I have seen horses using the signals in two different ways.
One; the horse will use the signals to show another individual (horses or humans) that they are not interested in a fight. It can be when the other one is showing agitation/aggression and seems to try and "pick a fight". By responding in a non-threatening way they let the other one know that they are trying to avoid a conflict, and thus hoping that the other one will settle down.
Two: The other setting is when a horse shows calming signal is to tell someone else that they are safe to be around. This is typically done towards young and insecure horses (foals and youngsters) to make them feel safe, but I have seen it in other situations, too.
The signals have similarities, but are not identical, and the interesting thing is that we can use them with horses to convey the same message with the same effect. To me these signals has been of great value when training horses!
The problem with the signals is that it is not ONE signal, and it is easy to both miss or misinterpret.
The first kind, the "no conflict signal" can be the horse sniffing the ground, eating or getting very interested in something. The problem is that horses sometimes sniff the ground, eat or are interested in something, and it's not a signal; it's just what it seems to be.
In order to determine what is going on one must look for the contexts in when it is done.
The first time it struck me as a signal or a message from the horse was several years ago when I was coaching some business people about leadership using horses. They used body-language to ask the horse to follow them, and of course they made mistakes since most had no prior experience with horses.
One of the horses felt pressured by the person and didn't know what he wanted, and she walked away and started eating from the ground. What made me react to that is that this was mid-winter in Norway and the ground was covered in snow. There was absolutely nothing there to eat. She looked like she was paying no attention to the guy what so ever, as if she didn't know he was there; she was just immensely busy with eating... air... or rather pretending to eat.
The guy got really loud and frustrated, and the worse he got, the more she "didn't see him".
She turned from him so that he was behind her, but still in her field of vision. She appeared to be engulfed in what she was doing, but at the same time she discreetly kept an eye on him. She eased slowly away from him, making it look coincidental.
What she did was what I now call "calming signals", but you might have another name for it. I have searched for information about these signals, but haven't found anything, except from the dog trainers where a trainer called Turid Rugaas (also Norwegian) talks about how the dog use his body language to let us now he is not a threat. She uses the term "calming signals" which is why I am calling it that.
The interesting thing with the dogs signals is that although the signals are different from what the horses use, they are based on the same thing; the dog pretends to be occupied with something other than the trainer. The dogs signals also seem to have more a provocative effect on the humans unfortunately; being ignored is a real trigger for humans.
It took years of study to understand them and recognize them, and the process is not finished. Today I see them a lot easier, but they can still be confused with when the horse really IS distracted, and I am still looking for other signs and also how to best respond. It's very exciting, but still a work in progress, which is also why this is something I haven't written about before or shown in my videos. Some day I will make a film about it :)
So, back to the story: After that day with the mare I started noticing this behavior, curious of what it really meant. There were many times where the horse was in a position where it seemed unlikely that it really was interested in smelling the ground, the horse has a different look when it smells something interesting than it does when it just pretends to; it seemed more likely that something else was going on. I soon realized that it meant something else, but I wasn't sure what it was.
In my clinics about body language I let the horse loose in the arena to see how it will react. First to see what it does on it's own, and then how it reacts to me entering. I used to put some pressure on a horse when they didn't respond to my presence, but after that mare I started to realize that there was a connection between my pressure and how the horse seem to "actively ignore" me.
In the beginning I wasn't sure what was going on, but since I had started to think that this was a form for calming signal I started to take the pressure off the horse when they did this. I then turned to the audience and stood in front of them and talked about these signals. What convinced me that I was right about this was that when I did that; take the pressure off the horse, turn away from it and talk to the audience (with the horse just in the corner of my eye) the horses soon walked up to me and stood by me.
That was interesting! The horse that I had tried to talk to and that seemingly was very busy with other things, came to me when I ignored it back! It happened again and again, and I started to realize that I had stumbled upon the answer to one of my questions about it: if the horse was in fact showing calming signals, what would be the best response?
The answer was to signal the same thing back, and it was amazingly simple; when I turned to talk to the audience about this I had done the same thing as the horse; I seemed to be totally uninterested in the horse, I had him in the corner of my eye, but I was very busy with other things. The result was that the horse took it to mean that I was saying to it that I was not a threat to it either, and that meant it was safe to come and talk to me.
I have tested this with many horses, and get the same response from them. If I am in an arena with a strange horse and ask for his attention the horse often responds with a calming signal. When I see that I respond with the same signal (actively ignoring it) and the horse seems relived that I don't want conflict, and then they can come and greet me. Before I was aware of this I would continue using pressure, asking the horse to move before inviting the horse to come to me. That works, but is a lot more complicated and takes much longer, and is much more stressful for the horse. Also, responding with these signals gets the horses to trust me right away and in a way I didn't get before. Normally those horses starts following me around just like people that does what is called a "join up", but the horses is not doing it as a response to a command, they really choose to do it.
This is not something I do with all horses, mind you. Horses react very differently when I enter an arena, and there are times when showing these signals to them is not the right thing to do. But the other variations is another story and we can get into that later. For now I just wanted to give you an idea of these signals, what they are and what they mean, and most of all why I believe this to be the case.