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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Sarah: as you can see from the text I had originally posted to this video you see we aren't that far off from each other in what we are seeing.

I have of course the advantage of knowing the history of the horses and I also saw what happened afterwards. Some of the details on the horses are in my previous posting, but in addition to this I want to share some other details:

The horses had only been together for a few days when I filmed this. Every once in a while the grey horses offered to scratch withers with the paint, and the paint really loved that. Despite those nice times you can see how he is acting.

The paint had recently been bought and moved in with another herd, where he was harassed pretty much the same way as he is doing with the gray here. Then he was moved here and we placed him with our horses. The first few hours he was careful and shy and kept away from the other two, but when he felt more sure of them he started pushing them around as you can see in the clip. It was worse in the days prior to this film clip (I think this is day three).

In the following days he got gradually nicer, and they spent more time grooming each other. After about a week he stopped attacking the two other horses all together. He also became very dependent on them, he got pretty hysterical if we took out one of the other two, especially the gray in this clip.

The gray seems happy that the other horse behaved better (he was pretty stressed out by him that first week), and he would hang with him, but never followed him around. The paint continued to follow the gray everywhere he went.

Watching these horses made me think a lot about the words dominance, leader, follower etc that we use with horses.

When I saw what happened between them (and that is apparent even in this clip) is that the grey horse is the submissive, but he is also the leader! He is the one that takes initiative, he goes first and decides what he wants to do. He never asks the other one to come along (on the contrary, he'd rather the other one left him alone, since he was unpleasant to have around) but never the less he went first and the other one followed.

The paint is a very dominant horse and also unpleasant in his behavior. He was also a very insecure horse (was a rescue case before he got to the stable he was at before coming here). He was scared of things, people and also other horses, and in my opinion that is the reason he was acting this way. I think he was being a bully to show the other horses that they couldn't bully him.

Since the other horses didn't meet his aggression with aggression his fear of them went away, and there was no longer any need for him to bully them in order to feel in control. The fact that they instead met him with kindness (like the grooming) made him feel accepted and happy, so he changed.

The really interesting thing is that when we look at the theory of many natural horsemanship trainers, we are often told that the horse that moves the others is the leader. The alpha. The boss. That this is the role model for us to use!

The problem is, horses that act like that will certainly get the other horses to move away from them, but they are not likely to be followed by the others. The other horses will be happy if they go away, who wants to hang out with a bully?

So, what kind of horse do the other follow? well, not always the same one, it kind of depends on the situation. But it is a horse that the other ones wants to be with. It is the "popular one in class", the one with good social skills.

Like the grey one here. He is not looking to become a leader. He is not dominating anyone, all he wants is to have a good time, feel good and hang out with friends. He doesn't want a fight, he wants "peace and love" :) And that was just what the paint wanted, too, he just didn't trust him at first.

There is of course a lot more to horse interaction that one can find in just this little clip. Having said that, there is enough here to challenge the whole concept of dominance and leadership. They certainly don't appear to be one and the same...

If I am to choose a role model from one of these horses based on how I want to be around horses... I will chose the grey. If I am to follow the common view of natural horsemanship (the leader is the one that makes the other move its feet, he is in charge, the boss, the alpha) then I would have to act like the paint.

Who is following who? doesn't that tell us who is "leading" and who is "following".

Any thoughts?
This thread and my reply seem a little out of order, but I think I've read all the previous comments to date. I remember when you first posted this clip, Ellen, and I was always going to go back and discuss it...then forgot about it. My herd of three confirms what I think you're saying, that the boss horse can be different than the leader horse. It's that way in my current herd of three. One of the mares is the boss (first to food, water, personal space), another mare is usually the leader. I did notice she went to the grass the other day and tolerated the insects and the others (thinner-skinned Arabs) didn't follow her. So, I guess, what I'm trying to say is that I agree with you.
Oh WOW!!! This makes so much sense, and something I'd much rather do than correct him for doing something 'wrong'. Isn't it odd how we people can get into such a negative mindset? I'd much rather dwell on the positive. I think I just got off track, it's been a very strange and stressful year for me, I hadn't realized how much that affected me until just recently and you have really helped me see how much it's gotten in the way of my 'normal' way of thinking.
this is so emotional for me to read....... I can breathe and relax...... all of us can that there is a gentler way and we don't have to be afraid to trust our horses and much as we want them to trust us..... I isolated myself for 2 years to work with my mustang... he is so sweet...... and I was so criticized for lowering my energy to get him to listen instead of raising it..... he stands around like a zombie, he rolls with me in his arena, he comes to me with his head down and he yawns.... he finally drops his winky too which he didn't do for a long time...... when I met his energy with lower energy... or even stopped an started over....... he started coming to me more and more when I got less and less... I am really happy for this thread because now everyone interested will really learn about true bonding. Me too... I love learning about this.
Energy is an interesting topic, yes? It often confuses me. Some say to be alert, but keep your energy "low" (or calm), some say to match the horse's energy or go one step higher. In the horse world, who would the horses follow, a horse that was high energy, or the calm one? I'm here to learn, but my guess would be that the horse that stays calm (except in the case of imminent danger of predators) is the one that would be a good example to the herd. A horse that calmly thinks things over rather than one that would get the herd worked up (run now, think later). But perhaps I'm interpreting energy incorrectly in those matters.

How did you isolate yourself with your mustang? Were you in a busy barn but chose to work with your mustang in a quiet area alone, or did you go off to a quiet barn with few horses? I find myself heading in that direction and would love to hear what you did. Maybe this isn't the place to discuss it, so feel free to send me a message :o)
These are older posts but this just jumped out at me today:

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.

I will focus on this with my hand-shy mare!
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.

Yes Ellen, I would love to learn more about these signals if you have the time to do a discussion about them. I have just bought a very sweet new horse and I want to do everything I can to keep him feeling confident, relaxed and willing.
I found a clip that shows a lot of calming signals :)

The trainer in the clip makes several mistakes because she is not aware of the signals, and there are some other issues with her body language that I would like to address, too. And before anyone thinks I am trying to talk badly about another trainer again, I would like to point out that the trainer is myself :)
And that makes it so much easier, now I don't have to worry about anyones feelings :)

Some of you have written that you feel bad about having missed these when working with your horses, and I want to say that I think we ALL have. All we can do is the best we can based on the information that are available to us, and it is far more important to think about what to do next than what has already been done. I feel bad about my mistakes that are so clear in this clip, too, but the most important part is to use it for good now, that is to learn from it and make it a better deal for the next horse.

This DVD came out in 2002 and this was before I was aware of these signals. I have thought about not selling this film any more, but I think that even though I find several things I would do differently today, I still think that it has some value. I guess I just need to make a new one before I discard this one…

OK back to the point :)
I think the easiest way to analyze a clip and talk about what is going on is to use time codes, so I'll go through it and write about the things I see. There's always a lot of detail when communicating with horses, so I guess it is going to be a long winded analysis, but the whole point is to notice all the little things that can be hard to catch live.

If there are things you notice that I don't mention, or things I describe that you think are wrong, please let me know! I really want peoples inputs on my commentary to the videos here, if I get questions and comments I will be able to look at things with fresh eyes, and that is always a good and useful thing.



0:19: When I approach the horse he is clearly insecure (notice stiffness in his body and his ears position. His ears are pointing out to both sides in is a typical insecure expression.) He moves over and is not ready for me to get on his left side. Since I just keep going he moves over more in order to keep me on his right side, and then he gives me a very clear calming signal (0:22). Since I keep going he lifts his head and turns the neck as far as he can in order to still keep me on his right.

Since I am not looking right at him, he is not too upset, but at
0:29 I turn my head and not only look at him, I am looking at his left hindquarters, and judging from my expression I am also clucking. This causes him to move his hindquarters away from me. I turn my front away from him again (release), but I am still moving towards his right side.

0:36 He is still giving me a calming signal, but I don't understand that, so I continue using pressure on him. He is giving me an even stronger calming signal; now he is walking away from me with his head on the ground (calming signal) (and as you can hear me say I think it means I don't have his attention, but I obviously do, I am just not reading him very well.)

0:39: I am continuing to put pressure on him and not giving him a response to his signals, and I am thinking that he is ignoring me so I get up right behind him and even flap my arm a bit. This is not only "not responding to his signal" it's worse, I am saying that I really AM after him. He runs away from me and as soon as he can he resumes his "I don't want to have a conflict with you" calming signal.

What's great in this footage is that it is so easy to see that he is NOT trying to eat or is really focusing on the ground, at the same time it is easy to see how this can be confused with what the horse does when he really IS finding something interesting to smell… in fact; if they can find something to make it more convincing they often do. Notice that he stops and smells the poop at 0:45, but moves on right away because I am still putting pressure on him.

0:53: Apparently I thought that he was just ignoring me, so I increase the pressure (not the right thing to do) by lifting my hand towards his hindquarters. At the same time I am walking in a direction that crossed his path, in effect blocking him from going forwards. I am behind him and looking on him straight on the side. On top of all that I am very close to him and since the arena is round the pressure from this increases, it makes the way I am cutting off his path even stronger.
The problem isn't the pressure with the hand, it's the sum of all the different pressures I am using that makes it too much, and most of all; the pressure is pushing in all directions. There is no opening there. So he stops and looks very tense (again; check his ears).

His step backwards comes from my increased pressure in front of him since I continue to step in that direction. Horses will mostly react to where you are heading, they see the direction of your path. If you look closely you can see that I curve a bit right before he stops, my direction changed from going after him (parallel to his path) to curving in front of him. The curved path that the round-pen caused him to make would "collide" with mine a couple of meters in front of him, and that pressure is stronger than the fact that I am physically behind him.

0:55 His last backup step is taken away from the fence, but it's not from him trying to come in to me, he is trying to get away from the pressure I am creating with my direction (still in front of him, so he can't go that way - the fence is blocking the direction he would like to go in, and I am right behind him… ). If I had turned around so that my front would be directed a bit behind him, he would probably have moved in to the center, but I am still blocking him. When I retreat to, like I say in the clip, invite him in, I am facing the wrong direction. With doing this I am giving conflicting signals; I am walking away from him (and that's the right thing), but I am still facing him (wrong). When my body isn't facing the direction I am moving in it confuses things; where am I heading?
I am trying to get him to move, but at the same time I have him kind of trapped (and it's easy to see that feeling in the way he is standing: stiff body and insecure ears)

1:06 I up the pressure and when he looks at me (not sure what to do) I give him a release and pull far enough away for him to be able to move in from the fence. That he is not really coming to me the way I probably thought he was is shown by his calming signal right after I have moved away from him.

1:13: Right after he stops and do his calming signal I stop to for a moment, and then I take a step towards him. Notice how he immediately starts turning his head away from me, again increasing the calming signal.

1:15: I am now so close that he lifts his head and starts to prepare to leave. Notice how his shoulder is leaning away from me? that's the easiest place to see when the horse is shifting his point of gravity and will be a pretty certain indication of where he is thinking about moving at that point.

1:16: I do something right! yeah :) I am now moving away from him in an arc away from his front, and this time I am not facing him at the same time. My body isn't completely going in the same direction as I am moving in, but neither my direction or my body is pointing right at him at that point. And that's all it too for him to follow me. I think that he really wanted to be with me, but that I was making him insecure and blocking him from doing so. For three whole steps I move in the right direction and that was enough. Then I turn towards him with my body again, and even if I am still moving away from him that is enough to stop him from coming closer.

1:20 a change of scene. Since this is already pretty long I think I will stop here.

I will go through the rest of the clip if you want me to, but first it would be nice with some feedback on what I have written so far. I am not sure if what I am writing here are things that you find useful and interesting, or if most of this is like old news to you.
I never did "round pen" work, I just used the lunge line/cavesson, either in a riding ring or in a pasture.
I find it amazing how much I must have confused my horses. I always did get the feeling that the horses thought I was too dumb for words. Boy, were they right!!!
What you describe as the actions you did right do remind me of the actions I would take when trying to catch a reluctant horse, walking slowly, not directly facing him, facing in the direction I walked, and changing directions away from the horse when the horse looked like he felt threatened. I would not look directly at the horse, except for quick glances, usually with my head down (for the glances), and if the horse looked stressed I would visibly look away from the horse. It could take a while, but most of the time I could catch the reluctant horses (sometimes it took an hour) and all of the time I thought it was JUST because I was persistent and non-threatening.
Thank you again for sharing your observations. You may have discovered a "Rosetta Stone" of equine-speak.
I'm going to need to watch this and study it in more detail to catch it all, but I for one find it extremely useful and interesting. I use all gentle methods in my training, always trying to incorporate the horses' natural body language, but sometimes things just didn't work right and I didn't know why. I think your theory of "calming signals" is just what I'm missing.

I also think it's a mark of a pretty cool person who can analyze/critique oneself as you just did!
If I lived near you, I'd give you a big 'ol hug! After keeping up with this thread and reading a bunch (and some input from other fantastic and helpful folks:) ) I decided to try some of this out on my girl who is afraid of human touch. She came up behind me while I was giving my other mare some lovin', and I slowly got closer to her, my back diagonally facing her, body and everything relaxed.. She still shied away a bit, so I tried what I could remember of the "hey, I'm not here to harm you" calming signal.. And guess what! She let me give her a little scratch on the head--WITH NO TREATS! It was very brief, but my heart sang since she let me do it:) She was still afraid but she's trying!
Thank you so so much for bringing all of this up and encouraging dialogue.. My girls and I have really turned some corners, and I can't wait to see what else everyone says:)
PS--My other mare follows me like a puppy dog now, always wanting affection! I could put my heart in a glass, it's been melting so much!
I just noticed this post by you Megan, this was huge. Even one small bit of progress will grow on itself. Even though I hadn't seen your post till now, I was thinking about just this idea this morning. I have my own gelding and an older mare (28) that I board to keep him company. Often if I pay attention to one, of course the other comes and stands nearby. The mare is so sweet, today I was spending more time on my gelding because he had a tangle in his tail. She came by and gradually got closer and closer, till her face was almost in mine, Pet Me! Pet Me! So of course I had to give her a head scratch for a bit, before getting back to Sharif's tail. I was thinking a little of this dynamic might work for your girls and here I read it already has. That's just fantastic.

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