing a really good job. Thanks, Suzanne.

  8. It only took ten of the thirteen years I’ve had my horse, to figure out things go more smoothly when I take notes + hand tools to the farrier, rather than micro-manage Val’s head. ? (although I do occasionally step in on the front feet, when Val has been known to get affectionate with the farrier’s ears!)

    Quinn (the pit bull) often uses calming signals to help with the struggle to moderate my emotions. No yelling at or swatting dogs around here – but he lets me (and the cat) know he is sensitive, and prefers a peaceful house. ❤️

    • That idea of getting out of their faces never gets old, does it? As for Quinn, does he sit on you until you calm down? Seems like he might. Thanks, Christian.

  9. I often found my experience in homeschooling to be valuable with horses. I have 6 kids and they were ALL different kinds of learners, and different rates of learners. I also taught strings (cello, violin, piano) to many kids, a lot of whom were learning disabled in some way. I was constantly finding that I had to step back (in my mind), pause, and think of how to present the material. The same reflexes are great with any animal. Just stop, take a breath, and figure another way to communicate what you want to say. When you stop, you also become more observant and pick up cues you might not have if you were plowing full steam ahead with your own agenda.

  10. Hank was a lovely QH, perfectly sound, and always ready to please in every way except he couldn’t abide surrendering his feet for the farrier, or anyone else. It got so bad that I was told he would have to be tranquilized if we wanted to get his feet trimmed. I was lucky to learn from a trainer this step-by-step technique to address the issue. I had six weeks before the next farrier visit to get it accomplished.
    What I learned was to stand next to one foot in preparation for picking it up. Lightly massage along the leg down to the hoof and as your horse shifts his weight, immediately take your hand away (release!) Repeat this step a few times, always rewarding with the release. When it feels right, run your hand down the side to his hoof and as soon as he cocks it, take your hand away (release!) Repeat this step a few times before proceeding to the next step of lightly cupping your hand around his hoof as he cocks it. Do not proceed further! Take your hand away (release!) After a few times of “cupping,” proceed to the next step of lifting the hoof up. As soon as you’ve lifted it an inch or so, take your hand away (release!) Soon you should be able to lift and hold the hoof to the level needed for farrier work. It took me less than a week to get Hank convinced that he could be safe standing on three legs. From then on Brett, my farrier, had zero trouble trimming him.
    As far as I could tell, thanks to all those releases, Hank offered no calming signal that needed to be addressed. Thank you, Anna, for allowing me to share this.

  11. I find the most challenging part to be ignoring the “railbirds” and holding firm with your own kinder ways and methods with the “professionals” that haven’t left the dark side of horse training and care. “question the farrier or vet or trainer on how you want to go about handling your horse during their visit and it is always a toss up as if you will see them back again. If you and your horse dread the farrier…as I did for years…..time to look for a new farrier!!!
    my new farrier rambles on with chatter while he works…horses are completely relaxed as am I now. Stay strong and confident in continuing the New Ways…thank you Anna Blake!!!!

  12. I must say how much I have relished the photo of this horse with snow in his/her mane. So beautiful. Makes me nostalgic for my childhood with horses in the snow.

    It’s interesting to contemplate why we seem to be more enlightened with dog training vs horse training. I have my theories… But as someone earlier commented, we are getting there !! Horses must be one of the most tolerant beings on the planet

    • Sometimes I think dog training is ahead of us, but more often I think horses, being prey animals, are just too different. Not to mention the notion of riding is a whole other thing. As for the horse, this isn’t even the best photo. We haven’t gotten snow but we get heavy frost and he is a fresian arab cross with hair to spare. He is beautiful and that’s all he does here. Thanks Sarah

  13. As always, thank you again Anna. Your words have change my life with my animals and have enriched our experiences together beyond measure.
    We all say Thank You. <3

  14. Hi Anna, I looked you up after hearing you on Ben Longwell’s podcast! I wanted to learn more about horse’s calming strategies because I’ve seen them, but ignored them (our horse rubbing his face on his leg before a barrel run and the clinician at the time saying ‘don’t let him do that.’
    I cringe now thinking about that but also am excited about building better relationships with our horses (and dogs)!
    Thank you for sharing your learning and passing it on! Their calming strategy will give me a moment to pause and exhale too! Thank you!


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