Calming Signals and Why the Second Time’s a Charm.

Want to know the smallest thing you could change in training for the biggest improvement? I usually say doing a logical, effective warm-up, but it’s more specific because that smallest thing happens before the warm-up, thru the warm-up, and until the halter comes off at the end.

Have you ever noticed that the first of anything you ask from your horse is never the best? The first steps of leading and the first bit of groundwork are usually a bit sticky. The first transitions are never the most fluid. We all know the first canter depart is the worst. And not just for your horse. Things are hardly ever perfect the first time for either of you. 

Let’s say you’re in a hurry, so you rush a halter on your horse and pull him in to tack up. Clean his hooves quickly, throw the saddle on, and drag him to the arena. You want as much time in the saddle as possible. You swing that rope to hurry him along the whole way and when you get to the mounting block, he stops one step too far. You pull the reins to back him up. It hurts his mouth, so he backs up three steps. You pull him forward, metal on bone, he hesitates, so you ask louder. He gets nervous and swings his butt wide. Now you’re frustrated, so you walk him in a circle of dread and he overshoots again, just too much anxiety to stand still now. But you need to end on a good note, so you repeat it a few more times, each with a circle of dread but none quite good enough. 

Stop. You’ve just corrected your horse a dozen times before even mounting. Not to mention, he has a good start on a fussy habit at the mounting block and he will never understand how you tell time.

But this is the real question: What is gained by both of you getting cranky? Are we dominating just to be right? Most of all, what kind of ride are the two of you set up for?

Here’s a radical idea: ignore the first tries. Just don’t care. See the thing you are asking for not as an action to be judged and corrected, but rather a throw-away question, just a conversation starter. Get past the first try because the good stuff happens after that. But if we start with a fight, we will never know that.

Think for a moment about how you converse with your horse. Haltering is the time that the conversation begins, when calming signals can inform us, and if we are too single-minded about clocks, we don’t listen well. 

Say you hold the halter under his muzzle and he looks away. It’s a calming signal, he needs a moment and in a few seconds, his head comes back and he drops his nose in. He gets a scratch and he is certainly smart enough to know you have come to get him. You inhale, maybe give a verbal cue or a cluck. He hesitates, maybe shifts a bit of weight, but doesn’t walk on. He might be braced wondering if he will get wacked by the lead rope, but instead you say good boy, just to remind him who he is, and as you take a step he comes with you, side by side. Horses respect us just about as much as we respect them.

Then you groom the way he likes; you’re careful with his hooves, use a curry but no brush, and leave his face alone. Slow with the girth and off to the arena, practicing walk/halt transitions on the way. The conversation is responsive now. At the mounting block, he halts and stops square, just about six inches from where you need him. Good boy, and you move the mounting block and get in the saddle without correction because it’s good enough. Over time, he’ll stop in the just-right spot by habit.

When you begin the warm-up, walk on a long rein. No corrections, just walk. That means you aren’t ruled by the rail, you just say yes, happy with his first few sticky strides. Give him time to adjust to your weight on his back. Distract yourself by noticing how your shirt wrinkles at your waist, if your sit bones are soft, your legs long, and can your ankles dangle a bit. Take a breath and realign your spine, feel your shoulders level and your ribs equally spaced. Give a big exhale and release your jaw. Did your horse lengthen his neck, are his strides longer, did he give a little blow? Let it feel good. What is it about a walk that always feels like being held and rocked?

Your horse is feeling safe, accepted, warming to the flow of his body with you on him. He’s finding balance and each stride gets more blurred as the line between horse and rider fades. At this point, training is as easy as an idea and a breath. Literally. Use successive approximation, reward behaviors that are close to what you asked for; he’s getting warmer. Take all the time because you’re right where you want to be.

This is what you miss if you nitpick every stray imperfection. But isn’t that what we were taught to do? Not just to demand perfection from our horses but also from ourselves. Taught to call out every shortcoming with a relentlessly critical eye and then hold a grudge toward the horse and ourselves. Snap out of it. Nothing good comes of all that name-calling.

Being with horses is about creating tendencies of behavior over time. Training should be a quiet and kind give-and-take conversation. Problems die when starved of attention. Ignore what you don’t want, ask a better question next time, be consistent and affirmative. The tendency grows into a reliable habit. Young horses become partners instead of prey and grow in confidence, offering more than asked. Old campaigners worm their way deep in our hearts because they carried us to a place of peace. It might have taken years, but we gave up fighting.

When we get our next horse, they’ll be confused and disoriented when they arrive. Things don’t start well because we forget how it was in the beginning with the last horse. Trust that time is on your side, trust that one moment prepares for the next. Then let the conversation begin. It will all work out, just not today.

The smallest change for the biggest result is to not be baited by that first answer. To not get so envious of perfection that we miss the quirkiness and individuality of our good horses. Training horses is about humans valuing communication and acknowledgment more than criticism. 

You are not looking for perfection. Horses don’t understand that concept. Horses live in an imperfect environment, always on guard for something dangerous. Disappoint them. Be their safe place.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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28 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Why the Second Time’s a Charm.”

  1. Love this today – so true and so useful. 🙂

    I have come to believe that being with horses and riding them or not riding them exists in a different kind of time. It doesn’t run by any clock we humans know. I didn’t realize this until we bought our farm and suddenly lived where our horses live, but a few days in I started noticing that whenever I walked to the back yard gate to the barn my whole being calmed, and I no longer knew or really cared what time it was. I would go to the barn and come back in to find that I’d spent hours out there. It’s such a healing thing. I know not everyone can do it, but to any degree that you can allow for this expansion of time as we know it, I think it will reap many rewards.

    I love the mounting block thing – move the mounting block to them. And if they’re fussy at the mounting block, consider that they may be trying to tell you something. Once Keil Bay refused to stand still while I tried to mount. Turned out I’d forgotten to tighten the girth! It’s not always them not listening to a request.

    And finally, about expecting perfect responses to our asks. Consider how it would look if the horses expected that from us! If you’ve ever lived with and ridden a true schoolmaster dressage mare insistant on correct cues to do basic and then more advanced dressage movements you might, as I did, realize that we all deserve some room for error. 🙂

  2. Dear Anna-

    As I read this – I walked along with it and could replay every step that I have been missing on the ground. I’ve learned enough to make those first minutes of riding be a warm up on a long rein to adjust both of us but am guilty of every single sin before that point which has already established the brace. I often times take time before riding to do some liberty and that helps establish a better connection but I can see where I have to go to the very beginning. Thank you thank you thank you

  3. “Good boy “,just to remind him who he is. Those words , spoken in an exhale are probably the best words I ever use along side and exhaled soft Yes. Your lessons and patient reminder to go slow and stop before I want to ,have made such a difference in the conversations we now have. Tisto and Parker give you a nod of appreciation.

  4. This was a lovely follow up to the Calming Signals course I just took! I forgot to say when asked what I learned in the class that was important was learning about the signals he gives to calm himself! Since I don’t have trouble with him it was so informative to learn what some of his habits meant to him. Thank you for the opportunity to attend your class! Nancy G.

  5. I love this. Just relax and enjoy the time with your horse whatever you’re doing. It sounds so simple, but we get so driven. Thanks for the reminder, Anna.

  6. “Horses live in an imperfect environment, always on guard for something dangerous. Disappoint them. Be their safe place.” Not that this whole essay isn’t pure gold, but to me this last is a real gem. Thanks, Anna. I will strive to disappoint every chance I get!

  7. I haven’t ridden in many years but I love reading your essays. This one resonated particularly as I started a new job and the person training me had that kind of aggressive, irritated demeanor that scrambled my brains a bit in the beginning and made it hard to learn (so I guess I’m the horse in this scenario!). If only all trainers of people and horses used clarity, calmness and kindness.

    • Your scenario is scary. I’d be a mess; starting a new job is hard. But seeing it through that lens, wow. Great comment. Thank you, Sarah

  8. That is the (only!) joy of lockdown. There is no rush. The dawdle out , the wander around before work. Thinking about the one thing we can work on today. Thanks Anna, I feel like we’re on the same page today.

  9. LOVE this. I read it just before getting ready to go to the barn to spend time with my horse, and I know it will influence our interactions today and in the future! My boy and I have been together for 17 years and are like an old married couple, according to our friend and boarding barn owner 🙂 This article was such a good reminder to me to do things with him, not to him. While things usually go smoothly and calmly between us, I absolutely know that I’ve rushed or stressed him at times by not being fully present and not valuing our relationship above any “achievement.” Or by succumbing to peer pressure regarding how precise his responses to my asks should be.

    I’m new to reading your blog and look forward to exploring the archives. I read your book Stable Relation not long ago and enjoyed it very much!

    • Hi Kathy, thanks for reading the book and also for commenting. Just goes to show even ‘old married couples’ shouldn’t take things for granted. Give your boy a scratch from me.

  10. Anna, “Problems die when starved of attention” really resonated with me. After 3 years of painfully slow progress with Ferdinand (one of my rescues with an unknown history), something clicked. He has continued to be very anxious leading in a halter, and escalates quickly if we step into an arena. He even escalates at liberty if I reward (verbally) his movement in the arena. I decided to ignore the arena since he appears to have a negative association, and instead try leading to his favorite place, pasture. With a slow haltering approach, lots of deep slow breaths, and relaxed body posture, he walked quietly next to me, stopping and starting as I did, out to pasture. Amen! Your words have been like a path home after being lost. Thank you.

  11. So great, Anna, and all so true. One day my girl decided she did not want to come out of her stall, so I said “okay. when you’re ready” and stepped away, body turned way, leaned against the door, just quiet. She thought about it and a minute later she came over to me, I stepped out the door and she stepped out with me, ready to go. It was like she was shocked I was allowing her to make the choice and she did choose. She chose to be with me. It was a beautiful moment. And had she not come out, no worries, I would not have ridden that day. It is a PRIVELEDGE to be with horses. They are not ours to command. As you have always said and taught, it is and should always be, a mutual partnership and discussion. Another one to print out and put in the tack room! THANK YOU!

      • Exactly! And why not? Both myself and my horse hate to be rushed! With age comes a certain amount of, “I don’t give a damn, I’ll do it my way, thanks!” It does take ‘ovaries’ to be the boss mare of your life (and your horses life), however. I am going to a new “fancy”, large, regimented barn with lots of excellent horses and riders and I know it is going to take everything I have to say, “Stop! That is not the way we do it!” I will do it, however, for myself and my mare. Wish me luck!


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