Calming Signals and Holding a Grudge

Sometimes your horse isn’t forward and it’s frustrating. Or he doesn’t like the trailer, and now neither do you. Maybe your horse gets cranky when you take him out alone when all you want is to take a walk. And by that, you mean he’s the one walking and doing it badly. And of course, you remember when he spooked and you came off. You didn’t get hurt badly, but it could have been worse. You keep a close eye for similar situations because your horse isn’t trustworthy now.

Maybe you’re just a tad bit jealous because someone else has a horse who behaves better than yours. And maybe that good horse belongs to someone who doesn’t deserve him. Or maybe that good horse was yours before he up and died.

Could you be holding a grudge? Don’t answer too quickly, it isn’t that you don’t love your horse. Maybe these are just training issues. Is a walk too much to ask for how expensive he is to keep? Are some instances the horse’s fault because he’s forgotten his training? Is there a sliding scale we can use to judge our grudge? Maybe from malevolence on his part to innocent common sense on our part?

A grudge is a feeling of resentment we hold in ourselves because of some real or imagined wrong done by another. It’s a default setting for humans, a kind of self-defense. And if you’ve been around horses long enough, you’ve heard of every possible thing happening at one time or another. Or maybe it’s just fun to pretend to complain or make a sarcastic joke, with no harm intended.

At the same time, we’ve been taught that horses read our fear, and “take advantage” of us. Everyone agrees that there is no place for anger around horses, but the problem is that once we’re angry we stop noticing ourselves at all. These are big emotions, once things have progressed that far, we’re already out of control.

I notice most of us are more passive aggressive. We’re as nervous about the big emotions as horses are, so we hold ourselves tight, afraid of doing wrong or making a mistake. We stare at horses hoping for a sign, acting like coyotes waiting for enlightenment, but end up making horses feel we’re stalking them for lunch. Horses always trust we’re communicating more honestly in our bodies than our words. Do we know the same?

Ever notice how absolutely simple it is to find fault in a horse but at the same time, how hard it is to have an awareness of our own feelings? To know what our own body is doing? It’s easier to believe that horses are psychic; that they have a mystical ability to read our inner hearts, that it is to believe that who we are is written all over our bodies in broad daylight. If it’s so obvious to horses, why does it seem so hidden from us?

Horses do have a few advantages over us. Their senses are keen, necessary for self-preservation. Each sense is more perceptive than ours. Even beyond that, we are so distracted by our thoughts that we’re constantly caught unaware in the moment. We rarely notice even then because we get a bit lazy about using our own senses.  A brain capable of thinking about our thoughts is a huge distraction when it comes to living in the present moment, while daydreaming about feelings is a serious life-or-death fault for a prey animal. It’s the biggest difference between horses and humans.

Why does it matter? Horses communicate in calming signals. Body language can be as nuanced as a sonnet, as blunt as a scream. Some calming signals are meant to appease others, a way a horse says he means no threat. Other calming signals are displacement behaviors, believed to occur when an animal is in conflict about two incompatible desires. For instance, a curiosity about something but a reluctance to leave the herd to investigate. It’s a sign of stress, or at the least, the need for a moment to think. Sound familiar?

Back to us humans holding a grudge. Seen in terms of calming signals, it could be a displacement behavior. We love horses but don’t trust them. We want a behavior but doubt they will do it. We think we can train horses but don’t see them as reliable. And those contradictions are written all over us in ways that elude us. Human signals like a shallow breath or a slight tension in our shoulders are as plain as the side of a barn to a horse.

In other words, in the same way horses know it’s a halter we’re trying to hide behind our backs, they recognize the subtle internal things as well. They aren’t psychic, they’re designed to be more aware, especially if we are giving mixed messages.

Is holding a grudge a harsh term for having a memory? Or is it adjusted to match the difference in our awareness versus a horse’s? Want to hear some real common sense? How the grudge started is not the question. A better question is how do we move forward from where ever we are right now with our horses? It’s also common sense that if they can read all the negative emotions, then they can read positive affirmations as well.

Your horse is answering your current question honestly. Are you existing in the past, or can you let it go, stay safe, and act like it never happened? Is it fair to ask your horse to be more trust-worthy than you? If you’d like a better answer, first share the same moment with your horse and that’s the present. Improvement comes by evolving how we ask as well as what we ask, and that might boil down to how you feel about yourself. A small change in us creates a world of change for our horse.

What’s the opposite of holding a grudge? Forgiveness.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

31 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Holding a Grudge”

  1. There you go again Anne. I never dreamed having a horse would require so much work on myself. It’s easy to shovel poop that’s for sure. As usual, thank you.

    • On the other hand, most of us wouldn’t change ourselves for any less than a horse… I’ve no shortage of shoveling here, too. Thanks, Sueann.

  2. I am always too much in my own head even when I think I am not. I have a lot of work to do. It is hard to change how we are wired to be.

  3. “A brain capable of thinking about our thoughts is a huge distraction when it comes to living in the present moment…” Now ain’t that the truth. Thank you, Anna!

  4. Wow- you talkin’ ’bout me?!?! I see myself so clearly in this entire description. From the comparison to another horse, the grudge over getting horribly hurt, the tense shoulders… I see it. I’m just not sure what to do about it. I say I’ve “forgiven him” because I do love him, but you’re right- its a trust issue. Him to me, me to him. Some days we’re so good together its a joy. But then his 2 minutes of pure panic, bolting, freaking out, brain disconnecting undoes a hundred hours of good stuff and progress. One or both of us gets hurt. The panic can be something as simple as the dirt road changing color, asking him to step around or into a puddle, thunder, who knows what? Somedays he’ll walk right up to and over the tarp, other days he’ll go ballistic, but show him a treat and sometimes he’ll chill right out- sometimes not. There is no consistency and no “human” explanation. I want to unload this baggage, but as soon as I start to breathe and trust a little, BOOM! Crazy horse. Sometimes its even to the point he hurts himself- no humans involved (at least not directly- I mean, yep someone put the fence up that he’s trying to run through). Oh well… what’s a friend to do but call the vet, fix the fence (again), feed him, hang with him, and keep trying to manage expectations?

    • Bittersweet comment, thanks for your heartfelt thoughts. I assume he isn’t in pain; explosions are many times based in pain. Breathing is the answer, but again, both horses and humans stop breathing at the hint of stress. Keep it up. What else can a friend do?? Thanks, Melissa.

  5. Anna, I really appreciate your photos and poems/prose, thoughts and teachings – I remember vividly the first time I heard someone tell me that a horse is a prey animal. That perspective had never been in my awareness. Always remain open to listen, and hear what is being said through words and senses. “Not all that’s real is visible.”

  6. If I lack confidence in myself, I am always second guessing … and my behaviour (and all the subtle and not so subtle ways that my state of mind is displayed by my breathing, my posture, my actions) is erratic and unpredictable. Now I see that my horse doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of feeling relaxed when I’m around. Unless … I forgive myself and let it all go. Let my muscles be soft, my steps be clear and deliberate but not too quick or direct. Let my thoughts rest in what I am sensing and seeing in the moment. So … I try to remember all this when I go to the paddock to see him, or ask him to join me … but not dwell on it. Practicing mindfulness is not easy! But it’s the only chance I’ve got to get us both out of hell.

    • If we were zen masters, we would expect it to take a lifetime to learn mindfulness. I always got stuck on the notion that I was trying to discipline myself to relax, so counter-intuitive. Keep breathing, your good horse will be more of a help than you expect. Thanks, Abby.

  7. It reminds me of the time when my horse and I were in a bad conflict. I’d ask for a canter depart and he would blow up. So what do I do? Hold onto the bit harder, then ask for a canter depart, and what do you think happens? My teacher said “I don’t know who started it, but you have to be the one to stop it. Pick up the canter on a loose rein and don’t pull back no matter what.” I thought it sounded like suicide, but I did it and of course it worked. He did a little anticipatory half-hearted buck, but then after that he stopped. That has stuck with me: it doesn’t matter who started it, I have to be the one to stop it. As the saying goes: resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

  8. Years ago a very wise horesman told me ” your horses are already perfect, you will just be working on yourself” took some time for that to sink in. Years later my very patient and forgiving horses continue to be here with me and for me. Thanks for your wise words and inspiration, the journey continues.

    • Thanks, Janie. Every riding master has said a version of that quote, along with horses making us better humans. May the journey always continue.

  9. You touch us all, and especially myself with this one. Our filly is a sweetie, she’s now 2 and a half yrs old. Belongs to the landlady, who has a horseman/magician who did the first two catches, and her feet. I did all her ground work. But he’s working 400km away, so the bloke next door was called, a farrier with 14 TB studs to do, and a big reputation. He walked up to her, dumped his tools down in a clatter, and grabbed the near fore. She clearly said “And who the f*** are YOU?” having none of him, rushed through me, he tried to crowd her against the fence, and she struck at me. I’d whispered her and she’d always been biddable. Well, we resorted to arcane methods (one guess) and quickly got the job done. Original man next time, still got farm and family nearby. He spent about 20 minutes with her, put her through her paces and handled all feet and legs with the lead rope on the ground, did the trim without a struggle, head down, totally trusting and submissive, but now I am leery of her, because she has shown a temper I didn’t know she had. She is not afraid, but I am now afraid of offending her. I’m too old to be getting knocked about. When she was first trimmed, at about 6 months, she never moved a muscle, left 4 spots of raspings and cuttings right exactly where she’d stood through it all, and she’d been trimmed 3 times before that fight, with no issues. Grrr. You never know who is going to come along and mess your horse up! Thanks Anna, you give me strength.

  10. So timely, Anna! A few months ago I had my first fall off my mare that I have owned for six years. We were cantering in the ring, and something spooked her. She bolted forward and threw in a buck and I came off. I did get hurt (and still rehabbing the shoulder) but nothing was broken. She stopped immediately and stood by me.

    Of course it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Horses are prey animals and things can spook them, even under the best conditions And she’s not an overly spooky horse. I know in my mind that it was legitimate and I just lost my seat. However, it did a number on my confidence and trust in her (which has been building over our 6 year partnership). And one night, thinking about the fall, I realized I was “holding a grudge against my mare.” I thought she would take care of me and in this case she didn’t. My feelings were hurt. Oh my! Fortunately I realized the error in my thinking pattern, and I am working my way back to an even better relationship with my mare. Much of progress comes from me being kinder to myself and more forgiving of myself (and my endless mistakes as a rider). That results in a more relaxed rider, which of course, results in a happier horse

    And even more progress comes from letting go of past events and coming back to the fundamental trust that I have in my horse and our relationship. And sometimes, like when i’m cantering down to the same place that the accident happened, it comes down to a leap in faith in both of us. Thank you again, Anna, for a wonderful post.

    • Thanks, Nancy, for the heartfelt comment. I appreciate your honesty… it is hard to let go, but we always take a leap of faith… now you won’t do it complacently?? Again, great comment.

  11. Fantastic article Anna. Aligned to what I teach , you explain it so well.
    I will share widely.
    I would love to meet up in person.

    Margrit Coates


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