[While you're at it, you should read You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney. It's really good. There's a link in the article above, but one can never have too many silk blouses or too many links.]
This is a perfect article to read no matter who you are. Even if you don't have horses. Even if you hate people and don't give a flying squat what they think of you. There are always reasons to make a good first impression, and few pluses to making a bad one.
My horse shoer, who shall remain nameless by his command as he's already famous thanks to my first book (I'll call him N), is an absolute A-1 Ace at making first impressions. I wish I had his talent. I don't know anyone who isn't taken with him at first meeting, which, considering the considerable chew-spit he produces, is unusual. He's got the First Impression Gambits down.
Better yet, the same gambits work with horses. I've been asked often why my farrier is able to literally shoe any horse, no matter how rank. I've asked him myself and watched carefully over the 14+ years that we've been in our working relationship, and here's what I've learned:
1. Assume they're all basically okay and don't want to hate you.
N's basic approach to any new horse is to carry on a chatty conversation with the owner in normal tones (I've never heard him get shrill or loud, which is important in the horse mind). He greets the horse calmly (they're all "Fluffy", "Buddy", or "Spot" or, in the case of my mini, "Little") with a "Hi! How're you doin' today, huh? Whaddya say?" He stands still while he's making initial contact.
As he chats them up, he walks by them and casually rubs the palm and back of his hand on their shoulder, hip, butt. When he sets down his tool cart and turns to look them in the eye, he lets them sniff his hand. Bingo! He smells like them. They assume they already know him, he's okay because they have no bad memories springing up, and he means them no harm.
Cliff gets a helper for metal detecting.
He genuinely likes horses and believes they're basically all just fine (...and better if the owner isn't prattling in their ears and making jerky movements in front of them).
2. Drug them with cookies.
He's not a big cookie guy, but if the horse looks like he might want to be friends, N isn't averse to handing over the goods. A few bits of hay stretcher (Triple Crown--my guys' current absolute, hands down fave), and they're suddenly BFFs.
3. You can't shake hands with a horse, but that first touch matters.
Never, never, never have I seen this man approach that first physical contact with any hesitation or abruptness whatsoever. Horses are born with a sense of cautious curiosity about the world and all that's in it. Kind of like human babies, huh? We squash that in both species with our incessant manhandling and bullying. But it's not far below the surface even in an old, been-there kind of animal. If you always touch the horse with love and in a matter-of-fact way, you won't alarm him or make him suspicious of your motives. Horses like that feeling of trust.
4. Spin their inappropriate behavior in your head and react accordingly.
N's never fights a horse for his foot. You know the scene: The farrier has your Fuzzbutt's leg up and is about to nail something to it when the foot is yanked away as the horse steps sideways. I've had shoers totally lose their sh*t over this and wage war to hang onto that foot. N's deal is to let go. Unless there's actual danger of a nail being poked into a bad spot, he doesn't fight. He lets the horse put the foot down, pats him on the rump, and starts again. His favorite saying is, "Why would I want to piss off something that weighs 1100 pounds and has a good memory?" He explained to me that his theory is that if he just waits and keeps picking that foot up (allowing adjustments for the horse's position and comfort) no matter how many times the horse puts it back down, eventually the horse will realize that "I ain't goin' away," and he'll quit. And he does.
He also looks the horse over for injuries or conditions that might make, say, hoisting a back leg really uncomfortable. It's not the horse's fault, he figures, if he's got a problem that's contributing to his inability to do what's being asked. "What's'a matter, Fluffy, huh? Got a fly on you? Bad night last night?" The peaceful chatter goes on and the horse pretty much gives in.
|Wait! I was telling you about the squirrels in the tree!|
5. Really give the introduction your all.
Focus! Meeting that horse halfway is what you're all about in that moment. If you're distracted--busy texting, talking to another rider in the barn, ranting silently in your head about your spouse's latest transgression--and you're not giving the animal your full attention, he can tell that. He can feel that there's something going on of which he's unaware, and it can make him nervous and even irritate him. Heck, it irritates me to be in a convo with someone who is alternately yelling at a child and texting while I'm talking. Your horse is talking to you. Don't be so rude. Turn off the music. Put the phone in your pocket. Ignore the fellow boarder who just has to tell you right this minute about her date last night. There's time for all of that later. You expect this animal to want to give you his undivided attention the minute your wiggly butt hits the saddle. Give him yours now.
That's it. Five easy pieces that come together to give your horse the sense that you'e present in the room and worth working with.