I’ve recently become very interested in calming signals and I’ve been exploring what they mean and how they can be interpreted, and what they mean in a practical setting. I’d heard of calming signals but never read or explored anything around them – and I think a lot of what I do, and Steve Brinkworth’s concept of “Self-Medicate,” would be considered a ‘reverse’ calming signal, for want of a better word.
What is a Calming Signal?
“Calming signal” was a term coined in dog training circles to describe the behaviours that dogs show when they are trying to calm a situation or keep themselves calm. For animals living in groups, such as packs, herds and communities, communication signals to discharge a potentially tense or threatening situation are very important. Yes people use them too! We often laugh when presented with a potentially tense situation in an attempt to discharge the situation. This is often a subconscious, almost reflex like response to feeling tense or shamed. This act would be considered body language more so than verbal communication, as the act of smiling is important for this to be effective.
Similarly, it is now being found that horses present calming signals in order to maintain the peace in a herd. Horses also attempt to use these signals when feeling tense in a situation with a human. The problem is that many people are not aware of calming signals and they are subtle. Calming signals are easily over looked or misinterpreted. So once we are aware of calming signals, how do we apply them in practice when working with our horse?
Calm & Relaxed Training
One of the main principles and first things I teach a horse is to yield to poll pressure. I do this because I believe there is a strong link between brain and body, horses (and us) are just a singular being after all, I don’t think we can ever really separate the two. I digress. My original point was that when a horse yields to poll pressure, it also forms the start of setting a horse up to be in a ‘relaxed posture.’
This does two things for the horse, one – the horse is able to relax throughout the training process. And very excitingly – and I now think may be related to calming signals – it gives the horse a ‘good answer’ to give me in response to any question I ask the horse. For example, if I ask the horse to move forward in response to girth pressure for the first time, and the horse doesn’t understand, instead of panicking, the horse is able to give me a ‘good answer’ which is to relax their neck (lower their head) and get into a relaxed posture.
A video showing some calming signals can be found here
Why Does It Work?
I believe this stops the horse from panicking because they have been encouraged to think and be engaged throughout the entire training process, and they know that by thinking about their options – and if they are really stumped – then they can give me their default good answer (even though its not the ‘right’ answer) and they will not be punished or the like for it. In fact, I will back off and reward them with a release of pressure. It also acts to settle the nervous horse if they are nervous about giving the wrong answer, as they feel better and perceive the world to be safer in this relaxed posture.
Good Answer as a Calming Signal
So I’ve been thinking about calming signals, and I think by teaching the horse that they can give a good answer, or good signal if you will, it may possibly work much in the same way as calming signals. The horse has a way to communicate with us that something is scary or confusing and they don’t know how to respond so they attempt to peace-keep and give the best response they can think of.
Asides from allowing the horse to use their neck yield as a good answer, I also use the relaxing of the neck as a signal from the horse that something is scary or overwhelming. For example, during the first saddle for the horse. If I approach with the saddle and the horse is nervous about it, they can relax their neck and get into relaxed pose – and I stop approaching and actually take the saddle away to relieve pressure.
Once the horse has licked and chewed and is back into a state of relaxation, I approach with the saddle again and get as close as I can before the horse says “no sorry, too much” by relaxing their neck and lowering their head. Eventually (and usually rather quickly) I am able to place the saddle on the horse without the horse creating tension in their back to lift their head and get into ‘flight pose.’
In this way, I think I am – quite accidentally – teaching the horse a new calming signal, rather than relying on the innate signals the horse is equipped with. I think this potential link between this training approach and calming signals is potentially really exciting – and a way to bring calming signals into a more practical aspect of horse training!