Calming signals is a term introduced by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas (2005) to describe the behaviors that dogs show when trying to calm a situation. For animals living in groups, ways of communication, that can discharge the potentially tense situation, are extremely important.
Calming signals are signals that all herd animals use in order to communicate with each other. I believe that there are hundreds of calming signals our horses use between each other to communicate their intensions, emotions and stress level in order to avoid conflicts in the herd. We know at least 30 calming signals our dogs use with each other, but unfortunately we are aware of only a few that our horses use.
All calming signals are universal and widely used by all horses, no matter the bread and age of the horse and country of living.
In my everyday life I see that many people are surprised when they realise that horses communicate in so many ways and that what they communicate to us so often is “I am stressed” or “I am afraid”. I believe that knowing all these signals and being aware of them is very important part of our everyday training in order to be able to achieve true Calmness.
I believe that whenever our horse is communicating that the stress level is growing we should immediately stop whatever we were doing. We should take a break and reconnect with our inner-self until our horse fully relaxes again. Whenever I see my horse is presenting any of the calming signals I give up on whatever I have been doing. Training a stressed horse is pointless. Your horse’s muscles are tense and you probably teach your horse wrong movement patterns within the exercise. Also, all short-term memory slots are full of “stress information” and you won’t be able to teach anything new your horse during that time. Continuing your training when your horse is presenting CALMING SIGNALS is literally a waste of time – for you, and your horse. And a serious strain on trust. Maybe in time your horse will stop to communicate his feelings and emotions to you seeing that there is no point in communication – cause nobody is listening. That is why we were talking about TWO WAY COMMUNICATION in our Module’s Introduction. True communication is always a two-way communication. One-way communication – when only you are talking by the means of cues and body signals to your horse – can lead to many popular “misbehaviours” when our horses suddenly spook or flip-out out of the blue. We are usually surprised by these behaviours because either we were not aware of the calming signals that our horse was showing us before to inform that the stress level is growing, or our horse stopped showing Calming Signals to us long ago because we were not listening to them.
In my everyday practical experience I noticed that the most commonly seen calming signal is when a horse that feels insecure starts to move slower. Some people think that suddenly horse starts to be lazy and ignore or even punish their horse for presenting this almost invisible calming signal. If you wish to make your horse feel safer always move slower yourself too. Whenever a horse is showing to me one of his Calming Signals I react by slowing down, walking slower and / or taking a break.
But let’s go through other frequently occurring Horse Calming Signals.
CALMNESS: Soft and round almond-shaped eye, Round wrinkle above the upper eyelid, Soft and calm look from the horse’s eye. Blinking – one blink per 10 seconds can mean: “I’m fine”.
STRESS LEVEL IS GROWING: The upper eyelid is getting a triangle/diamond-like shape. The higher the stress level, the more wrinkles you can see above your horse’s upper eyelid. Blinking – one blink per one second can mean: “please don’t hurt me”.
ENOURMOUS STRESS: Triangle shape of the upper eyelid, multiple wrinkles above the upper eyelid, white of the eye is visible. Blinking – one or more blinks per one second. The horse thinks that the danger is very real. When stress is very high your horse starts to blink very often – one blink per one second or more. The horse can even close his eyes for few seconds, and that can also mean that the stress is very high.
CALMNESS: Mouth is slightly open, Lower lip is extended forward, corners of the mouth facing down, the chin is visible and is hanging loosely. Please pay attention to your horse’s chin: many times I see horses that have sucked-in chins, and their owners claim that “this is how their horses look like”. This can be true. But my practical experience shows that this is a sign of pain and stress and many times not visible chin is caused by incorrect shoeing or trimming and the horse’s face changes enormously when the trimming is changed and / or any other pain source is eliminated. Of course the changes in the horse face are accompanied by changes in the horse’s character and behaviour.
STRESS LEVEL IS GROWING: Lips are closer to each other. The lower lip doesn’t hang loosely and is slightly sucked in. Corners of the month are slightly directed upwards. The chin is not hanging loosely anymore, it looks as if it is sucked in. The higher the stress level, the more your horse’s nostrils change. Observe your horse’s mouth and nostrils at the same time.
ENOURMOUS STRESS: Mouth pursed. Lips very close to each other. Upper lip is extended over the lower lip. Corners of the mouth are directed upwards, almost as if the horse was smiling. Your horse may be also: licking, yawning, grinding with teeth, snapping with his mouth. There may be wrinkles visible around your horse’s lips as a sign of tension.
Be careful: if you fasten your horse’s noseband too tight you make it difficult for him to present all mouth Calming Signals. This is a very stressful situation for a herd animal to be put in a position when the calming signals can’t be presented. With young horses this can almost lead to a state of shock.
It’s very hard to interpret horses emotions from ears as they are very mobile. Horses’ ears move in an arc of 180′. Whenever we look at horse’s ears we should try to see a full picture and context of the given situation. We should look at the horse’s ears, eyes, mouth, head position vs back position at the same time. It is not enough to observe the horse’s ears to be able to name the horse’s emotions and / or stress level.
STRESS LEVEL GROWING: Ears moving to the front and back quite fast can mean that the stress level is growing. Ears firmly and tightly turned back can mean that the stress level is growing or that the Anger/RAGE System is activated.
Be careful: Never judge horse’s emotions by observing the horse’s body selectively, for example: by paying attention only to the ears. Ears go back, for example, also during pleasure moments of scratching:
CALMNESS: Horse’s tail hangs loosely. It may also swing in the rhythm of the horse’s steps.
STRESS LEVEL IS GROWING: The higher the stress level, the more the tail is tucked in between the horse’s buttocks. Smashing with tail may be a signal of growing tension and irritation.
EXCITEMENT AND TENSION: The tail is lifted up like a flag. Your horse may consider flight. Lifting up the tail will help in balancing the body if the flight is necessary. The higher the tail, the easier it will be to suddenly change body position or direction of the movement.
FEAR BEHAVIOURS, so called “4 times F”
FLIGHT: Flight / escape in walk, trot and canter. Because in nature horses can spot danger from a long distances they usually prefer to escape in walk.
FIDDLE ABOUT: Substitute behaviours. They appear when the horse feels that there is no possibility for flight. Usually seen substitute behaviours are: crawling with the front leg, head shaking, yawning, licking and chewing. The frequency and intensity of these signals indicates the level of stress. Whenever we see that our horse presents a substitute behaviour we should think what have we done that our horse is so stressed and why our horse thinks that it is impossible to realise flight phase in the given situation.
FREEZE: Whenever the stress level is very high; when the horse thinks that the danger is very real. The longer the horse stays in freeze, the higher the adrenaline level and the easier it will be to realise fight if needed. The extreme example of Freeze phase can be seen when teaching horses to lay down with the help of ropes. Some horses, when lied down, stay in this position for a long time and do not stand up by themselves – this indicates an extreme level of stress and this is an extreme manifestation of the freeze phase.
FIGHT: Presented only when the previous 3 Fear phases cannot be realised. Usually our horses choose to fight when they see that presenting other Fear behaviours is not noticed. We should remember that this is not a readily applicable strategy. For our horses this is the last possible option to manifest stress, intentions and emotions.
I can imagine that for some of you this portion of knowledge may be shocking. Many of us were told before that when a horse chews or licks this is a good sign.
Please remember that many things that have been said and believed about horses are not true, because our ability to read their calming signals, emotions and knowledge about their stress level was very limited. Now, as this knowledge grows we are more aware of the emotions behind the behaviours we so often see.
When your horse licks or yawns there is a huge chance that he is releasing the stress.
So it’s a positive sign – your horse wants to feel less stressed. The negative side of this is: whenever Calming Signals appear your horse must have been stressed before.
The positive side is: your horse releases the stress.
The negative side is: your horse has been stressed before.
(otherwise releasing the stress would be not needed)
So most of the time when your horse chew or lick he presents so called CALMING SIGNAL and by doing so he tells everyone around that he is not feeling secure, he feels stressed and he doesn’t want to fight. He wants to be calm again. He presents these signals to signal you that you can stop whatever you were doing. He says that even if you stop doing what you have been doing, he will not do anything to upset you and that he will not get into your way.
All animals use calming signals to communicate their intensions and to avoid conflicts in the herd. By showing CALMING SIGNALS your horse probably tells others “OK, now I’m afraid. I don’t want to fight. Please don’t hurt me.” Of course, the message that stands behind Calming Signal always depends on the full context of the situation.
During trainings horses present some of the calming signals because they are often on the rope or on the lead line and it’s impossible for them to move away – to realise the Flight by walking away from you and increase the distance. So they move to the next steps: they slow down, turn their head away from you, start chewing or yawn.
They want to calm themselves and, by calming themselves, they also want to calm you.
So no, your horse doesn’t start to “think” when he chew or yawn or lick (although we all had been told the opposite!). Your horse starts to release the stress that he felt and wants to be calm again to not upset any other animal/human around him. This is a signal that can tell us that whatever we did was TOO MUCH for our horse.
And in this state of stress level it is very difficult for your horse to learn.
Some people based their training techniques on causing Calming Signals to appear, and they were very successful. We know why – because Fear Memory is permanent.
To achieve a True Partnership, which is the goal of this workshop, you have to have your horse CALM and TRUSTING you. Your horse has to believe you and trust you that you won’t deliberately, on purpose, cause him stress and put him in any difficult position.
That is how friendship is built.
All the time we have to look at the FULL CONTEXT of each situation. Yawning in one situation and yawning during the other can mean different things. All the time observe your horses eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, back position, tail position, etc.
It’s totally normal that whenever the stress is relieved, even originating from any kind of physical tension, so for example during the massage or scratching – the calming signals are appearing because they help to let go the stress.
All massages are causing some sort of stress to our body to help to relieve the stress. Muscles and tendons are moved to let the blood flow, free the energy channels and oxygenate tissues.
It would be probably undesired and I would not recommend you to train your horse to deliberately cause him stress and thus making Calming Signals Appear.
On the other hand, it is good and it will be helpful in your relation with your horse when you help him to relieve the stress he has in his body. During a massage you are not causing the calming signals to appear by the means I addressed in this Material. By your massage you are relieving the stress from the body and the Calming Signals just follow.
Also please remember that your horse is a WHOLE, and to be able to determine whether he is in stress or in enormous happiness you have to observe the WHOLE context of the situation and the WHOLE horse:
Please have a look on my 2yo Darcy’s face when being scratched: mouth is slightly tense, ears back, but the pleasure of this moment is obvious:
On the contrary to that, please have now a look on Darcy’s face when an unexpected and a very loud noise happened behind our backs. Somebody dropped the pole from the rack at the entrance to the indoor causing an unexpected and extremely loud noise:
You can see mouth shrinking, you can see the chin sucked in. The lips are almost equal, but I suppose that a nano-second before the upper lip was overreaching the bottom lip. Please see the shape of the eye and eye-lids – they also tell us much about the level of stress growing. Fortunately for us – for the educational purposes – there are still tiny wrinkles visible around the mouth and the lips are still very close to each other, af if the mouth was very closed. Note the shape of the nostrils that are also a little bit shrunken. Look at the neck that is in the moment of rising to be able to balance the horse body if the flight is necessary. See the ears that are watchfully turned back.
AND REMEMBER THAT IT WAS CAPTURED IN A NANO SECOND, BY MISTAKE – neither Darcy, nor me or our photographer saw it coming and could expect the pole being dropped so loudly on the floor. Young horses are very readable, as they haven’t seen much yet and they have very readable face expressions, because they have not been taught yet to hide their emotions.
Usually horses don’t stay in such face expression for long enough that you can watch it during training when you are side-by-side with them. To be able to see it when you train your horse you have to be very present, and very calm yourself to see all these tiny changes.
Calming Signals are something that we need to be aware of to know what to do when they start appearing. We need to give our horse a short break because the stress level was probably too high for him. On the other hand, the knowledge of these Calming Signals should not cause you thinking “Oh is it good” and “Is it bad”. The world is not a binary computer system :) In Nature there is space for everything. So it’s not a OR / OR situation. It’s more AND and AND situation
My training technique and my advice is to not lead your training in such a way to CAUSE the CALMING SIGNALS appear.
Of course, at the same time please remember that we deal with Nature and in Nature everything is liquid. Emotions are changing fast, as changes the water that flows in the river. And so are changing behaviours, emotions, goals and wishes of your horse. If you see that your horse starts to have wrinkles above his upper eyelid – stop for a while. But please don’t worry, don’t blame yourself. DO NOT STRESS YOURSELF that you did something wrong. This will only make the situation worse.
Instead, just take a short break and think what may caused your horse to feel less secure. Reconnect with your inner-self. Reconnect with the reality: sing, start to count your horse’s steps during relaxed walk. Start our Calming Technique. After this short pause start your training again. Remember, in each and every second you and your horse are new again. You are both in a new NOW. In the present. There is no need to dwell on what happened. You have to move to the NOW, because your horse is always in the HERE and NOW. Please remember that whatever happens during your training you should never trade the PRESENT moment for FUTURE fears and imaginations or for PAST memories.
Stay grounded in the reality. Reconnect with your inner-self. Fill yourself with good intentions and love that you feel to your horse. Smile. And start again as if nothing happened.
Remember that having a CALM HORSE starts with BEING CALM YOURSELF.
Don’t worry now if you see that your horse presents calming signals even when you put the halter on. Sometimes stress is very much connected with any training situation, like: going to the training arena, putting on a halter or a saddle.
This is why our CALMING TECHNIQUE is so important.
Calm yourself whenever you see your horse stresses.
This is good that you see now when your horse start to feel stressed. This is a POSITIVE situation. Don’t worry now and don’t start to think “Oh my God, my horse is so stressed, I’m a bad person”. You are not. You did everything what you could to support the growth and evolution of your human-horse relation. If you could do better, you would have.
Surrender to this situation now. Start to observe your horse and his emotions without judging them. Without thinking about them. Do not think “Is is bad?” or “Is it good?”. Just observe these situations. Start to be aware of them. Start to use our Calming Technique. Trust that when you change, your horse will follow.
Awareness of the horse Calming Signals is to support your personal growth and development of your horse-human relations. This kind of knowledge should never be used to judge or criticise other people’s photographs, videos, their horses and life paths.