Calming Signals and Loving Your Horse

On any ordinary day of any year, we get so filled with emotion talking about a ghost horse that our voice strangles itself to a deep squeak, our eyes become rimmed in red, breath so shallow that our ribs crumple around our hearts. We have old photos, but we don’t need them. We remember our first pony and our first big horse; famous horses, horses in movies, our friend’s horses back in the day. Practically every horse we ever met because every time we see a horse here with us now, it brings the ghost herd along. That’s why we especially love the ones we can touch. The ones we can stand next to; the ones we can hug. We love them like dorky teenage girls desperately hoping, needing, an impossible fairy tale happy ending. We love them so hard.

Maybe we have a love-photo, our hands clutching his chin as we press our forehead to the horse’s forehead, our eyes closed in the bliss of connection… his eyes also closed, because he feels the exact same way.  We need him to love us as we love him.

Is love an emotion horses feel, or do we just wish it was?

We don’t like to admit that our love is needy. It’s only that horses make us happy, that we like to be near them. We like to grab their halters and pull them close. We want to lean a shoulder into their neck, we want to feel their breath and smell their mane and we want, want, want.

Then some damn loudmouth party-pooper, (it might be me) starts learning and teaching about calming signals. Calming signals give us a window of understanding communication deeper than before. We can read pain easier, understand what it means to be a stoic horse better. Calming signals are an undeniable language, the messages a horse gives us that we are loud predators, that they are no threat to us and we can be quieter.

Saddest of all, calming signals are visible signs of anxiety that we often confuse for affection.

We love that snout to nose love-photo of the two of us but that same damn loudmouth party-pooper says that closed eyes can be a calming signal, him hiding inside himself, almost playing dead, as a way of mitigating the stress he feels when we intrude on his space. It’s the worst news, so we test it in a hundred ways.

Sure, there are some mares who let us know clearly that they don’t like us around their faces. There are horses better under saddle than on the ground, and it dawns slowly that when in the saddle, we are out of their space in some contrary way.

Finally, there is a moment that can’t be unseen. It’s when we begin to see that beautiful horse, so inquisitive and alert, so sensitive and intelligent, shrouds his eyes a little more each step closer we get. He looks away because we’re quick and he’s trying to avoid the halter. He drops his head low to the ground to stress-graze when we want to move on.

Even when we know it, we avoid admitting it. It chafes our ego. With every affirmation the horse gives us that a bit of distance is good, we hang on tighter. We twist every calming signal they give us, every request for time and space, into a sign of love because we wish it was true. If we have a horse with so much anxiety that he rubs and mauls us with his nose, constantly agitated, we try to frame his insecurity as proof that it’s him wanting to be close to us, even as his heart rate climbs.

Have I mentioned that I’m marginally sorry about what a loudmouth party-pooper I am? It’s just that I care about horses. It isn’t a crime to hug a horse but we need to listen more closely, beyond our needs, especially to the stoic ones. And by listen, I mean with our whole bodies.

At first, it’s just hard. We force ourselves to keep our hands quiet. Train ourselves to care less about what we get from them and more about what they need from us. We learn to release their anxiety rather than make it worse. We let them pick the path sometimes, by leading from behind, and support their autonomy and confidence rather than insecurity.

We find a way to stand as equals in a partnership that doesn’t need to brag, that has nothing to prove. It isn’t that your horse compulsively needs to be by our side, it’s that the distance between us only strengthens the connection.

And we begin to see calming signals that define a different horse, one more peaceful in the herd with softer eyes and a smoother muzzle. Fewer worry lines, nostrils easy and his poll relaxed. We work with smaller cues and the lighter we get, the more willing our partner chooses to be with us without coercion or obligation. Even nearly invisible anxiety melts away.

We let go of the idea that they need us or that we can save them by loving them. We let them live for themselves, without the burden of healing us or making us whole. We get stronger within ourselves so that they can be free.

We practice the least romantic ways to love horses.

We choose the best lifestyle for our horses, even if it’s the inconvenient one. We keep a herd because a good life for a horse requires more horses and fewer people. We learn to stop fussing and fidgeting and micromanaging, and just let them be horses. Who we fell in love with in the first place.

Finally, we stop commiserating and whining about their rescue history. They live in the present and are waiting for us to catch up. And for all the years we have been imperfect, with bad hands and impatient cues, we must forgive ourselves because our horses have already and carrying our stale guilt around inside us puts out a stink horses can do without.

Instead, feel gratitude for the strength it takes to love them at a distance so they can make a choice to be a partner, not because of ropes and whips and insecure learned helplessness, but with true liberty.

Love them, not for how they make us feel but for the freedom and confidence we share from letting go.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro

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

64 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Loving Your Horse”

  1. IMG_1478.JPG

    Morning Anna! Greetings from a fan in Canada. Enjoyed your post this morning and thought back to this photo I captured with my daughter and my Appy (who I just lost this year). We were at a boarding barn at the time and Roo had low status in the herd. She was also showing some minor signs of being herd bound. My daughter and I had spent some time with Roo and were putting her back in the pasture. I always viewed this photo as demonstrating Roo’s connection to Heather. Two red haired girls! Now I am pondering the closed eyes. Thoughts? Heather is hands off and leaning back. Maybe the stress isn’t always us? In any case, I like to think the ideas I have absorbed from you improved my relationship with my mare over the years. So thanks for so generously sharing :+) Deb

    On Fri, Nov 9, 2018 at 9:46 AM Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” On any ordinary day of any year, we get so filled > with emotion talking about a ghost horse that our voice strangles itself to > a deep squeak, our eyes become rimmed in red, breath so shallow that our > ribs crumple around our hearts. We have old photos, ” >

  2. Reading this, I noticed my shoulders dropping and my breathing getting deeper and slower after I got to the paragraph “At first it’s just hard…” Thanks, again and again, Anna.

  3. Hit home hard. Had me self-examine my daily routine and “un-routine”. But sooo worth it. Thank-you, as always, Anna. (On behalf of my horses too.)

  4. Wow, powerful words saying what I have recently and joyfully discovered.
    The relationship is so much richer and deeper when we can let go and become more of the person our horse will choose to be near. Letting go and being softer levels the playing field for a more dynamic interaction.

  5. This post embodies all that we are as humans and all that horses are as horses. I am learning a new young horse after a difficult partnership with a horse that wasn’t for me, but I tried and tried and I made so many mistakes, he’s the one who suffered my mistakes. To step back, to breathe, to pull my hand away when he recoils at the approach and wait….to step away and wait until he invites me in out of curiosity or acceptance of me….so hard! I keep trying to exist with the calming signals and they are so powerful. Thanks for being a pioneer Anna. You give me hope.

  6. Wonderful, Anna, but I have to admit I have not gotten there yet. I try to keep it quiet, but it is so hard. Every day is a work in progress, but I’m thankful I found your words to help me learn this way of seeing the horse’s perspective and trying to use less of my little girl finally got a horse (at 67!) energies and smother poor Sugarfoot. Thank you!

    • We are all works in progress, Celeste. I suggest a good horse friend who likes to share coffee or wine, and drone on for hours about horses.

  7. This. Exactly. When I respond to a calming signal the response from my horse comes back immediately and wholeheartedly – like he’s surprised I understand. The more I respond the more willing he is to come to me.

  8. The end of Romance can be a good thing, when we get over feeling sad, grief-stricken and guilty. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • I think that’s the whole thing… it feels like giving something up that was just standing in the way… Thanks Susan. Hope you and yours are well.

  9. These last few times with my horses I wait for them to come to me how they will. It feels like I’m losing out, and then as soon as that thought arrives the selfishness stops my breath.

    Step back
    Exhale a few times as slow and calm as I can.

    And then Gerald took a picture of me putting on my helmet making sure I gave Peachie room to be… then Peachie reached far forward to touch her muzzle to my face.

    She loves me! She really loves me!!
    And sadly it’s still about me

  10. After attending your two-day clinic on the subject of calming signals, I’m listening to my boys with new ears and understanding. Giving them their space and hearing their anxiety is beginning to feel like a much appreciated gift. Thanks for this blog—it reiterated the points you worked hard to convey, which, when initially introduced, can be a tough concept to accept. ?

  11. I have one of those “stoic” horses. He’s not affectionate like other horses at the stable where he is boarded. He prefers his hay and his best herd mate for the most part.

    He does not gush over a good brushing.

    • In fact, I think it bugs him that I remove the mud and dirt he works so hard to cover himself with.

      It’s okay. I don’t like being touched much. Most of my friends know that about me and keep space. They apologize when they go to hug me.

      So I get my guy.

      But then there are the times when he hears my car and rushes to the gate to greet me or stays with me at the gate when I turn him out. … I know it just works for su

  12. A profound reminder. Your blog always reminds me to seek an honest, mutual connection between myself and my mare. Thank you, Becky

  13. Very good points Anna. Fits so well for my horse. He does not want any fussing with his head.He likes ear pulls occasionally but that is all. I give him a wide berth in terms of his head space and that suits him well.

  14. Thank you for this “ tough love” message that I needed to hear even if I don’t like hearing it.
    Please tell us more about the kind of horse that “rubs and mauls you with his nose in his anxiety.” My guy does this. It’s so odd.

    • ‘Tough love’ matters most for a horse like yours. Without seeing him with my own eyes, I can’t say much that isn’t general. It could be pain, nerve issues, or a few other things. Assuming he’s okay (and I don’t) then consider his nose extremely ticklish or over stimulated. Give him room, stay back by his girth area. This isnt’ a short question to answer and if you want to talk about it, we can… but this is about what I can say without more information. Contact me if you like, and best wishes for him, Carole.

  15. This blog came to me through Rise VanFleet, Building Strong Relationships with Animal Companions. I love horses, have always wanted one, but sadly that appears not to be in my future, for many reasons. But I work with dogs, both my own and those of clients, generally very shut down dogs and fearful ones – and the signals are the same and similar. Give them space, understanding, more space, and yet more space. What they need. Keep them feeling safe. Then they come to you if they are able. It’s a matter of letting them be who they are, respecting that then and let them decide. And sometimes it’s gut wrenchingly hard to step back, but it’s what’s needed. And very often, they do come in. Thank you so much for this post, Anna. I will subscribe to your blog because it speaks to my heart. And may I share among the dog world folks who need this???

    • Thank you, Ursula, and I agree. The term “calming signals” was coined by a dog trainer, Turid Rugaas (she has a great book) and I thought it rang true for horses, too. (Eventually a student of Turid’s, Rachaël Draaisma, wrote about horses.) You are completing the circle! Share all you like, I owe it to dogs in the first place! Best wishes to you.

      • I’ve been to a few of Turids’s workshops and seminars and found my lightbulb moment there. I’ll have to look up Rachael Draaisma, that will be fun. Love that I can be part of completing the circle. There is so much to learn from these dear creatures that we love and with whom we share our lives; the important part is that we begin the journey and help others to do so! I will share – and the first one will be on Debbie Jacob’s FB Fearful Dogs group … it will be very well received, I am sure. I look forward to all of your blogs!

  16. Excellent post as always speaking for the horse and waking up us humans as we work with these amazing animals. It is a great reminder to not be so needy and I also agree what we think is affection probably is not from the horse. Or maybe they show affection differently which I’m sure we misinterprete frequently. I feel like my horses like my attention as they whinny when I arrive at the barn and wait at the gate for our turn out, and routine. Your insight is valuable as it teaches us to step back and to think of them first instead of us and our egos. ❤️

    That being said a lady friend at my barn, horse owner for many a year, has a young Morgan who seems to hug her a lot, in his stall she’ll give him hugs which he in turn wraps his head around her a bit, so she interpretes this as love for her, makes me think differently what he is doing, nervous most likely. But her love or need for love from him is huge and desperate. She has been working on his back fetlock which has scratches on his white sock. As she scrubs and cleans and medicates, she has had to discipline him to stand still. I guess she had to hit him in the belly or something, I was’nt there watching but she came to me afterwards and asked me if I thought he still loves her? Do you think he’s mad at me? She asks. Oh Anna, I just stood there in disbelief! Really? I looked at her and I told her horses can’t be angry “like humans” I wanted desperately to tell her they don’t “Love” like humans but this horse is like her therapy and she is a kind horse owner wanting to do right but is confused in my eyes. I’ll share this post if it’s okay and she’ll read it and I think will be a good read for her. I don’t know everything, I go by my instincts and my gut and try to keep my ego and human emotions in check so I’m not putting them on my horses. I try to see them as that, horses. Of course I love them, and I want them to love me back but I remember they are animals. We can’t think they think and FEEL emotions like us humans. Thank you for your words and insight into the minds of horses. ❤️ -Diana

  17. Thank you, Anna. Trying my best to ask little of my two three year olds, but yes it’s hard not to want them to want me. But took it as huge privilege when twice recently I have just stood a bit away from ones shoulder and the other has come and stood the same distance the other side like I had two bodyguards. And we just stood in peace like that for about 15 mins

  18. So totally yes. Like others I also see this in dogs. I think I’m more guilty of force-loving my dogs than my horses.
    With horses so many of us are in a rush. If we just STOP. And STAND. For just a minute. Give him a chance to come to you, to make that choice. Or tell you why he’s afraid. If we could only just … listen!

  19. I was 60 when I had full responsibility for my first horse, a 15 year old Arabian. He was notoriously difficult to “catch” in the field. No treats, no grain, no hay would impress him. It took a few months before I could slowly and casually walk out to greet him, and he would stand there and not move away. Then one day he gave me this beautiful gift. He trotted from the back of the field to the gate and calmly bent his head to my hand and halter. Some days, he just picks his head up and puts it back down to graze. I come aways toward him, but then pick up sticks or stones in the field for a little awhile. Then in his time, he comes on over. One time, I remember, walking into fog, and suddenly saw him cantering out of the clouds toward the gate. I’ll never forget it. The difference between when we met and where we were in a year was huge.

  20. Pingback: Calming Signals and Sensitive Noses. – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog
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  22. Please tell more about the horse that can’t keep his mouth away from me. I was told to bop him in the nose like he just ran into my hand. That hasn’t worked. He turns around to nip me but jerks his head away now. I am sure that I caused this. He came to me like this. I have tried staying away from his head area and no hand feeding. Now I have been told to reach into his mouth and rub his gums. He doesn’t like this and I don’t want to put my hand in his mouth anyway. He has not bitten me and when I sit quietly he comes behind me and nuzzles my hair. He is a nice horse otherwise

    • Oh, my. Zan, without seeing it’s hard to say. I never substitute another’s eyes for mine, so I’m guessing. That said, you answered part of the question. Adding more pressure to his face made it worse. If you think there might be a physical issue in his mouth, ask a vet. Mouth issues can be related to gastric issues. Otherwise, I’d let his nose rest, give him more space. Other than haltering, try to not touch him in this area, one of the most sensitive of all. If you want to consult, I’m happy to, but again, without seeing him, this is about all I can say. Good luck, Zan.

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