Do You Need to Keep Your Horse Calm?

I can’t be the only woman of a certain age whose parents thought she needed to be muffled indefinitely. They wanted a quiet polite daughter and look how that turned out. And I’m probably the wrong person to write this since I have a rescue dog that hasn’t stopped barking since 2014. Here goes anyway. 

I was talking to an equine pro who told me about arriving at a new client’s barn to find a stressed-out human and a tense horse. He said the thing I know: if you’re good at reading horses, humans are transparent. He went slow and held his tongue, and the horse did well. By the second or third visit, the human settled as well. Things are great now, but I don’t blame his client. We get judged by our horse’s behavior, which is crazy when you think about it. After all, if an equine pro shows up at your barn, they are the thing that’s changed. Everyone was fine before. Maybe they should try to be less spooky?

I digress. What I mean is some of us have the idea that a horse should stand stock-still, spellbound by proximity to us forever. Never looking left or right, just throat-breathing until we ask them for work. In other words, they should be focused better than we are. Or we might constantly pull the lead rope back, correcting horses for having longer legs and a bigger stride than we do. We’d rather the horse lose balance than us have to take giant steps to keep up, even as we complain that these horses are just not forward under saddle. Or we think horses should surrender a hoof to us any time or place, regardless of age, soundness, or general distrust, yet we are spooked when they prick up their ears.

Why do we hold animals to higher standards than we do ourselves?

Wait, I know the answer to that question. They have to behave better than us because their welfare depends on it. If something happens to us, who will want a horse with bad manners? What happens to a kid-safe horse who injures a kid? And just because you don’t care about riding, that doesn’t mean that the world is full of homes for sound adult horses who were never trained. 

Does that mean our rescue horses need rescue from us? It isn’t enough to feed and care for them. They need to be solid citizens so they can be guaranteed safety. How many horses fall into neglect in the first place because they misbehaved and got in trouble? We need to do the impossible: Knowing there is no such thing as a bombproof horse, we set about making one. But sometimes, we put the cart before the horse; we create a bigger problem trying to solve something that is normal. 

“Horses mirror us!” If only it was as simple as chirping that trite slogan and putting a smile on our faces, but it isn’t true. That little mirror ditty denies horses intelligence or emotion, not to mention robbing them of their history. Mirrors are two-dimensional. No kidding. Horses are more complicated than a mirror.

About now, Preacher Man, who is still barking, reminds me criticism isn’t a balm for what ails us. I know this from the last decade of him barking. I’m sure he was told to shut up more than a few times. Punishment and threats won’t bring out the best in any of us, even if it’s our natural response. As deep an instinct as punishment is in us, fear is equally undeniable in animals. Does it seem the more we try to correct a behavior, the worse the behavior gets; the more we try to calm horses, the more frantic they become?

Your horse can’t ignore you; you are too loud. Is he truly being disobedient? He might be telling you he’s in pain. At least, it would help if we could stop being critical of other animals’ natures and instincts. There’s a German term, funktionslust, that speaks of animals being true to their nature. Let your horse move more naturally, let him express his emotions. You aren’t “training” him to be crazy or dangerous. That comes from dysfunction and drilling dread. It comes from correcting a horse all the time because you might need something once in a while. You know horses have emotions and expressing them is the quickest way to release them. Can we train ourselves to stop our instinct to punish long enough to see they do a better job at calming themselves than we can do?

To try to make a horse be calm is like telling a dog to stop barking or a baby to quit crying. It’s intuitive but it doesn’t work because it doesn’t address the problem. They are fearful, not defiant. Correcting that is telling them they are right to be afraid. It’s telling a baby we’ll give him something to cry about. Threats don’t get the desired result, and that’s why Preacher Man is still barking. It’s his memory barking.

Does that mean there are no boundaries, no lines of restriction for unwanted behavior? That’s silly. Horses need to be good citizens. They need to know what we want through thoughtful conversation. They are intelligent and capable of understanding. Horses are not naturally aggressive. They want to get along but they can’t learn if they are afraid. Rather than correcting him, tell him he’s a good boy. Build his confidence rather than tearing it down. Be on his side. Plant the seeds. Remind him he’s good, smart, and perfect right now. Remind yourself the same.

Does it work every time? Not at the beginning but habits take time. Blind obedience shouldn’t be the goal; it isn’t reasonable. If you want a partnership, it means two voices and one can’t be yelling all the time. We must relieve anxiety, not create it. Be constant in your support and quell your emotions. Know you are growing his tendency to trust by being trustworthy.

Does your horse need to be calm? Yes and no. Nobody thinks living in a corset is normal. Don’t waste his attention, reward it by staying focused and release him when he’s done well. Let him run and buck. He won’t get stuck there. Let his energy soothe him; moving is a calming signal; his natural way to both express anxiety and release it. Let being quiet be easy, not something to fight about. Let your release be the reward, your silence be peace. Rest there and trust him to join you.

As I finish this essay in the pre-dawn hours, Preacher is mumble-barking in his sleep. Ten years and I swear, if he is breathing he is barking. Have I “fixed” him? No, but now he trots to me mid-bark for a scratch and a good boy. Preach is still barking but the tenor has changed. (Aren’t I a laugh riot, a pun pundit? You learn it between barks.)

Emotions are natural. Holding them in or being punished for having them is the problem. When we make normal things bad we’re being unreasonable. We’re asking for dishonesty. 

We can’t deny an animal’s nature, but we can make friends with unwanted behaviors, and then together, we can steer in a better direction. Show a horse grace and understanding. Let it start small in easy situations until it’s possible to be consistent in challenging ones. Breathe. Let your patience become the air in his lungs. Don’t give a cue, be the cue.

Calm is a by-product of good behavior in humans. We aren’t training behavior, we’re demonstrating integrity and reliability. When animals feel safe, they are calm. 

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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32 thoughts on “Do You Need to Keep Your Horse Calm?”

  1. It is simple, if you want a calmer horse, be a better person. Of all the lessons horses teach us, hard work, sacrifice, overcoming our fears, that is the most powerful one.

    • It is simple… (as if simple was easy, but we can change. It’s our superpower.) Thanks Peggy. You have a new horse and a new chance!

  2. Great topic! It made me think about how much rhetoric has come out in recent decades about how dangerous horses can be, mostly in support of trainers who claim to show you how to make them safe. That is relatively new rhetoric, not something you heard fifty years ago when I was a kid. Not that there wasn’t concern over “hot” horses or injuries, but it wasn’t the obsession it seems to have become. It’s sad because all that you prescribe in this post has an amazing impact, given time, on helping the horse find a comfortable life with a human – yet I’ve watched the obsession with “calm” and potential danger create just the sort of owner you opened the piece with.

  3. Don’t unreasonably or unjustly quell natural, normal behavior in children or horses, I think this is what we are saying. But when necessary go about it respectfully and reasonably. We can’t have children running through restaurants screaming just for fun, but we can let them do it in the backyard. I love to see my mare run and buck in the pasture with her friends, just as I love to see a child express himself. Isn’t it often a battle, though, for both mothers and horse owners? What behavior should we applaud and which should we correct? I often don’t correct, and I am sometimes concerned about whether that may make Peaches a bad citizen. Just yesterday she took her teeth and mouthed my jacket, in a strangely gentle way. I laughed. I know she was trying to tell me something. I tried to figure it out but as yet, haven’t. No pain, that I can see. Relatively happy and healthy, again, as far as I know. Was she just having a bit of fun, or messing with me? Maybe. But like the child who does a childish thing I will err on the side of tolerance and understanding. Oh, it can be a fine line, however! Thanks, Anna. Your Friday essay’s are something I look forward to, where I stop what I’m doing and “curl up with a good read.” Now if I could only get Peaches to do the same! 😉

  4. “When animals feel safe, they are calm”. We are animals too, could it be our society needs more safety (emotionally)?

    Also, this essay is Samson’s story!

    Thank you for writing Anna!

    • Yes, now that I think about it, Samson’s story. Probably your good daughter’s truth. As for the world, sure but we start small for that. Thanks Coral.

  5. This – all of this! Exactly what I needed today, feeling very twisted up over the changes in my mare’s behavior having just moved to a new area, and even more twisted up explaining that behavior to the new equine professionals I’m trying to build relationships with.

    “Can you just chill!?!” She can’t. And that’s okay. And I’m okay.

    Thanks Anna

  6. Enjoy reading your essays, as they always seem to hit home. I reflected on my childhood, holding in all emotions for humans sake, but my animals suffered the brunt of my pain and anger…for that, I am sorry and grateful that I have had the opportunity, 50 years later to change! When I brought Spirit home, he was perfect…except he nibbled, mouthing me, no one had suggested that he was telling me something, they all tried to tell me he was being disrespectful and I needed to show him who the boss was. Well I failed at that, as my nature didn’t align like that anymore.

    Thank goodness for these programs and my first conversation with Anna, when she told me he was telling me to get out of his space! After all, it was his first anyway. So I did, he is so much happier so long as I am quiet in my head, voice and 2 to 3′ away. All I say now is , Gooooddd bbooyyy, real slow and deep, and thank you Spirit.

    Thanks Anna, much appreciate your insight, Spirit thanks you too. I am changing and he doesn’t have to change a thing! He is perfect, beautiful, sensitive and all knowing.

  7. I love the idea of being the cue instead of giving one. And once you get started on having patience, I believe it becomes easier to dispense as you go along.
    Just as an aside, the other day my husband said to me he couldn’t understand how our horses heard him in the barn because, he swore, he didn’t make any noise. I stopped him by saying it was because he has never been a prey animal!

  8. So absolutely spot on and well written, Anna. I have a very expressive Arabian mare and over the years, she has taught ME how to understand her quirky personality (which is accompanied by grace, talent, and beauty!) and not the reverse. Her cooperation and confidence sky rocket when I fill her need to be “seen”, understood, and when I quietly answer her questions, whether we’re simply during groundwork, hanging out, or travelling down the trail. Great article!

  9. “ was talking to an equine pro who told me about arriving at a new client’s barn to find a stressed-out human and a tense horse. He said the thing I know: if you’re good at reading horses, humans are transparent. “
    Used this line of reasoning to explain to the judge that this disqualified me for Jury duty. And i also was a nurse of 45 years and was empathetic and mostly sympathetic so this special brand of bias made me uniquely unsuitable to sit on a jury. Besides, I said, I am more interested in healing than punishment. It’s not about justice or health it’s about punishment and sick care in the judicial system or health care system with a lot of the Same clientele . I was summarily dismissed.

    • Oh, so well said. I’ve sat courtrooms during abuse cases, just watching, and I am amazed the lies that pass for truth… but what you are saying, yes.

  10. There’s something I’m going to stop saying to myself, because of this essay. “I know this is “bad” horsemanship, but I’m going to do it this way instead…”
    I’m old enough to have had to sneak around the “make ‘em do it” way I was taught. Which never felt right to me, even, or especially, as a kid.
    Not long ago, I was riding a giant QH, and ponying another. We had to cross an bridge over an aqueduct with water running swiftly below. Everyone was fine. On the way back, this sweet giant said “nope. Never saw it before. I don’t feel safe.” I looked at his pony partner. He wasn’t afraid? But he was interested, something he wasn’t on the way over. I backed them up. Let them watch for a bit on a loose rein, breathing. I said to the horse I was riding, “I can get you over this. Do you feel safe with me?” Honestly I was kinda shocked he said “No”. I’m thinking, “this is probably bad horsemanship, but he told me the truth…?”. I said ok, got off, and led the way by example. Hoping I wasn’t wrecking his training. He went quietly and safely, if tense, over bridge. 20’ later, he stopped, I stopped and looked at him. He muzzled my back, neck, and hair, in what felt like “thanks for listening”. (Anthropomorphizing?) Next day, we walked both ways over bridge with no issues. So. No more “this is probably bad horsemanship, but…”.

    Of course I’ll do bad horsemanship. I can be stupid. But you kinda opened my cage door of guilt!

    • At first, I let out a squeal of rage. For all the normalizing of violence and the courage it takes all of us to rise about our indoctrination. Isn’t that the threat? That we will ruin them by babying (listening) to them? Thank you, Jane, because horses are not built in a day and can’t be ruined in a day. Not getting in a trailer on a certain day doesn’t mean a thing, either… I am sick to death of the burdens that come with words like horsemanship and the stink that comes with it, not that it had to be that way. You’re right, stop saying all of it. Listening is better.

  11. Anna, I work with teenage mothers and their newborns. I habitually teach them about reading their baby’s early feeding cues. I tell them to watch for baby’s increased movement as they wake, along with smacking lips and tongue, and bringing their hands to mouth. The goal is to feed their babies before the baby escalates to crying, thereby increasing the chance of a calm and pleasant experience for mother and baby.
    Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all become such expert observers of our horse’s cues, that we could support them when their anxiety and fear is growing? Maybe we could intervene with patience and understanding and help them through their fears for a more calm and pleasant experience for both horse and human.
    Anna, I can’t tell you how often your writing weaves the threads of my life into a tapestry of greater understanding. Thank you, again, again, and again.

    • I didn’t know what you do, Laurie. In my vernacular, it’s reading calming signals and yes, the point is to relieve anxiety before it goes too far into the sympathetic (crying baby) place. We have the same job, but your’s is so much more important. Babies are the future. Thanks for sharing this comment.


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