In the video "Linda Parelli shows how to effectivly hit with the snap" I commented on the horses use of what I call "calming signals". Since there were some interesst in what I wrote I thougth we could talk about it in this forum thread.

I wrote (so I don't have to repeat myself):

Cartoonracher wrote: "When the young woman is trying to back her horse away (under the big tree), he's obviously confused and "over" the whole lesson. He's tuning her out because nothing he's done has been rewarded. It's nothing but non-stop horse-irritating."

I reacted especially to that scene, too. At first the girl is trying to back the horse when he is in front of the tree. Horses don't have good depth perception, especially backwards, so it seems he is asked to back into the tree, something he feels he can't.

After this the horse is seemingly tuning her out, something Linda claims is disrespectful. The sad thing about it is that the horse is NOT tuning her out, the horse is communicating with horse body language that he is not wanting any conflict. I talk about this in my body language clinics a lot, because not many people seems to be aware of the horses
"calming signals".


Horses use these signals when they feel pressured and wants to let the person understand that they perceive them as agitated/aggressive, but that the person can calm down, because they do not pose any threat to them.

Some of the comments here has been about the horse arching away and trying to turn away from the people. What the horse is trying to do is to signal that he's NOT a threat, and by that it's trying to get the person to not be so aggressive. This is the very opposite of disrespect!

The worst thing about the horses calming signals is that it provokes people. People feel ignored and that is for a human a big provocation. Especially when they have been taught that this is a disrespectful sign from the horse! It's a bit off topic here, but I mention it because it's part of the problem with the clip; not only is she using a horrible technique, she is also gravely misreading the horse!

Even a mild correction would have been wrong when the horse is signaling "lets just have peace - I don't wish to fight with you"… if a horse gives you that message and you correct it you are basically telling it "I don't want peace - and I do want to have a fight".

Like I said, it's off topic, but if someone wants me to explain more about these signals I can, we could always make a separate discussion about it.


The horses calming signals is something I haven't written about before although I talk about this in my clinics. There are a couple of reasons for that: one, I don't know how to begin writing about it - in a clinic it comes naturally when a horse displays the signals - and also because I don't know how much people knows about this already. In Scandinavia, where I live and teach, I know that my students says that this is news to them, but for all I know this is common knowledge in Canada :)

Another big reason is that what I am talking about goes against what most trainers believe in, and rocks the foundation of what many people consider natural horsemanship. I think...
Last, but not least; it is a big topic... so to write about it is a big task, but I will do so if I see that people truly are interessted in what I am talking about :)

That is why I want this to be in a discussion form, to get a grasp of what you know about this already, and also to be able to show some video clips to show you what I am talking about.

To not make this text too long I think it's a good idea if I write seperate posts about the different signals. That way I can add on information as I see what people have questions about :)

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This body language is a fascinating topic (love the videos). I am much more familiar with dog body language and have found in general that people are pretty oblivious to it, and even if you study it for years, the animals have it far perfected over humans. Animals also communicate with body language far faster than humans can observe, which is why it is so cool to be able to see the video and get lots of retakes. I wonder what goes through dogs and horses minds when they have to deal with humans on such a regular basis who think they are the superior species, yet the animals know that they haven't a clue about the millions of signals that are going on right in front of their noses. They know we have power as humans, but they also know we aren't all that bright when it comes to communicating. I am always grateful when my horse seems to forgive my stupidity in this regard and strive to communicate better next time.
me too Marlene.. I've even apologized to him and gotten yelled at for apologizing to a horse for being a dumbo.
This is so very fascinating! Please, please keep talking Ellen. I love every one of the video clips you've posted on Barnmice. What I HATE, is learning all the things I've done wrong with a little Arab mare. I, too, used the "send them away until they follow you," and with her it just didn't work. She followed me easily as a yearling, then when I began to "train" her, she kept her distance. Oh, I could just kick myself, because in retrospect she was showing me these calming signals and I totally missed them!!!! BTW, she's a great little gal now (as a 7yo), but I can see now that we took the long way around!
Yes, please keep talking about these calming signals! I do have a question. My gelding has begun lowering his head, not all the way to the ground like he's looking for something to eat, but down to just below his knees. He started doing this after I began making him back up and stay back until I got his hay into his feeder, lowering his head before I allow him to approach the feed tub. Is this a calming signal showing he's acknowledging me as the alpha? If it is I'm thinking I should allow him to approach when he does this. Your thoughts?
Hi Sarah
Hard to say, not really enough detail. Can you tell me in more detail (where you are, what you do, what he does before and after).

And then you have to tell me what you mean by "the alpha". In order to understand what you are thinking about I need to hear your thoughts on what alpha is. Don't just give me another word for it, but tell me what you think that role means to the horses. I am not trying to be difficult, we humans put different meanings in words all the time, especially in hard to describe words like "respect", "leader", "alpha" when we talk about horses.
Alpha, to me, means that Rip thinks of me as the one he needs to look to for everything, including comfort, protection, direction, much like a foal would look to it's mother, or any horse would look to the herd lead mare, where I lead he can be confident to follow because I always have his best interests at heart; I'd like to think that Rip also thinks it means that 'Momma's got me and nothing will harm me... I follow her lead and do what she says because she always has my best interests at heart'. Truthfully, I believe Rip wasn't as disrespectful as I was being lead to believe, while he did crowd, he backed off when I told him, he would try to walk a little ahead of me, I'd be at his shoulder instead of his head at my shoulder, which is more the way I prefer, and I'd have to remind him to stay back with his head at my shoulder; I should say here that a lot of the time he seems much happier following a bit behind that position, so I let him. At feeding time, I used to make him touch the open palm of my raised hand with his nose, which he willing did, then back up just one step, I didn't make him wait, when I shoved the feed tub under the fence, we use electric webbing as fencing, he would immediately step up and start to eat, truthfully I saw nothing wrong with that. I was instructed to use a lunge whip, NOT to hit him with but as an extension of my arm, and make him back up the full length of the whip shaft instead of just one step, using a tap, tap, tap on his chest to get him to back up, using increased 'authority' with the tapping until he took a step back, then stop the tapping as the 'pressure release'. Then I should make him stand and wait while I put the hay in the feed tub, which was outside his pen, and pushed the tub under the fence, sort of like making a dog stay/wait for it's food. Only letting him approach and eat when I 'released' him from the stay, I say 'Ok, you can have it.' as the release, and he does seem to understand that. I was told this was how an 'alpha' or higher ranking member of the herd, treated subordinates, always eating their fill first and letting the lower ranking horse eat what was left...thus establishing myself as the lead horse/leader, alpha, the boss...I guess those are some terms that could be used. I've been doing this for about three weeks, I noticed the head lowering behavior after the first week and now you've got me wondering if he's trying to tell me to calm down, that he's not a threat and willing to be the lower ranking horse, I'm wondering if that wasn't the case all along, even before changing our 'feeding' routine. I don't want to be unfair to him, I like to think of my horse and I as a team, I make the decisions for the team, always taking the horse's safety and abilities/capabilities and training into consideration; I don't want to be unfair in asking the horse to do something beyond it's abilities/capabilities or training. Rip is a rather 'strong personality', not that I want to attribute a human term to him, I just don't know what else to call it. If he was a Paso Fino, they'd say he has a lot of bravado. I hope I've cleared up any confusion as to what I meant. If I've made things worse, please let me know and I'll try again. Maybe I should say here that while I've owned Rip for seven years, it's only been since March that I've become his 'primary' handler/rider. The previous 'primary' handler/rider was very much more stern with him that I am...Rip isn't really used to being 'loved' on...I was told that is why he's disrespectful to me...me...well, I enjoy loving on him.
Hi again, Sarah :)
Now that posting tell me a lot more, even if I still can't tell you an answer to your question. I probably won't be able to either, but I think we might be able to figure it out together :)

It seems to me that you are describing to different relationships; one that you seem to want that is based on a gentle loving relationship without "military rules", and one that you have been told that you should have, that is more based on the dominance point of view. Is this about right?

Remember to not work with a horse in a way that doesn't feel right to you, if you feel that your relationship is fine, you are happy about it and the horse seems happy, why then go and change it? especially towards a relationship theory that you don't seem to believe in?

I could be mistaken, but it seems like you are listening too much to other people, and while that is not always a bad thing it's important to remember that YOU know your horse and the relationship you want with him more than anyone else. Not to mention that you are the one that has to live with the consequences if they are wrong…

I think that in order for us to be able to train a horse the VERY first thing we have to do is have an idea about what we are training for. Otherwise it's a bit like trying to give directions to a place we don't know where is. The destination might be what is right for someone else, but that doesn't help you if you didn't want to go there in the first place.

It's NOT a disrespectful act for a horse to go in front of you, if that is where you want him to go, or you realize that he prefers it and you don't mind. If you and your horse had a feeding system that worked for both of you, why change it? On the other hand, you might not have been all that happy with it since you tried to change it :)

I will get back to your original question later, but would like for you to tell me if I am way off here first.
Actually I think you're right on the button, lol. My husband has told me much the same thing, that I listen to too many other's opinions and I should work with Rip in a way that I feel is right for me...and Rip of course. I have wondered if Rip got so used to being worked with in a stern, like you said, military way, that he is just going to need time to adjust to me. I do want a more gentle, loving relationship with Rip, like the relationship I have with my mare, Star; my husband says she and I are like an old married couple, we read each others minds, lol. You and Dennis are also on the same page, he told me I need to remember what I want from Rip rather than what other people think I should want. I want him to be obedient and WANT to be with me/enjoy being with me. Last night at feeding time I sort of incorporated my previous feeding routine with the 'new' feeding routine. What I got from Rip was a more relaxed looking horse, his body was softer looking somehow, less tense, not sure that will make sense. I think it was because I softened my posture, not a wimpy posture, I still stood up straight with my shoulders back, I kept my eyes and my mind softer (again I'm not sure that will make any sense). I asked Rip to touch my palm, he did, I asked him to step back a couple of steps, he did and without the aide of the whip tapping on his chest. He stayed back and waited, licked his lips and bobbed his head up and down a couple of times and then, because I was having a hard time not laughing out loud, I stepped back and gave him the release of, "Ok, you can have it." I think the thing I wasn't all that happy with in our 'old' feeding routine is that he wouldn't stay back while I pushed the tub under. He would back up, but then immediately rush up as I pushed the tub under. While I don't want to be a dictator, I know the wisdom of sometimes listening to my horse out on the trail, I've been saved a spill quite a few times because the horse saw something I did not. Having said that, I feel like Rip needs to be aware that he should pay attention to my directions at feeding time...so yes, I guess I wasn't all that happy with the feeding system...I also wasn't real happy with the strictness I had to exhibit with the new system...so maybe now I've hit on something that will make both Rip and I happy. I'm not real comfortable with Rip walking that far out in front of me...unless I need him to walk that far out in front of me, I much prefer his head at my shoulder, more like we're a team, and as I said before, if he wants to walk a little further back than that I'm Ok with that too. I guess lately I've been feeling like everyone, including Rip, thought of me as a wimp just because I just hate having to be stern with him all the time. And again, since I have owned him for seven years, I have only been working one on one with him since March, he is sort of like a new purchase for me...I need to give us both time to get used to one another and learn how to be a team. You have helped very much and I'm so grateful.
Hi again Sarah :)
This was really nice to read :)
When you are clear in your mind what you truly want, you will be both clear and consistent with the horse, too. I doubt that he thought you were a wimp for not wanting to be strict, but I bet he picked up on your ambivalent feelings about it, and that might be confusing to him.

When you know what you want you are able to mean what you say and say what you mean, and that is something horses accepts. (What a horrible sentence!)

One thing I find important is to focus on what you want him to do, rather on what you don't want him to do. It might not seem all that different, but it makes a huge difference.

Take for instance the leading situation. If you are thinking about that you don't want him in front of you, you will be in a state of mind where you correct him for doing the wrong thing. You will also be unclear on what you are wanting him to do; are you telling him to stop? walk behind you? step aside?
A problem with corrections is that they don't give information about what one is supposed to do. It also tends to get everyone involved in a bad mood.

On the other hand, if you are thinking about what you want him to do, you will be in a state of mind where you are focusing on the positive. It will be easier to remember to praise him for doing the right thing, and when he doesn't (and you keep in mind that it's because you haven't trained him to do it yet) you will focus on showing him the answer instead of getting upset with him for his mistakes.

Another important aspect of this is that you by telling him where you want him to be (at the moment) you are not punishing him for being in front of you. When people correct a horse for being in a position or doing something, they often don't think about that they want the horse do do that very thing. Sometimes you might WANT him to go in front of you, so this is not something you want him to think is wrong. It's just that you want him beside you right now :)

I am not talking about major punishment here, I am talking about just telling the horse nicely what you want instead of trying to correct what you don't want.
I hope this makes sense:)
I have a little challenge for you (not just for Sarah, anyone can have an input here).

Tell me what you see in this clip.
And I want you to especially think about the words
alpha, leadership, follower, boss, submissive, leader, dominant...
(you probably get the idea :)
Also, how do you think the two horses feel about each other...
Ok, I'm seeing the little grey horse trying to let the paint horse know that it's not a threat, isn't aggressive and does not want to be the boss/leader/alpha, it yields every time the paint puts any pressure on. I see the paint being extremely dominant, there are several times it continues to push the other horse around, the 'submissive' gestures seem to go unnoticed. At 2:18 the grey horse walks away, the paint follows with ears back and seems to want to continue teaching the grey horse that it is 100% the leader. There, and this is JMO, seems to be more of a dominance factored than a leadership factor going on. To me a leader doesn't need to continually be aggressive in establishing his/her place especially, in the case of the grey horse, the signal of submission has been given. I'm not sure, but I'd say the little grey horse doesn't really like or trust the paint much, because it does continue with the aggressive dominance...perhaps the paint is being a bully? And wow, might Rip begin to think of me as a bully if I continue to be...well like we've talked about in previous emails, like the paint? Maybe I'm way off base with my assessment of the video.
When I first posted this clip I wrote:

Is the dominant horse the leader? In NH this seems to be the leading hypothesis, and a lot of training is based on the dominance attitude. The horse that moves another is the dominant; ergo the leader. Is this really the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth)?

I spent some time in the indoor arena for a few hours with some of my horses the other day without doing anything in particular with them. The behavior and interaction of the horses was fascinating to me, not to mention that there was a clear pattern in the events. The grey horse is our two year old gelding Bravo. He is a gentle young man not looking for trouble. The other main character in this little clip is Viggo; a twelve year old gelding that seems to be lacking a bit in the social skills department. The third horse is not really a big part of this clip; he is a yearling stallion and he basically kept away from the other horses since he got harassed by the older gelding whenever he got close.

The next day I decided to film the horses to show the interaction. I changed the speed so that I wouldn't have to edit away anything and still keep viewers awake :)
I am hoping that you can think about the following questions:

Who is the leader?
Who is the follower?
Who is the dominant horse?
Who is the submissive horse?
What does the submissive horse think of the dominant horse?

Which horse should you use as your "model" for "natural horsemanship"
and why?

Is the dominant horse the leader or is this a convenient and over-simplified way of looking at horses?

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