Calming Signals and Implicit Bias.

The Barnies are really hitting their stride.

I started an online subscription group earlier this year called The Barn. Soon after someone referred to the members as Barnies and it stuck. The name makes me smile, and in the beginning, there was a free-for-all of good intention. My training approach is very different, the focus on calming signals means there may be unflattering misunderstandings, and I made a bunch of demo videos, most of them with Preacher Man signing back up, where I try to describe things from the horse’s point of view. Because they see things differently.

There were days that Barnies weren’t sure how to stand next to a horse. Most of us are not brand new to horses and this is a fundamental change from how most of us were taught. I said the opposite of things we have always believed to be true. Do humans have an implicit bias about horses?

*”Implicit bias is any unconsciously held set of associations about a social group. Implicit biases can result in the attribution of particular qualities to all individuals from that group, also known as stereotyping. Implicit biases are the product of learned associations and social conditioning.”

So… “Arabians are hot,” “ponies are stubborn,” and “chestnut mare are nuts.” Or “You have to show horses who’s boss,” “It’ll ruin him if you let him graze,” and my personal favorite: “Horses release to pressure.” We’ve heard it for so long that it must be right.

Perhaps the craziest thing about implicit bias is that these stereotypical attitudes are frequently not the result of direct personal experience. Much of it is hearsay, passed on by rote, with no foundation of proof. The information should be ranked equally with gossip passed in a junior high school girl’s bathroom, but somehow, if an old-timer says it, or a cowboy, gossip becomes law. For many of us, it doesn’t feel right but we try to go along.

Do horses have a version of implicit bias about humans? Maybe. I’ve known rescue horses afraid of certain kind of hats, horses that pull inside so deep to protect themselves from us that they virtually play dead, and a certain gray mare who drew blood when men came near but carried children as if they were golden. They had a bias about humans that they are convinced is true.

Where does all this talk leave the Barnies? Or anyone else who is willing to have an open mind about age-old habits? On a flight of steps without a handrail. On the cutting edge, sometimes reluctantly, of a different approach where nuance might obscure right and wrong. It involves rethinking old habits, listening with new ears, and taking a leap of faith. It means giving horses, who have lost trust in humans, a chance to reconsider us. It is a mutual rehab.

Start by high grading the knowledge you have. Keep the information that is positive and supportive to the horse and throw out the bits that are based in fear and defensive aggression. It’s important to have a strong foundation of knowledge to help your horse, but then put it in your pocket where it’s handy but doesn’t block your view. Take a breath, put on a smile, and look at the horse in front of you. Be brand new, without expectation. Ask a question but then, let the conversation unfold without cajoling or manipulating his response. Let him find the confidence to figure it out on his own, while you stand around and breathe.

If we want a reliable partnership with a horse, he cannot be trained with fear. We must give the horse autonomy, the confidence to choose while we stay light, actively in the conversation even if we don’t get the answer we want. We refuse to bully or bribe or tease him into compliance. We believe horses will find confidence from autonomy. We find our balance by breathing and we stand in possibility. It starts with an act of faith. We claim independence from our own implicit bias.

Learn to hope you don’t have all the answers. Hope that the horse surprises you. Rather than thinking you can control him, give him the opportunity to exceed your expectations.

It’s like a weird game of chicken. The horse expects you’ll be true to his bias and take the bait (pull reins, correct him, punish him), so he gives you calming signals again, to confirm he is no threat, by looking away or shutting down out of habit. He doesn’t trust you mean it.

We have to resist old habits and out-wait his anxiety; we trust the horse’s intelligence and give him time to sort his mind. It isn’t enough to not take the horse’s bait, confirming his worst opinion of us. We have to prove we are a different kind of human. Even then it isn’t enough to do it once, we have to prove our consistency, sometimes without visual proof it’s working, until that individual-and-unique horse believes we will not betray him and behave like a predator. It takes focus and a suspension of disbelief on both sides. Each side has to stop thinking the worst and each is better for the experience.

Back to the Barnies. It didn’t happen all at once. Some of us got frustrated, some of us tried too hard. Some thought it would never happen for them. We learned to give horses space, physically and especially, mentally. We reframed how we communicated, and we stilled our busy minds. We had to understand pressure means anxiety, even if we think we’re helping. Then change started to take hold and the stories started coming.

That sweet gelding, who had instances of bolting away, had leaned on his Barnie, who thought she was comforting him, but discovered the more she got back from his head, the more confidence he found. Giving him distance improved his balance and each of them felt safer. Leading from behind gave him the confidence to stand on his own.

Another Barnie asked for the rope of a young filly when the seller said the horse wasn’t afraid, just stubborn, and then under the gaze of a doubtful seller, she proceeded to “breathe” her new filly into a trailer, by having faith in thin air.

And then Banjo, a young mule being body clipped at liberty by his Barnie, walked off. Clippers running, his Barnie responding by breathing and giving him a chance. The mule walked a circle, one of the most common calming signals, and returned to finish the clip, improbable to imagine.

We all say horses can tell when we’re sad, that they read our minds. And yet, when it comes to training, we sell their intelligence short and try to dumb them down. Being an affirmative trainer is trusting the horse’s intelligence and given a choice, his desire to volunteer.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Want more? Join us at The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more. Or go to to subscribe for email delivery of this blog, see the Clinic Schedule, or ask a question.

Anna’s latest book, Going Steady: More Relationship Advice from Your Horse, is now available everywhere.

Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

*Jun 21, 2019, ThoughtCo › understanding-implicit-bias-4165634.

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

21 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Implicit Bias.”

  1. “Being an affirmative trainer is trusting the horse’s intelligence and given a choice, his desire to volunteer.” I’ve learned over the years that there’s nothing as honorable as a volunteer, they’re there because they want to be. That’s all the difference in the outcome. Love your vision, Anna. This is the best of all anthropomorphic tags I’ve ever heard. And I’d say…since I no longer train…and I am slave to a mentally wrecked but stoic mustang, that this extends far beyond the trainer. This is for each of us who cares for horses, in any way. Let them volunteer. Exercise your patience, not the pony. Greatness.

  2. I love this especially since my standardbred “Barney” looks exactly like the horse in the center – right down to the fact he would be standing half a step back from the rest, with full attention on you waiting for you to breathe 🙂 Many told me he would never be trainable due to the abuse he suffered – it took a few years of breathing and letting him be a horse – now we are partners ….. Of my 2 horses he is the one who seeks out our relationship..
    Keep on writing I love reading your thoughts

  3. A very important concept and message, Anna! I feel very lucky (all the more, the older I get) that the first horse I ever bonded with was very ‘broken’. The adults around me tried to muscle her through pain and fear. For whatever reason, at only ten, I was able to see the pain and fear that the adults around me missed or ignored. I tried a different approach, very much as you described, giving her choices, avoiding ‘triggers’, and giving her the space to learn that I was different. To this day I bless that mare (a chestnut, by the way) for all that she taught me about listening and giving them room to speak. It is sometimes a difficult, challenging path (and I have certainly strayed at times) – but it is by far the most rewarding way to go!

  4. Feeling so #seen! Love this article and the case studies. And especially the imagery of being at the top of the stairs without a handrail. Haha yes, unsure of where to stand around horses after 20+ years around them – pretty much sums it up! Thanks, Anna.

  5. As always, wonderful Anna. As a 58 11/12 y.o., those old voices are hard to keep at bay. I’d be interested to hear from others what phrase or thought keeps them on this new track. For me, it is “is what I’m going to do add to my horses’s anxiety and how much? So why would I want to work with my horse in a state of anxiety? How is that going to help hm, help me, and help us?” It’s not.

    The old prevailing wisdom which was so agenda driven has me always in a state of fear, I’ve realized. I was always pushing both of us too far beyond our comfort zones, thinking all of those things you iterated above.

    Now, are we accomplishing great things? Yes! But slowly (just when I think I know slow, along comes a slower slow). And with relaxation and best of all, enjoyment! Enjoyment! Shallowing I say it again? Enjoyment! Enjoy your horses, whatever they bring to the table. They have a point of view, they are entitled to it, and we will be at peace if we allow it. Peace! Once again…peace!

    Onward. And thank you Anna!

    • Kim:
      I am 66, my husband 70, and we have learned to play with our horses almost daily — we don’t think ‘exercise’ particularly, as they are at pasture about 14 hours a day or more, and we do light exercise a few times a week. Playing games, and encouraging them to play (willingly when they do…) is the greatest fun. Horses love laughter, they love their human extended families at the barn, but prefer softer, quieter voices. People tend to shout at barns when they talk to each other — horses don’t like that. But they can distinguish happy voices from stressed/other situations. Their expressions if we do little dances in the arena are precious.
      We ride a little, but do most of our work on the ground with them. They have far more fun and no weight on their backs.
      I still do some targeted exercises, such as cavalletti and active flatwork under saddle, but only for 20 minutes at one time. Then I dismount and do ground work and I mix it up — which keeps them much happier.

      I used to work with a trainer, but I was always tense and the horses were tense — it wasn’t enjoyable.
      Now we both play games, do liberty work, in-hand walks, with some riding added.
      They are both happier and I think healthier for that. Slowly is the key word…. Nothing in a rush, patience, enjoyment!
      Just as you say. You can see them smile.

      Best wishes,


      If you think about work with a trainer

    • Hi Kim. Nice job of changing your name, big smile from me, the one who stands in front of crowds redefining a slower slow for a living. My sister!

  6. Anne,
    Another winner out of the gate — thank you. Look at the photo of your ‘Barnies’ (I love the name, and if I may use that at our place?). They are waiting…what will you do? What’s on the menu for today? Is is something new, different? I try to do that.
    While there should be consistency, I watch their eyes.

    Yesterday, we took Jack and Simon into the arena and threw the lead ropes over their backs. We both walked around, adjusting cavaletti poles, lowering jumps (we have a few competitiors at the barn) to small crossrails, moving things around, while watching them. They stood still for a few minutes and watched; then the began to follow us from jump to jump, noting and sniffing each one. New jumps? New images? No problems.

    Then, we took them for a long in-hand walk out to the trail, around the huge mare pasture, and some new territory. The eyes brightened so much, the ears forward, long exhales, and mixed grasses to enjoy. Smiles and relaxation.

    Returning, we took them into the dressage arena for ten minutes. We let them off their leads (no one else there). Jack (OTTB) just took a leap, turned around, gave a little buck and took off the the end of the arena. Then he dropped and rolled in the sand.
    He was frightful when he stood up and we laughed. Simon just found some timothy to munch on.

    I left Jack alone, and David, Simon and I walked back to the gate. Ignoring Jack was not what he wanted, so he came cantering up, trotted a quick circle and slid to a stop near us. Then he lowered his head, exhaled and stood quietly. I put his lead on — and he flicked his head as if to say — now THAT was a good afternoon! We are now doing side pass on a free basis, with voice only, and he follows my legs for backup, no touch at all.

    In liberty work, their sense of humor really surfaces. All you have to do is be careful.
    I fully agree about keeping all the knowledge lists in the pocket — on some days you need a little more discipline, but always kindly given, I feel.


  7. “The mule walked a circle, one of the most common calming signals, and returned . . . “ Anna, you are amazing! Why have I never heard, read, seen this mentioned before? I have commented on my rescued Paso Fino mare, Rose. Breathing is very good for both of us, I have always been great at breathing, just learning about its relationship to horses through you, many thank yous!

    Anyway, when I go to gather Rose with a halter, she must walk off and I quietly shadow her. It’s usually a circular shape, she’ll change directions several times, hide behind a tree or another horse, then just face me and stand calmly and wait. No muss, no fuss, reach her nose into the halter, or I could lead with only the rope. If everyone was in the corral and excited and milling around, her circles would form more quickly at the corto. I called this routine her “Spanish Dance.”

    Calming signal, eh? I’m glad I would wait for her to let me into her space, deep breath for both of us, before continuing, taking the time she needed

  8. Oh, I just love this post so much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your work and your willingness to write so clearly and evocatively about it! You are doing so much good in the world and making positive changes that will resonate through all of us, and our beloved horses and other equines, forever.

  9. Thank you for writing this one, Anna. I love it and I’m still trying to figure out where to stand and how to ask and harder still, having the patience to wait for the answer.

  10. Oh My Goodness!

    As usual Anna, I started reading your blog, looking for the magic. The phrase or phrases I would store in my head. One after another. Then more.

    Thanks so much. Sigh. I think this blog post will be printed and tacked up in the barn. Or taped to the mirror in my bathroom, where every morning I meet the person my horse knows as “me”.


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