Calming Signals: Adjusting the Volume of Quiet

It’s been quiet here. Winter is good for that and we haven’t had a day above freezing in a while. Fewer people are out driving and no tractors or lawnmowers are chewing things up. It’s too cold for the dogs to supervise from the yard. They are literary dogs anyway, much happier sleeping on dog beds in my studio.

Out in the barn, it’s just the equines and me. Edgar Rice Burro is getting quieter with age. He used to let out a yodel every time he saw me at a window in the house. Now he waits until I’m close by and makes a honking gasping sound but even that sputters out when I look at him. One of the geldings has a nicker like a movie star moan, deep and smooth. You miss it if you aren’t watching him do it. This isn’t a silent place. You can hear hooves shifting weight and horses blowing exhales of breath. I can be here without the need to apologize.

During my first year on the farm, I had to learn to like the quiet. It didn’t come naturally, even after years of being self-employed and working alone. The farm had a different quiet. I was practically afraid of the dark, so I walked the pasture at night to prove it was safe. I got hooked on the stars and moon. Hooked on the small sounds that were hidden when my overactive imagination was chattering at full volume.

I had an advantage. Riding had taught me to listen more and talk less. I wanted to shut out external distractions and focus on my horse’s movement under saddle. I wanted the relationship of being spine to spine with my horse. It was an escape from the rattle of life. The bubble I made for my horse’s safety and confidence might have been more for me all along.

Being on the farm was like a Berlitz course in a language of silence, not an hour long but subversive. It was when I began to notice a different, more eloquent kind of body language than I’d known. It seemed to exist in all animals and I didn’t know how I’d missed it before. Without the distraction of human mutterings, I got into a deeper conversation. It began to take over my training methods and not just with the horses.

I surely didn’t invent anything and it wasn’t a miracle. It was ordinary language. Someone recommended a dog training book about Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and I found out there was a name for what had become my primary language on the farm. Listening turned silence into brilliant color and rich emotion, but the price of admission was to be quiet.

It’s human nature to be loud. We announce our arrivals and exits, we bang things around because we have the right to. We resent the restriction if someone is sleeping, it’s inconvenient to pay attention to our behavior. It’s more than the excuse of living in the city or working in busy places. Some of us are nervous if it’s too quiet. We are so overstimulated by normal life that we can’t let the air rest. Maybe we’re afraid of what our thoughts might say if we gave ourselves time to listen. So we keep up a dull roar of activity and chatter just in case, just by habit. We don’t notice until it stops.

So, some of us train our horses to be loud in their bodies, needy in their hearts, to join us in looking for what we’re missing. We want them to fill a place inside of us. It’s okay. Humans have always used animals for this and they have the solution but we still don’t get it.  Maybe we know someone who we are so comfortable with that we don’t need words. Horses invented that. Or was it dogs? No matter, but why is it so hard to learn? Why don’t we return the favor?

When I boarded horses and trained on my farm, Saturday mornings boomed with laughter and trucks and trailers coming and going. It was fun, people stayed and shared lunch. I truly loved it but as soon as people left, there was a collective sigh from the horses. I’d throw hay and do chores. The comforting sound of chewing, the hum of life, was soothing for all of us. No one was holding their breath and walking on eggshells but no one was calling out or slamming car doors either. It was a natural quiet filled with small ordinary sounds of life that seemed to add to the peace somehow.

I’ve been telling people all this time that we have to listen to calming signal gestures, and if the horse is stoic, we have to adjust their volume up. To hear a quiet message louder than it was sent because it is every bit as true. But that isn’t right. The stoic horses only seem hard to hear because we are used to our own screaming. We are in their world, we should turn ourselves down. That’s the message from reactive horses, too. When we stop being physically loud, they settle.

We’ve heard it a million times. Less is more. We know that horses respond better to smaller cues and that the reward most valuable to a horse is release. Boy howdy, do we hate to think that’s true. We want to give more, have more, do more. It’s true love after all. We still don’t believe that release, letting a horse be, can be a reward at all. It feels anti-human.

Humans are intellectually advanced, but we are also the easiest animals to read. Horses are right to be cautious. We announce our arrival by barging into their homes with loud voices and dominating hands grabbing for them. We love them in messy demonstrative ways. We do semaphore with snapping whips and swinging ropes and call it leadership. When they go quiet, we make more noise.

“And some of us try it their way. We listen to their calming signals. When they avert their eyes and look away, they’re telling us that we can be less aggressive; that they mean us no harm. Listen to them. Take the cue, breathe slower, and turn your body noise down. Then wait. Ask for nothing. Give nothing. Be still and breathe with empty hands. You are enough just as you are.”

The quote is by me, years ago. I am aware of the irony of being a woman who wants her voice to be heard while trying to sell the idea of quiet virtues. How very human of me. Just to suggest again, what if the herd has had it right all along?

Does it seem odd that in early training we need to desensitize horses to us? We need their kind of silence more than they need our noise.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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37 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Adjusting the Volume of Quiet”

  1. “Adjusting the volume of Quiet”. After losing my dressage partner, now for the first time in my equestrian life (40+ yrs) I have NO competition to think of. This winter I am SO enjoying taking my pony back to the first baby steps and building a good horse. The weather is cold and windy but for some reason I don’t feel it at all when we are in the arena doing ground work and then just playing and taking long walks. For the first time I have discovered the QUIET of winter. I’m talking from “within” now instead of demanding from “without”. It is so peaceful to be feeling that internal communication. Winter is a time to s low down and this year I have relinquished all sense of Time when I am with my pony. But I’m retired with no kids at home so I can afford it. For busy people Time is a very expensive commodity.

    • It’s true. I may be at an age when all my friends are retired but I’m working longer hours than ever. And this quiet is even more valuable. We have to make the time. Thanks Barbara. Your pony says thanks, too.

  2. Learning this from you over the years has translated to other species horses yes but also cats and humans even wild things.
    Really love this essay. Thanks Anna

  3. Perfect lesson for today and all days. Thank you, Anna.
    On quietness: I have Mitral Valve Prolapse, and for years, when riding I was either just excited to be with my horse (increased heart rate) or nervous during lessons (increased heart rate). The horse responded. On some days, my heart was slower (usually when I was just puttering around with him — with no agenda. The trainer would complain, “He’s hardly moving…get him going!”
    But the two of us were happy puttering around, both calm.

    I am quieter now in every way; I talk less. Kids, people, tend to run, squeal, make loud noises — it’s OK; the Corvids make loud noises to announce they are alive and well. Loud Caw Cawing over the farm. At nearby Langley AFB, it’s the F-18s or F-22s, or
    the Sikorsky Helicopters making so much noise. The horses are accustomed to that, especially aircraft. Only night brings relative

    But now that I no longer ride, and walk, play or do fitness exercises side-by-side with the horses, I am calmer, they are calmer, and we enjoy ourselves much more. I can see it in their eyes, their body language. Heads go willingly into halters; they want to go out.

    Even Tico, the new Thoroughbred who was a little difficult at first, is now much calmer, enjoying life and learning to be quieter.
    He walks in slowly to the barn, instead of racing to a stop. He likes the quiet companionship — but it’s new to him. Tincture of
    time. And calming signals on both sides.


  4. Wow, what an observation, how in early training we need to desensitize horses to us! Great column, as usual. We are a noisy bunch, aren’t we? These days I’m giving my own personal calming signals to rambunctious grandkids. The quiet of the barn is my happy place.

  5. Oh my! I never made the connection with desensitization. Wow. Agree on the magic of the soft quiet of the barn, the infinite small sounds. Drives me crazy when people blast music at the barn. Don’t they know what they’re missing?

    • I think music in the barn makes horses have to listen harder, if that makes sense. But I will ride to music every change I get. Thanks Shaste

  6. “Then wait. Ask for nothing. Give nothing. Be still and breathe with empty hands.”

    What? “Give nothing”? aHo!

    The Buddha’s disciples gathered together for a talk on Dharma. Instead of speaking, however, the Buddha simply held up a lotus flower in front of him without saying a word.

  7. It was like walking into a slow-motion dream on my first visit to our barn occupied by our newly acquired horses. I had expectations of livening things up for the boys with all the noise that a human could muster. Instead, I was arrested by a force field of calm that permeated the air. I was powerless to stop it, and didn’t want to! Almost 30 years have passed; and while I can’t pretend there is total quiet all the time, those first moments upon entering their space remains sacred for them and for me.
    Thank you, Anna. Great post.

  8. I like this so much ! I remember how awesome it was when I learned – from you– that we have to get quiet if we want the horse to communicate with us. It isn’t the same give and take we have with our fellow humans. Horses must wonder if we are ever gonna shut up so they can tell us what we need to hear.

    I think it’s wonderful that most humans have a language and want their voices to be heard in essays or books or wherever. But to be in conversation with a horse is an entirely different realm. Thank you for being the person who is always helping us understand what we need to do to be better with our horses. I know I have improved but still have a long way to go stilll.

  9. My favorite quote, contemplated by me for years, is, “Be still, and know that I am”. You and horses have helped me realize what that is really like. It’s a gift. And it’s a choice. Loud people in the barn have always made me crazy because I see it does that to the horses. Perhaps I should post a sign: “Quiet Please. Superior Beings Present.” Sadly, humans would think it was them!

  10. I think it’s another example of the idea that we need to change ourselves, if we want to get along better with our horses – not expect the horse to change. And, it turns out that the quiet lessons they have to teach us are actually good for us anyway. Well said, Anna.

  11. Beautiful. I imagine feeling truth to be very quiet.
    “At the still point of the turning world” that’s where the dance is.
    (TS Elliot)
    if I remember right, from The Four Quartets…? Eerily applicable to working with horses, something about not advancing nor retreating…just letting yourself be at the still point.
    Maybe I’m slightly woo woo, but your whole essay brought that poem to mind!

  12. At least one more important point of view. It’s difficult to explain for humans, but you took the right way. Congratulation. That’s the reason I hate the music in the barn all the time, the smartphone chattering during riding, the Western yelling during competitions, the applause during dressage performances. That could be at the end, like at a classical concert. You don’t disturb the intentions of the composer. It’s a question of respect to the animal or the composer.

  13. So lovely. I read that book on canine calming cues. Dog-speak doesn’t come as naturally to me as the language of horses.

    I have become quieter, more often ‘present’ and watchful over the years, now 71. I spend a fair amount of time at my often empty, boarding barn, a converted, old cow barn in the protected, rolling hills of Northern Delaware. My horse, a rescued OTTB, is 24 and he’s been with me 19 of those years, mostly at this farm. He has some very good friends in his herd of 12-14. And many reliable routines, which he depends on. And yes we hack out every other day, usually solo.

    When it warms up, I will often hang out in the field, enjoying ‘the boys’. I love watching an extended deer family grazing next to the herd in the evening, fox trotting by, geese passing over. To be unobtrusive, sometimes I sit in the woods, looking for sounds on the native American flute. My horse, and others, may join me, standing quietly near by, while I try to blend with nature. Once, a curious fellow mouthed my fingers to find the sound.

  14. I Love you Anna! When you described being one with the horse just you and them spine to spine I was transported to my youth when I showed Hunter/Jumpers. As I waited to go into the arena hearing all the noise, and when the announcer calls your number and introduced us and as we entered the ring to start the course of jumps, literally all noise ceased to exist as I picked up the canter and I concentrated on the course and the first jump. The oneness with my horse was amazing as we cantered up over jump one, on to jump two and so forth and so on and in complete silence. I never heard another word, it was so quiet as I counted each stride, him and I together as we rounded the last turn. There is nothing like flying with your mount who was so in tune with every movement and every breath. I’ll never forget those days and it always amazed me how you can be so concentrated, so laser focused to block out everything around you. I yearn for those days but had no idea at the time how special this time was with my horses.

    I may never do hunters again even though I have a beautiful 5yr old OTTB. At my age (62) him and I are bonding and I now am concentrating on spine to spine hacking in the arena as we both engage with each other and enjoy our time. Thank you so much for the calming signals as I learn his communication, you have opened up my eyes and ears! You are their voice, hence why I love you and your words so much! ❤️

    • Diana, thank you for the comment and kind words. So many people don’t understand that showing horses can be a funnel to land us in that perfect place of oneness. In dressage, it’s X, halt, salute. Thank you.

  15. I live in a metro area that is loud. I work in an office that is rarely quiet. I go to stores where the noise is obnoxious. I go to restaurants that think nobody can eat w/o loud music playing. I get home and the tv is on. I am married to a man who can’t be quiet – he’s either talking or whistling. The volume of my daily life makes me treasure my barn time & my relationship with horses even more.

  16. Pingback: “Coming to quiet” Just being yourself is enough – Finding Poise

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