Calming Signals and Equine Stress

From a reader: What I am learning from you, Anna, is helpful as I work to understand the horse. What I am left with is that anyone who truly wants their horse to be content will let them “be a horse”. So, from that I conclude that we shouldn’t ride them or handle them but instead, ensure their safety and physical needs are met and then let them alone. Any other intrusion and you’ve made this clear, is anxiety-inducing and stressful. So why do you continue to own horses? With a barn and tack and expectations? (…Wanting to ride our horses or even just be a part of their lives yet wanting them to be at their happiest is a contradiction that I struggle with.”)

Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to answer. What a great question.

First, my working definition of stress is being alive. Period. It’s the horse’s health, environment, changes in the herd, the need for free choice feed, and visits from farriers and vets; it’s all stress. Beyond that, it’s our responsibility to train ground manners so horses have a safe place in the world, even when many of our traditional training methods are not well suited to a horse’s temperament, so more stress.

Wild horses have stress without human intervention; harsh land, grazing scarcity, herd dynamics, and predators, just to name a few. It’s a fight to stay alive in that natural world, but not so different from the unnatural world of domesticated horses who live in confinement, face a growing list of chronic health issues, and are asked to work for us in ways they were not designed to do. 

And yes, we humans cause our horses stress, sometimes without knowing it, because we confuse calming signals for affection. (I qualify for being a Loudmouth Party-Pooper by debunking the snout-kissing thing.)

Just being alive is stressful for horses, but it’s during times of stress that we can help them the most. The question isn’t whether there is stress, but can we recognize it at the earliest point, and at least, not exacerbate it?

A different reader: You wrote, “We’re even busy-in-the-head about being quiet, for crying out loud.”  BustedAnna, can you help? I’m overwhelmed with the thoughts of calming signals to the point of paralysis by analysis. Are some signals good? 

Humans are extremists, aren’t we? Overthinking is our superpower and the more we stand and stare, the less we’re holding up our end of the conversation. First, we shouldn’t take a horse’s emotions personally, it gets in the way of listening.

Watch a horse getting bodywork; they’ll give a wide range of calming signals as they process how their body feels. Please, remember that every moment isn’t forever, it’s just a snapshot-second. Horses live in the present, and by the time we over-rationalize the instant, the moment may have passed.

When reading calming signals in a horse, rather than judging them as good or bad, it’s more useful to think in terms of stress rising or falling. It’s more like taking the temperature of the instant. Horses are always on a continuum somewhere between boredom and overwhelm. We’re looking for the middle ground. 

If my horse tightens his lip, I may be too close. If he closes his eye, I may be too loud in my body. If he looks away, I might need to slow down. If I ignore his messages and push ahead without paying heed, his anxiety will rise. His sympathetic nervous system will engage, and he will become tense and resistant. 

On the other hand, if I take a breath, give him some room and time to think about it, his calming signals will go softer. Then he’ll stay in his parasympathetic phase where he can quietly respond and learn. He can feel safe with me and trust me to be his leader.

I can give him a reprieve from his life of stress, which is why we humans want to be with horses, (and away from our own stressful lives,) in the first place. We mentor anxiety or calmness for our horses every moment.

Why do I continue to own horses? I can’t stop. Neither can you. 

Is it fair to ride horses? Yes, if you do it right. You work for their welfare, give them 23 hours a day of herd time, in the most natural horse-way you can muster, with good vet and farrier care and free choice hay. You thrive on the inconvenience of keeping a horse. You keep your big emotions quiet, so you can hear their stoic messages.

And you make this promise of impeccable care for them until their last day, long past the riding years. You put the horse first, and in exchange, you get an hour in the saddle a few days a week, sitting spine to spine with a beautiful, dynamic creature who tells you everything he thinks. You get to be lifted and carried in a sacred place where grace is exchanged as readily as the air you both breathe. It’s the best trade any of us can ever make.

I get plenty of comments like this from readers, too: It has been about a week and the difference in Asher is pretty amazing. While it is challenging to keep my hands off his face, he is really responding by being much more mannerly. Such a simple thing and yet I never knew to do this till you posted about it. 

Most people tell me they want a better relationship with their horse, and reading and responding to calming signals is literally the way to achieve that. If your horse is perfect, has no training issues, is not stoic, lives in a wonderful herd and never shows you any anxiety (?), then you’re fine.

But if you are a work in progress, building a partnership where trust matters, and hoping for a goal on the horizon, then know that your communication must improve. That for every bit of that growth, you must invest in your riding skills. You must invest more of yourself in money, time, and willingness to learn.  Being the leader means being the one to do it first.

Am I ruining your horse-crazy girl fantasies with my Loudmouth Party-Pooper-ness?  Mine, too. When I was a kid, I wanted to be rescued, not by a knight, but by his white steed. Little did I know the horse needed it as much as me.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
Planning our 2019 clinic schedule now. Email [email protected]
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This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

30 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Equine Stress”

  1. Love this, Anna! I always finish reading your articles “licking and chewing”. Your advice should be mandatory reading for all horse owners.

  2. Thank you for this Anna. Since the clinic you gave in Oregon, I’m still processing. I’m learning to quiet my mind and listen and Just be with my horse. There’s a difference! Softness, willingness, I see it in his eyes. ?

  3. I wonder how you can possibly top this blog. Somehow I know you will as you constantly have done many times. Thank you so much, Anna!

  4. Tinner the pink pony thanks you from the bottom of his heart. His mum can’t manage hands off yet but she’s trying hard, so I’m cutting g her some slack

  5. Thank you so much for the thoughtful response to my question. I especially loved this: “Why do I continue to own horses? I can’t stop. Neither can you.“ So true and why it makes the question of what’s best for the horse so emotional for me. You’ve brightened my day and lightened my heart.

  6. “My working definition of stress is being alive”. I believe that’s the case for all sentient beings – humans included. For me, letting my intention be the foundation for all my interactions is helpful. I don’t always get there, but it’s my primary goal. It continues to be a most interesting journey, with some beautiful and some painful lessons. And yes, Anna – I can’t stop with the horses either. I’ve come to multiple crossroads, and each time the response was to continue. Hooked – and loving it! Thanks for your thought-provoking blogs?


  7. I have to say I was so very happy to see you address this issue. I relate totally to the thoughts posted by the first reader. Struggling to understand what you mean when you talk about calming signals lhas led me to a state of extreme frustration and anxiety. Today’s blog has helped prevent a contemplative blogectomy. I have worked with and ridden Arabians for 40+ years. I am the survivor of almost daily muzzle maulings which occur every time I get close to them. I am usually touching a nose in an effort to remove it from my face so I can see where I am walking. If this is a representation of horse anxiety, why do they rush to me to do it when they could easily ignore my presence. I am just picking up poop or checking a fence or filling a trough or handing out hay. My current equine partner and I are struggling to build a partnership. Both of us brave but not currently confident in our relationship. Her because I pushed too hard a year ago and ignored what she was trying to tell me. Me because I let a trainer push me too hard in my approach with this horse and I became convinced she was evil and dangerous. She is neither, the trainer was. A talented young trainer is helping us rebuild. We have come a long way but have far to go. I admit that I am at least 75% of the problem.
    One of us needs to learn to step up and be confident here and I fear it needs to be me. “My working definition of stress is being alive”. Amen sister. So as I practice my breathing in an effort to be able to interpret her calming signals, I will be guilty of taking pleasure from that beautiful muzzle when it chooses to maul me. I will continue to try and understand what you are trying to say. Thank you.

    • I have one of those too, the nose in your face ‘whatcha’ doin” kind of horse. She seems to need physical contact, when she gets it, even if it’s just a light laying on of a hand, she sighs and drops her head. If I don’t touch her, she does her darnedest to find a way to touch me. Makes it difficult to scoop the poop – haha. She’s a real sweetheart puppy dog, even if she’s sometimes a bit of a pain!

      • I’ll say it again, not pleasant to hear, but it’s insecurity. I think confidence is the only thing we ever need to train, they know the rest of it. Thanks, Sherry.

    • For a long time, I didn’t feel like I could write about something that needed so much visual perception. Not everyone can make it to clinics, but that’s the way to understand it… and in the meantime, I’ll keep trying to write about it. And the short version about why you get mauled..sorry but they are insecure. Confident horses would stay away… breathe with them. Try to leave their noses and stand by their hind, with an arm on them. It’s like tickling, we laugh while we hate it. Good luck with the new trainer, your breath will take you farther than you imagine. Thanks, Kathy.

  8. This is indeed a thought provoking issue.I do not have a cuddly horse and in fact have never had one. So that could mean they are sufficiently confident or I am not a cuddly person. Hmmm….. I shall think more on this. Speaking of Stress my horse , Biasini, is “speaking” about that in a blog post tomorrow!

    • Or it might mean both, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing…. says this non-cuddler. I’ll be watching for it, Anne. Thanks.

  9. This struggle is real. Thank you for answering the reader’s question which was probably on the mind of many of us. The journey of learning you are leading me on is thought provoking and makes me wish I had found your words sooner, like back when we first adopted Sugarfoot almost five years ago. He became a nose in your face, pocket pony when we were all he had as a herd when he was on stall confinement and a slow recovery program from colic surgery. I’m working hard now to keep my hands off his face, but kiss on the nose once in a while is hard to resist.

    • I’m aware that writing about intuition is a murky thing… but maybe this is always what listening a verb? Best wishes on this recovery and thanks, Celeste.

  10. Anna, your writing is so very thought provoking and helpful. I opened my home to 2 rescues this past summer. I mistakenly interpreted their closeup affection for friendliness instead of insecurity. My wake up call came when the youngest of the 2 aggressively bit me when I was distractedly moving around him as I do my horses that have been with me a dozen or more years. Not his fault. Needless to say I have been doing a great deal of slow deep breathing around these new boys. Partially to make sure That I’m in a calm confident state around them, and to also allow them to find a calmer place. Thank you for the critical reminders. It’s so hard being human!

    • Thanks for this comment, Laurie. We are prone to complacency and that’s always dangerous with horses… good preceptsions here.

  11. We had a bad earthquake yesterday morning. I survived one 158 times as strong 54 years ago. That is what made me super affected the rest of the day. A horse needed me to go remove his leg wraps. I went in his stall but none of the others. I simply looked in on them. Yes, I wanted to go touch them, but I didn’t. That’s not what they needed and I reminded myself. They all seemed perfectly settled. Much more so than me. Thank you for this post to ground me in the reality of our relationship. Just two days ago I was thinking of my youngest horse in terms of him being the least confident and most intrusive to my space and contemplating how to improve that situation. My first thoughts are to be mindful of my thoughts. ;0). Let me know where you have written about actually training them in their confidence. I do remember ‘leading from behind’ falling into that category.

  12. And this is why I don’t stop scrolling down until I see your blog. Always worth looking at one more post just to get to yours!


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