Breathwork and Calming Signals: How Humans and Horses Can Connect Through Relaxation

horse demonstrating a calming signal
Lilly demonstrating a calming signal

A lot of working with horses has to do with action - moving them from one area to another, training for specific tasks or skills, and riding. But horses naturally crave downtime. If you've ever just watched a herd of horses in a pasture, they rarely run around except for in cases of a new horse being introduced, a sudden threat or a spurt of playfulness in cooler weather. As prey animals, their natural inclination is to preserve their energy in case of a need to run and to keep the herd relatively calm so as not to attract predators.

You might have noticed that after taking pressure off of a horse in training or when returning them to the pasture, they start to lick and chew, or maybe even yawn. Those are called "calming signals", and are used among each other to try to return the herd to calm after a bout of stress or disharmony. It's pretty much the same thing as when humans take purposeful, deep breaths to calm down.

I have some beginner background in yoga and meditation, so after observing the way that my personal horse, Lilly, uses calming signals with the rest of her herd, I thought I'd see what happened if I just relaxed and did some deep breathing with her in the field.

Here's what I discovered:

1. It is incredibly relaxing to just stand in a field with horses! Especially on a beautiful sunny day.

2. Horses seem to almost instantly fall into an equal state of relaxation once you start to truly relax and breathe slowly. Lilly and her herdmates all gathered around me and went into a resting stance, with droopy lips, closed eyes and relaxed "airplane" ears.

3. Yawning seems almost as "contagious" with horses as it does with humans. On a couple of occasions, to try and ease both Lilly and myself into a state of relaxation after a training session, I forced a big yawn and Lilly responded with a great big yawn of her own. Which to me says, "I feel that you're trying to calm the vibe and I'm with you on that".

What these experiences have shown me is that there is great value in setting aside "down days" or even daily downtime with your horse to simply relax together. Lilly is an especially anxiety-ridden horse when it comes to any kind of training, and I've found that giving her a chance to deeply relax in my presence has strengthened our bond in ways that even positive-reinforcement training hasn't. Not to mention, it's stress reduction for both parties, which can only ever be a good thing.