Calming Signals and the Aggressive Horse.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. Because we are an unpredictable war-like species.

This week I’m answering a question: A rider, who was really enjoying her calming signals work, emailed a question about what to do about an aggressive horse. The rider said that a fancy show mare had come to her barn temporarily and boarders had been told that the mare was fine with horses but not humans; they were warned to not “get in her face.” 

Our rider was leading her horse in around suppertime and that mare was guarding the alley to the gate. The mare tried to get between them, the rider reached out for her horse, and after a couple of warnings from the mare, and the she grabbed the rider’s wrist in her teeth and pinned her ears. She could have done much worse.

Our rider, demonstrating un-common sense, dropped the rope, retreated, and took her horse out another gate. The right answer because she was in close quarters and it wasn’t her horse. She said that several other boarders offered to help bring her mare next time, and show her how to handle this type of situation. (She wasn’t comfortable with their advice… smart decision.)

She added that a few days later, while being led into the barn, the mare attacked a barn-worker who escaped by locking herself in a stall, until the mare eventually sauntered into her own stall. (Vindicated, the rider would still like to know how to handle this kind of horse, in this type of situation.)

Disclaimer: I would be foolish to give advice when I can’t literally see the horse; I never substitute someone else’s eyes for mine because I usually see the situation differently. And I think that’s what people want from me. That said, I’m thrilled that no one got hurt… and here goes…

Foremost, is the mare sound? Her health must be the first question. Being a show horse is a stressful life and she’s moved to a new barn. Does she have ulcers? Change is harder on them than we understand. If she is acting like a stallion, could she have reproductive issues? Are her hormones out of control? Ovarian cysts are common and under-diagnosed. It could be her teeth or a million other things. My first stop would be with the vet, and in the meantime, rather than warning the boarders, the barn owner shouldn’t turn the mare out with other horses, for everyone’s safety.

I’d bet my truck this mare’s in pain, but let’s pretend the vet clears her and said her issues aren’t physically based. Now what?

Of course, you’ll get advice from Railbirds and testosterone-junkies of both sexes, but do not take it. Too many times, a self-appointed horse expert thinks all the horse needs is to be shown who’s boss. And about the time two or three “experts” have had a shot at her and failed, she is worse than when she started. Sounds like this mare may have had a dose of that already.

Aggressive trainers and riders count on getting to a place where their dominating aids and loud emotions intimidate a horse into playing dead. The other term for that is shut-down. The horse looks like teacher’s pet but with flat black eyes.  Stoic horses pull inside themselves for a long as they can.

But not all horses are stoic. Some are more expressive, with a bold self-confidence and a fearless heart.  The kind of horse who will not be bowed. She proudly looks you in the eye, refuses to submit, and holds her ground. Partnering with a horse who requires a human to be their equal is an amazing opportunity, but most humans take the low road and start a brutal physical battle. Just one reason that horses could think that we’re an unpredictable war-like species.

I don’t know this mare; I do know that horses reflect our emotions sometimes, and I know that a horse trained with fear is not dependable. I also know that some horses were never meant to belong to amateur owners –through no one’s fault.

Our rider said the mare gave her a couple of hints but she didn’t take them. My guess is that it wasn’t the first time. But that’s all history. What about now?

This is where I remind you that positive training isn’t just a lily-livered game for geriatric geldings on sunny afternoons. It isn’t just for decrepit rescue horses or mild-mannered kind souls. Reactive horses who get in trouble need it more than all the “good” horses combined.

Now, hope the owner hires a competent trainer; someone who understands behavior, human and horse, and sees the big picture. Then, grab a beer. The mare didn’t get this way in a day. We know this isn’t normal behavior. And we know that she gave calming signals that were not understood. We know that even if she’s an alpha mare, she deserved better.

If she came here, I’d take her back to the beginning. Listening to her calming signals, I might ask quietly for just one step. If she looks away, a calming signal, I’ll take a breath. Then I’ll ask quieter. If I can tell she considers doing it, I’ll exhale and step back. In the process of successive approximation, I’ll gradually ask for more, but I’ll be slow because she’s lost trust. I’ll look past her anger and talk to her anxiety.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own. I will not let my guard down for a moment, but I’ll have a cool exterior. It will require perception, impeccable timing, and precise response. I won’t be perfect; it’ll be a work in progress because she will require my very best work and I’ll thank her for that. I’ll train her “respect” by showing her consistency and focus.  I’ll let her know that I heard her loud and clear. Then I’ll encourage her to quietly continue the conversation.

I will always believe that it’s humans, (a war-like species,) who do not understand what respect means. When I see humans teach “respect” by demonstrating brutality, to animals or other humans, respect is the last word that comes to my mind. It might be the only thing that this mare and I agree on in the beginning.

What should the rider have done in this situation?  Get you and your horse out safely. Good. Don’t encourage people to try to dominate her; it hasn’t worked in the past and she doesn’t belong to you.  Good again, you did the right thing. Then hope that her owner doesn’t hire a bully with a grudge. Because this is a smart mare with a long memory, and she doesn’t suffer fools.

This is our mantra. Repeat after me: I’m only human. I’ll try to do better.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, 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

0 thoughts on “Calming Signals and the Aggressive Horse.”

  1. Wow, Anna, another great post. I love your writing style but more importantly I love your message. A common sense message told in a straight forward no holds barred way. I am learning so much from your blog and applying as much as I can to my horse, a somewhat stoic, extremely sensitive Arabian gelding. And happily I’m seeing some improvement. He seems relieved that I am beginning to understand him a bit better and it brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. Thanks so much!!

    • It’s a circle; one of my teachers was a “somewhat stoic, extremely sensitive Arabian gelding.” Thanks for the supportive comment, Shannon.

      • Hi Anna
        Thank you for the post. My OTTB is a sensitive, thin skinned animal with all the issues you mentioned. It’s always pain. It’s always about them. It’s always about removing the human insistence. It’s always about relief. It’s so wonderful when it comes. Such a blessing.

    • love this!
      …hah…got the somewhat stoic, very sensitive Arabian gelding too…who is trying to teach me who he is and finally I am slowed down and moving slow enough to converse, physically and mentally. very enlightening and very applicable for me.

  2. Hi Anna, As usual I enjoyed reading today’s post. It brought to mind 3 particular horses who arrived at our training stable at the race track many years ago. The owners were distraught because their horses weren’t winning any more, their temperament continued on the downside, they feared men and wouldn’t tolerate them near their stall. My husband would come home with the news “Honey we have a new owner, but no one can go near his horse. Good luck tomorrow.” I was just the groom, a newbie. I was patient and kind and they knew I wasn’t someone to fear but I had a job to do which was to take care of them. My husband was also very patient and started their training from the ground up. We took care care of their physical ailments, retrained them as athletes, and most of all gave them back their spirit and soul. We are massage therapists now and often meet a horse who has had a tough past. Our hearts break at what they might have endured as our hands work to heal and restore their health and heart. Thanks for listening. .

    • No, thank you for sharing this heartfelt comment. I am thrilled at your new (old) career. Massage is the best “groundwork” I know. Thanks, Jane.

  3. Love the message and comments! Hopefully this mare just has something physical like ulcers that can be fixed and monitored thus changing her feelings forever. Otherwise my experience is that she might revert back to this behavior without a permanent, educated barn manager . Nothing sadder than restoring a horses confidence only to see an uneducated person push the same old buttons and wipe out progress.

  4. Omg, this paragraph…right to the heart!
    “Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own…”

    I would shout it from the roof tops “YES!!!”
    So much this…
    It drives my Hubby nuts that I won’t just dominate my mare into doing as I please. His favorite phrase is “There’s an easy way and a hard way. Either way you’re doing it” and while I believe that to be true to an extent, I don’t think domination or going to war over what I want her to do is the correct route.
    I much prefer to ask, listen, wait…we’ll find the easy way, even if it’s not so easy to find.
    She’s a smart Cookie, she typically knows what I’m asking when I do (or has a pretty good idea but needs some extra support to be able to do it), but she also knows when I’m not asking correctly, and waits for me to figure out the right way to ask…
    Some days I wonder, who’s training who?
    But, we’ve done amazing things together and the horse people in our world are amazed at the things that mare will do for me when I ask.
    The key is always to listen to what she’s telling me.
    And I hope that all made some sort of sense. 😉

    • Well, I agree. I have heard your husbands side my whole life, about my horses, and even about me. Stick to your guns, you’ll get farther with your mare your way… great comment, thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. Anna. My very limited experience agrees with you…this mare must be in pain somewhere and/or has had negative interactions of the two-legged kind. Hope it all works out for her.

  6. Very ‘CAT – like’ (constructional approach training for horses) in your approach Anna, I enjoyed reading your take and the clear empathy for the mare

  7. Dooley demands a ‘conversation’. He simply will not tolerate being ‘lectured’. Beautifully written and so insightful as always.

    • Good for Dooley, and you, too. With a smile because it seems to me that once a horse does join a conversation it’s yak, yak, yak…Thanks, Lyn.

  8. New to the calming signals information, it makes so much sense…still learning how to hear my horses…they usually are so patient with people , it’s humbling . Beautiful writing Anna, thankyou, you express it so well

    • Welcome to the herd of folks who want to hear their horses. It takes time, I’ve been at it forever and I seem to hear something new all the time.


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