Calming Signals: How Do You Listen To a Horse?

What is your first memory of listening to a horse? Not standing next to a horse and being certain he loved you. Not daydreaming about galloping him on the beach or burying your tear-drenched face in his mane and hiding. None of these things are listening. They are moments we might feel a connection because we want that more badly than anything. If wishful thinking worked, we would have all married princes in middle school. Listening to horses is something different.

The first thing I remember hearing from a horse was fear. I was maybe six years old and riding my pony bareback. I felt her body go tense. Her neck got stiff and her feet danced but I couldn’t steer her. She was scared all the time and I’d fallen off a few times, so I was tense, too, not that it mattered who got scared first. Even when I couldn’t avoid it, I’m not sure I listened. I wanted her to listen to me and just stop it. I probably pulled the reins thinking it would stop her. Ponies don’t really respond that way, but it took me longer to figure that out. Crisis listening is active denial. It’s when your horse tells you something you just don’t want to hear, and it isn’t limited to childhood.

I’ve lost count of the number of riders who are certain they have a training issue when in truth their horses are literally in pain. It can be a sore back or lameness, or the pain our hands cause in their mouth. The upside of listening to pain is that we can help then, but sometimes we’re convinced that the horse is trying to trick us, or that the horse is spoiled and trying to get out of work. It’s biased listening, hearing only what we want to hear. We misinterpret his behavior into some stereotype and then look for a training tip to fix the behavior. We can’t avoid hearing the horse’s discomfort, so begrudgingly, we’re listening but not in a way that helps the horse. We become critical listeners; we listen to evaluate and judge the horse, forming an opinion about him so we can correct him.

A bunch of us take a left turn about now. We just don’t want to fight with a thousand-pound flight animal. It’s a glimmer of common sense at last. We end up with a rescue horse, or a horse that we didn’t know was a rescue horse. There is no shortage of horses with anxiety issues. It’s our intention to be a sympathetic listener but we might become overly sentimental, telling his history to ourselves, feeling good for saving him. Getting a horse to a safe place is a good thing, a true gift. Maybe feeling pity is a kind of listening, but how does feeling sorry for a horse feel to the horse? Is it a nebulous coyote-stalking kind of anxiety when a predator stares at him quietly?

So far, for all our attention and concern, we’re just having conversations with ourselves about horse behavior and a horse’s fear will not be quelled by a human telling him to stop it. Fear is an essential part of what it means to be a flight animal; that part of a horse that we like least is fundamental. The best we can do for a horse is to build his confidence, so fewer things are frightening. Any horse will tell you that discipline isn’t an antidote to fear. If we listen.

Step one in horse training has to be accepting that horses have emotions. We’re good with happy emotions but when a darker emotion shows itself, we don’t like it. It would be an evolved moment if we heard them without a negative response in our bodies. Accepting a negative message doesn’t mean we are rewarding it. Sometimes just being heard lowers the temperature, especially to a horse who’s been punished for his natural instinct.

Active listening might be something we learned in couples therapy or leadership training for work. Active listening is positive listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partner by being attentive, paraphrasing and reflecting back on what is said, and withholding judgment and advice. We let the conversation unfold rather than shutting things down with a blunt solution. Is it too obvious to say it doesn’t come naturally to all of us?

Active listening involves using all our senses: we keep eye contact focused on the other person. We might lean forward a little or nod, but we aim to sit still and let the other person finish what they are saying without interruption. We breathe, offering interested silence to give the person time to respond. Most of us find listening so purposefully exhausting at first.

Wait! Horses use all their senses to communicate; they speak in a body voice, whether we try to shut it down or strive to understand. Their calming signals are a literal language of active listening to the world around them, expressing their feelings, and processing it all. Calming signals are humans’ fundamental language, too, before we overthink it. When we exhale, slow down, and allow a horse time to process the moment without interruption, we are acknowledging the horse’s intelligence as well as our own. We can’t control a horse’s behavior, but we can create an environment where they can become more confident. Calming signals be our shared language, resonating deeper than words ever can.

Maybe now we’re finally capable of true empathetic listening, letting our feelings rest, and seeing things from the horse’s standpoint. There is a quality of selflessness required, a state rare in humans. Empathy takes practice and truly accepting the horse’s calming signals in the moment is huge but what comes next? Long-term anxiety isn’t the answer any more than adversity. Perhaps we can begin an affirmative conversation with radical listening, believing not just that the horse has a right to his feelings, but surrendering our side for his. Begin with alignment on a starting point: the horse is right.

March marks the beginning of my twelfth year of blogging; I’m a horse trainer who has sat down every Thursday night for the last eleven years to write a message about listening to horses. I owe a debt a gray ghost of a horse on my shoulder. He says another twenty years or so and I might get it right.

I’m grateful to all the horses I’ve had the privilege to listen to, and especially grateful to those of you who have read along over the years. Thank you for your precious time.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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41 thoughts on “Calming Signals: How Do You Listen To a Horse?”

  1. One word: perfection. I was going to stop there, but I can’t (I have better self control around my mare — I think!) Anyway, I take absolute joy now in listening to every horse I encounter at the barn. Stopping and listening, being quiet, sharing breaths, acknowledging their calming signals, and even showing some of my own. When she gets a little tense, I stand back from her, relax my body, put my head down. Usually she relaxes, comes over to my head, blows on my face as if to say, “what’s wrong silly. It’s ok! The wolves are gone.” It’s brilliant. You’re brilliant. Thank you for your years given to us, to the horses, for making us better horse people and for teaching us “empathetic listening.” I am printing this blog and giving it to my partner, a non-horseperson, who will none-the-less benefit tremendously from the insight. Thank you, Anna.

  2. Listening actively is a multi level exercise, and the first time was when I waited for my horse to ‘give’ his head to the halter when prepping to turn him out. Baby stepping from there, to yesterday when he was anxious and we were walking a short distance that we travel each day, I stopped and rubbed his neck (a cue consistently used for him to relax) until he was ready to walk and focus without the anxiety. He is now 7 and we have had him since his 3 yr old yr. Our relationship has improved so much, in the last year.

  3. Keeping writing, please. I can’t think of many better ways to spend my precious time, except maybe out with the horses.

  4. When did I first listen to my horse ? What immediately comes to my mind is when I was a teenager, and rode my walking horse, Top Man, in my first horse show. He became so much more alive and energetic as we warmed up riding around the perimeter, encountering other horses and all the sounds and smells of a horse show. I had not seen this side of my horse before ! I remember wondering if I could maintain my connection ( control?) with him… It all went quite well for us but the memory stands out as maybe first time I understood the impact of environment and other horses on my trusty little gelding.

    Thank you, Anna, for 11 years of bringing yourself to the task of writing and sharing with us your horse wisdom. I admire your persistence and dedication to this oh-so-important task. I thank you for helping me find the way back to sweetness in my conversation with Cash and Zen Bear.

    • And then you saw the world through his good eyes. I miss Top Man, best name ever, too. Illuminating, isn’t it? (It’s an Appaloosa-like persistence, the ghost reminds you.) Thanks Sarah. It’s a privilege to know your boys a little bit.

  5. Thank you for your blog, for your wisdom, and for having the courage to say out loud what I and many others have come to understand about how to interact with horses/animals in a way that doesn’t exploit them.

  6. No, Anna. Thank YOU for the time YOU take every Thursday night to write your meaningful and thought provoking blogs. We all gain so much from them. I believe they not only inspire examination of how we help relationships with our horses but also the relationships with the humans in our lives. Almost all of us need to work on the components of true listening rather than reacting. It’s a skill that has enormous rewards. Thanks for making us think.

    • Thanks, Jean. I confess, I find people more challenging, but then so did the Grandfather Horse. Thanks for your friendship all these years.

  7. Can’t recall the first time I really listened to my horses. I do recall discovering your essays, Anna, about nine or ten years ago. Oh, my!! Even so, while I applied your lessons by rote pretty much, it took a good bit of time before any of the wisdom you so generously imparted really sunk in. And though I’ve thought of my guys as sentient beings from the beginning, it’s very much second nature now to treat them as such, always listening with an attentive ear. In short, through your essays I finally got woke!

  8. Anna,

    Our time is well spent reading your excellent posts and it is precious for many reasons: we are constantly reminded that we owe a huge gratitude to horses for making us better humans, we are reminded that all your fine work and empathy, and your poetic writing combine to create artfulness — and well-being for our equine charges. Our horses benefit. We benefit from meeting like-minded, wonderful people online. Your writing and wisdom bring peace. Each day we feel peacefulness, we are better humans for our horses.

    Each day with our horses is precious, and you make that time richer for all of us.

    Thank you, ever thank you


  9. Wow Anna, after reading the wonderful & very true comments, I have no words! So I’ll just say thank you for sharing. Many horses & humans benefit from you and that Grandfather horse. A benefit that will ripple down for generations as the word spreads, minds open and attitudes change.

  10. Thank you so much for your wisdom and inspiration and just goodness. I haven’t had the pleasure of a horse in many years, but reading your posts brings alive the love and relationship I had with my beloved Yankee. She was a rescue and not easy, but such a beautiful spirit. As admitted selfish as it is, it makes me feel better to know that I did the right thing in listening to her and not the people who told me that since she was abandoned in a field for years that she needed to be taught “who’s boss and “break her in again.” She let me know when she was ready to start practicing in a ring and going on rides farther than a few miles from her new comfortable safe barn.
    You inspire me to, when I can, to adopt a senior horse or two, ones that no one can ride or wants anymore, and just be with them.

  11. Anna
    Just want to say “Thank You” for your blog. Being a newbie to horses when I started volunteering at our local horse rescue I didn’t know much about listening to horses. Reading and absorbing your words over the years has helped me immensely in observing their calming signals and approaching them appropriately. JOY!

  12. I have been taught two ways to teach a frightened horse how to get over their fright and they seem to be opposite and I have seen them both work for others. One is when a horse is afraid of something, like walking into a trailer or going past a pen of turkeys, is to get the horse to take one step toward the scary thing and then release, allowing them to back away as much as they need to. Then step forward again. The other way is to work them slowly toward what they fear. Distract them from it with a job and slowly get them to pass the scary thing. Why does “moving the feet “help?

    • I would take a different tack on this issue, but from a calming signal standpoint, horses who can’t move will go up in anxiety and moving is a stress reliever. Letting the horse move will always calm a horse. I think that’s the answer you are looking for?

  13. Anna,
    We could start The Grey Ghost Legacy Society — perhaps donate,, partially, to an equine sanctuary and use the other half of the donation to create a ‘Training Notes’ club — for those, among us, who could use a weekly advisory on any subject of your choice, but have not the time for a fully-blown training program.

    As an arts example: The Frick Museum, NY, offers a weekly (Friday evening post) video, entitled:
    Cocktails with the Curator (by one of its curatorial heads)

    My Oxford University group, numbering 10-15 at any time, all tune in, weekly and normally we can’t wait for Friday.

    It’s not just art: They feature an oil painting at the Frick and discuss it, however, they also provide a recipe for a ‘cocktail’, which the curator also sips during the presentation.

    I am not suggesting you take to the bottle! However, I thought you might consider a Friday event such as this one, on equine subjects of interest to us all — i.e., all equine subjects — and perhaps, perhaps, you could throw in a short recipe or a recipe for making natural horse treats, i.e. baking them, or something else of interest.

    It’s not that you don’t have enough on your plate — only that, while watching the latest Cocktails with the Curator, I suddenly thought, “Gosh, Anna could do something similar with her equine program”.

    Cocktails is free and designed to keep people interested in the museum until it reopens.

    I thought that a little fee for your program would be agreeable. Or, you could ask your web base.

    Ignore me if this is something you would not be interested in. I know several people, to whom I have forwarded your emails, who would be interested in this; two are dressage riders from my Oxford group. (living in England).

    My idea sprouted as, due to my writing and other media projects, I do not have time for full-blown programs online, but I would have time for one weekly 30-minute – 45 minute program. Anything around one hour or just under.

    Just a thought.

    Best wishes,

  14. I’m 77 now, new hip after my last fall. Now we do (the 4 of us) Horse Agility. Mostly at liberty. I am delighted to report a new experience. I am learning to listen! I set up a course. They often have different ideas about it. The order we should do it in, for instance. Which is often negotiable. I like to get their opinions. And they tell me if they think they have done it properly. A little nicker on completion. After I (finally) heard it in one, I started paying attention. They were all talking to me. Some very quietly. Maybe just a twitch of the lips. It’s this subtle stuff that delights me most. And the condescension. ‘Ok, I will let you groom me, but only briefly on the itchy patch on my rump.” I have a gold mine of new potential learning experiences without having to leave the house paddock. And my teachers are always dishing up new stuff. What could be better for my ageing brain?
    Thanks for your encouragement Anna.

  15. Years ago a very savvy horse vet told me and my young at the time daughter to always, ALWAYS, assume that any misbehavior in a horse is due to pain. Go from there, she said. The pony ended up getting acupuncture for soreness in the hocks. The vet wanted us to show him that we knew where the pain was by using warm moist wraps on his hocks twice a day. She didn’t think it would help the pain but it would show him, while we were also doing acupuncture treatment, that we understood where it hurt. I will never forget my daughter wrapping the hocks twice a day and how her pony stood like a little soldier, licking and chewing because he seemed to put it together that she was trying to take good care of him. The first acupuncture session was a nightmare. He hated it, he didn’t want it, but we coaxed him into accepting it. The second session he knew what was coming and he knew he felt better after. In the middle of the session, he popped out of the acupuncture zen zone and walked a few steps to the picnic table where I was sitting with the vet, put his muzzle in my lap, and licked my hands. The vet said, he’s saying thank you. His pain resolved, but we learned a lot about how to view “misbehavior.” For him it was suddenly refusing jumps, and when the trainer said “smack him hard” my daughter said NO. Something is wrong. This vet praised my daughter for doing that and me for getting him checked out. We got positively reinforced and boy have we absorbed that lesson! :))) I’ve never regretted missing days of riding to figure out what was wrong, or to simply put the saddle and bridle away in trust that the horse knew something I didn’t about why a ride was not the best plan for that day. Those days are sometimes best spent doing a slow and thorough grooming, some massage, or just hanging out in the barnyard while they graze. I have outside chairs in every pasture and paddock so I can hang out with them – that time is as precious as time riding has ever been.

    • Billie,
      That’s perfection. I wish all young riders were as brave and forward as your daughter, and that all vets would offer the same advice.
      I have seen this scenario so many times with trainers.

      I always consider the horse is out of sorts or that something is wrong, or even if it’s just an off day — you can tell by your horse’s personality / expression and how he greets you.

      I agree completely that it’s precious time in just being with them.


    • I think it’s always going to be easier to build trust with a horse while nursing an injury. Thank you for sharing this wonderful memory. Thanks for commenting, Billie.


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