Hi there, human!
Since I started this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about first impressions. Introducing yourself to the world is a high-pressure situation.
In order for us to keep spending time together, I need to first get your attention, then demonstrate that we could be friends. I want you to feel like our interaction will be positive and interesting. Maybe we’ll learn new things from each other, or maybe we’ll just have a good time. I definitely don’t want you to be bored or uncomfortable!
As I’ve been thinking about how an old mare can make a good first impression on the internet, I realized it’s just like meeting a human in person. Horses are pretty straightforward about relationships. We judge you based on your actions toward us, and how safe you make us feel. It might take a while for us to decide to trust you – but you can lose our trust in a second!
That’s why it’s important to practice making a good first impression with a horse. You can even do this with a horse you know well, simply by considering how you greet your horse and start your session together.
As a school horse, I get to help new students learn this skill ALL the time.
Here are a few of my tips for making your equine greeting a good one:
#1 - Learn to talk like a horse
Horses aren’t very verbal. Most of our talking occurs with our bodies. You do a lot of talking with your body, too – which means that if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up sending all kinds of messages you don’t intend!
Have you ever had trouble with a horse, only to pass him off to a friend or your instructor and watch the horse suddenly behave perfectly? This usually has a lot to do with body talk. Your posture, energy level, and unconscious motions say a lot to a horse; we can tell when you are clenching a muscle or holding your breath. We respond to eye contact, shoulder position, even the way you walk.
You can learn to speak horse by:
Just make sure that all of your hands-on practice takes place with quiet, safe horses, under experienced supervision!
#2 - Approach and catch with confidence
You’ll get to put your body language skills into practice every time you approach your horse in the pasture or stall.
If I’m standing loose in a field, I definitely do not want someone charging up to me and throwing a rope over my back. I also don’t want you slinking up to me with the halter hidden behind your back. We can see it, you know!
If I’m going to let you take control, I have to know you can keep me safe. If you hesitate or fumble with the halter, I’m not going to feel great about letting you drive.
If you are aggressive or rough, I’m going to feel like I’m better off not hanging out with you, thanks very much. I want to feel like you have a plan and that your plan involves good stuff for me – you’ve got to make it worth leaving the tasty grass, you know!
#3 - Groom and saddle with kindness
Learn your horse’s quirks and preferences. If he has sensitive skin, be careful where you curry, or try a soft rubber mitt instead. Make sure his legs are balanced so he can hold his hooves up comfortably, and if he pulls away, ask yourself why instead of reacting and smacking him!
I get a lot of beginners yanking on my girth, and it makes me CRABBY. I’ll pin my ears and grind my teeth if I think the girth is going to be an unpleasant experience.
Set the saddle on your horse’s back gently, and tighten the girth a little at a time – you’re going to check it before you mount anyway, so there’s nothing to be gained by pulling it tight right away. If your horse still acts “girthy,” be ready to play horse detective and find out why. It might be learned behavior, but your horse could also be trying to tell you that he has a painful stomach ulcer, or that his saddle doesn’t fit.
I also get a lot of elbows in my eye during bridling, and something tells me you’d pull your head away, too. Hold your arm between your horse’s ears or under his jaws, and fold those ears forward and flat to slide under the crownpiece – we can feel it when you crumple our ears!
Be careful with your horse’s teeth when putting a bitted bridle on or taking it off. Remember that geldings usually have more teeth than mares; you’ll have to watch out for those knobbly canine teeth as well as the front incisors.
#4 - Mount with consideration
Nothing makes us cringe like starting off a ride with a toe jab in the belly and your weight digging into our spine. Polish your mounting technique until you can climb aboard with your toe forward and your hands on the mane and pommel or seat, not the cantle of the saddle. Sit down gently, like our back is an egg you don’t want to smash.
While it’s good to have the ability to mount from the ground, mounting blocks are much nicer to our backs, so don’t be shy about using one, even if your horse is short like me!
#5- Leave your bad day behind you
I know that getting frustrated or upset is a pretty normal, human thing to do, especially when our time together doesn’t go the way you planned. But I promise you, getting emotional is only going to make things worse.
You’ll have a lot of opportunities to practice letting go of your emotions in the barn and the arena. Just remember that your horse isn’t out to get you. He doesn’t act “naughty” or “stubborn” to be bad – he just doesn’t understand what you want, doesn’t feel like what you want is safe or fair, or doesn’t see a good reason to do it. Consider how the horse might be responding to your actions, but otherwise, don’t take it too personally!
I’ll admit, I can be a hard pony to catch.
When I see someone coming, I want to see competence and confidence. If they act timid, unsure, or ignore my body language, I’m outta there.
But when students learn from their mistakes and practice making a positive impression, they get to join my circle of Trusted Humans. This means I’ll allow you to halter me and lead me, no questions asked.
If you really Level Up your leadership, I might even come to you first. Just don’t forget the cookies!