Ever heard of calming signals in dogs? They are not exclusive to canines. According to the book’s author, Rachaël Draaisma, horses use them too. She notes that horses use these signals to calm themselves and those around them (including humans) to reduce stress, avoid conflict and maintain social relationships.
Calming signals are “. . . the (relationship managing) signals that horses give in response to stimuli in their environment that they want to calm or appease in order to avert conflict and maintain social relationships . . . Calming signals are also used when the horse wants to calm himself.”From Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses by Rachael Draaisma
The author, a behavior consultant and trainer from The Netherlands, filled the book with excellent descriptions and lots of color photographs and charts. The book goes beyond basic body language that most equestrians are already familiar with and details all sorts of nuanced behavior. As the title suggests, the author weaves in many ideas for working with your horse in light of whatever communication signals they are displaying.
“. . . to give a complete picture of the many ways in which a horse communicates with and experiences the world, other communication signals were also added during the course of the research. These included calming signals, displacement activities, stress signals and distance increasing signals . . . Recognizing the communication signals of your horse better enables you to design and customize a socialization or training plan. It also improves your relationship with your horse, as well as maintain his mental and physical health.”From Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses by Rachael Draaisma
Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses: Recognition and Application is an in-depth yet easy-to-read book that strangely has not gotten a lot of attention in the horse world. I have seen almost no press about it. Yet I think it is one of the most interesting and insightful horse books I have ever read. It opened my eyes to several horse behaviors that I previously misinterpreted. Or simply missed altogether.
The book also helped me name behaviors that I have observed but couldn’t identify exactly. For example, I started to notice a pattern with my horse, Bear, during the three year period where I fostered a series of nine horses for a local rescue. Every time I introduced a new horse into the pasture, I found that for the first day or so Bear would come in between me and the new horse whenever I was in the pasture. He did it very smoothly, very quietly, very politely. He was not being aggressive or pushy. He would simply block my approach by watching my every move and slipping his body sideways between me and the other horse before I got too close.
I got the distinct impression he was either trying to protect me from the new horse or protect the new horse from me. So eventually before approaching the new horse, I would stand with Bear and simply observe the new horse for awhile from a distance before leaving Bear’s side and approaching the other horse. This seemed to diminish Bear’s tendency to supervise my pasture activities and very quickly the behavior would completely disappear until I brought in the next foster horse. I thought it was the weirdest thing. It almost didn’t seem real. Was I imagining this?
When I read the book’s section about something the author calls “splitting”, I had a big “ah- ha” moment. The book notes that “Horses split when they want to prevent a possible conflict between two parties. When a horse splits, he changes position in order to literally form a barrier between two parties.” So I wasn’t imagining Bear’s behavior after all! This was in fact “a thing” that horses do sometimes.
Now interpreting the exact meaning of that behavior is another matter, but the author notes it does have a protective and/or resource guarding motivation. Did Bear want to protect me or the new horse from harm? Did Bear want to keep me “the food bearer” to himself? I have about a thousand theories on the subject of “why” and how the behavior may reflect on our relationship, both positive and negative, but that could make the subject of its very own post. I’ll have to save that analysis for some other time.
Whatever his exact motivation, I know that Bear is a very cautious horse by nature in any novel situation. It makes sense to me that he might be nervous about possible conflict. It also makes sense to me that by my taking the time to acknowledge his concern (by joining in with Bear in observing the horse before approaching) that it might have helped Bear to feel more secure and less like he had to protect/guard all parties involved.
The book is chock full of all sorts of fascinating tidbits and insights. It will most likely expand and challenge some of the information you have been told about horses. It definitely made me look at various horse behaviors and my interpretation of them in a different light.
I realize that not everyone who reads this book will agree with all the research and conclusions that the author has made, but I think this book has a real contribution to make to horsemanship. If this post has piqued your interest, I highly suggest you buy yourself a copy.
Special thank you to horse professional, Andrea Datz from the Restoration Ranch in Fruita, Colorado, for first making me aware of this book. You can visit Andrea’s website at https://www.andreadatz.com.
Another horse professional who incorporates awareness of calming signals in her work is Anna Blake. In fact, prior to my reading “Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses”, I first learned of calming signals from Anna Blake’s blog Relaxed and Forward at https://annablake.com/relaxed-forward-blog/.
In addition to her Relaxed and Forward blog, Anna has published a number of books. If you would be interested in reading a review of one of Anna Blake’s books, go to Anne Leueen’s blog Horse Addict at https://horseaddict.net/2019/10/12/book-review-going-steady-by-anna-blake/. Anne reviews Anna Blake’s book Going Steady: More Relationship Advice From Your Horse. Apparently I am not the only fan of Anna Blake’s work.