Recognising signals of light tension: a first step

How to get a relaxed horse

“Isn’t it absolute bliss to work with a horse who is totally relaxed? A horse who is in tune with his environment, and able to handle it? A horse who is attentive and relaxed, whose company you can enjoy even more because you can skip worries or fears? Socialising your horse so he is able to face tasks and challenges in our human world without fear and with confidence is of the utmost importance. It has a direct link to wellbeing, to the way you work together, to how he learns, and to how he remembers the things you teach him. And although handlers and riders do see the importance of a horse being in a relaxed and healthy mental state, this is not always the way it works out in real life.” The person talking is Rachaël Draaisma. Three years ago, she started a study on the calming signals of domestic horses. Under the mentorship of Turid Rugaas, Rachaël analysed over two hundred films. The aim was to investigate the calming signals of domestic horses, but in time the study grew, and other language signs were included to do justice to the various communication signals horses give. Communication ladders were made that grouped various signals to give more insight.

Signs are not addressed or given meaning to

Rachaël: “I see many domestic horses who tense up in some areas of their lives they share with people. Tensions might arise when a horse is placed in a situation he cannot cope with, for instance if he is taken away from his fellow horses in the pasture to be groomed in the barn, meaning he is alone in the stables or barn, or if he is left alone in an unfamiliar place. Tension can also build when he is not comfortable when encountering unfamiliar smells, sounds, or sights, either at home or when out schooling or competing. Signs of tension can also be witnessed within the human-horse relationship, for example when handling your horse; if you move too fast, approach your horse head on, or if he anticipates harsh treatment, especially if there is a history of this.”
“Handlers and riders do not often notice, or give meaning to the signals a horse gives when he experiences light tension,” Rachaël continues. “The possible facial features of the horse that indicate light stress can also be conceived as the horse’s normal face. This is very often the case when the light tension of the horse does not lead to direct problems for handlers and riders. The horse may give signals, and although these are not observed or addressed, the tension of the horse does not increase, and thus the horse is able to get through the situation with continuously light tension, or decreasing tension. Problems might arise, however, when the signs that a horse gives when experiencing light tension are not noticed or addressed and are followed by increased stress and signals such as whinnying, scraping the front leg, a trembling front leg, pacing, an intention to bite, or weak or strong attempts to flee. Now, not noticing is not an option anymore. The horse is showing strong signals which are both clearer and have more impact on the rider and handler.

Recognising signals when the horse’s tension is increasing, but also when it is decreasing, is a valuable tool. It gives insight into the tension level of the horse. You can then start analysing what situation or incentives your horse finds hard to handle, what is important to him, and you can then decide what to do next and how to help your horse, on the spot and in his socialisation program.”

Calming signals: well worth knowing

“The map of the signals a horse shows when he experiences rising or declining tension is one of the most valuable tools that came out of my study. By analysing film material, image by image, I could group signals that belong together. These groups of signals represent the tension level the horse experiences. I have designed several tiers of these in the form of ladders, in which signals and tension levels are combined. The ladders reflect situations you and your horse might experience in real life. The communication ladders are helpful when analysing signals your horse might give in certain situations. There is no need to explain why it is much more effective to recognise language signs before tension escalates, and this is when calming signals come into the picture.
The calming signals have their own place in the communication spectrum. These signals are relationship-managing signals which the horse gives to appease persons, animals, and other stimuli his their environment to avert conflict and maintain social relationships. Calming signals are also used when the horse wants to calm himself. The calming signals are the first step in many communication ladders. From that point on, tension might decrease or increase. Recognising calming signals is therefore very useful. That is why I show many film clips and photos during my lecture on calming signals.” But what else is there to hear and see? Rachaël: “During the lecture, we will look at several calming signals. We will discuss if and how tension and calming signals relate to each other. We will observe whether you can see the difference when a horse calms others or himself. You can also learn when you will not see calming signals. We will address how you can notice when a horse has the perfect state of mind to learn and remember things you want him to know. I will also show some communication ladders and several other language signs. A chunk of the day will be spent on the application of the calming signals. I will show you how you can use calming signals and which ones are the easiest and most useful in order to improve the wellbeing and learning ability of your horse, and how this knowledge will improve the communication and bond between you. If possible, we can also put this information into practice with horses who belong to the host.”
Curious? Intrigued? Want to know more, or be surprised? The next lecture Rachaël gives for which tickets are still available is on Saturday the 13th of May in Crowborough, East Sussex, in the United Kingdom. Theory and practical work with horses will be combined. For more info, go to organiser Pennie Clayton at
If you are supportive of this subject and would like to host a lecture, please contact Rachaël on:



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