At the moment, I am meeting a lot of new people as a result of my work. I’m going along to their offices, introducing myself, and then asking them lots of questions about their business. It’s very interesting to learn all about the clever and innovative things that businesses around me are doing. All the meetings start in the same way: I make eye contact with the person I’m there to meet, and I walk towards them, stretching out my right hand. I am usually smiling, and they smile in response and stretch out their right hand to me, and we shake hands. I know they’d not like it if I offered them a hand covered in a woolly glove, so despite it being rather cold at the moment, I take my glove off before offering my hand.
The handshake isn’t the only greeting ritual – in different parts of the world, people bow, or kiss each other, or even touch noses together.
All of these rituals are our way of saying “I would like to know you better, and so I will trust you by offering something important to me – my hand. At the same time, I don’t know you yet, so I’m making sure you stay a safe distance away from me – at arm’s length.”
Psychologists, anthropologists and ethologists love these greeting rituals. They offer such an insight into what a person or an animal thinks is important. Firstly, they really want to meet new people. We are all drawn to meet and find out more about someone new – we’re social animals, and new people can mean new opportunities, new information, even the chance of meeting a potential mate. At the same time, we know we have to stay safe. The handshake is thought to be a way of demonstrating that your hand is empty, that you’re not carrying a weapon, and that’s why we offer the right hand, the hand that around three quarters of the human race favour for using weapons (like swords… and pens!).
Other animals have greeting rituals too. Horses also like meeting new horses – they find it both scary and exciting, and like us, they’re drawn towards new horses. Like us, they don’t like to get too close, and they don’t like new horses getting too close to them, so they offer their greeting at “neck length” by stretching out their nose towards the other horse. Like us, they’re also showing trust (horses often nip each other’s noses in play and can occasionally draw blood with over enthusiastic nips, so offering a nose is a demonstration of trust).
It takes a while before we become comfortable enough with a new acquaintance to allow them to touch any other part of us apart from that offered hand. Imagine how you would feel if, after shaking hands, your new business acquaintance stepped boldly forward and started rubbing you between the eyes! A horse would be equally affronted if another horse did this, and would likely respond with a squeal and by shooting out a foreleg, to show the appropriate distance that they wanted to be maintained.
Yet every day, humans march right up to horses, into their personal space, and start rubbing their faces. We seem oblivious to the polite messages from the horse – the way they move their head away from us, the increase in blinks, the tightness in their mouth and lower jaw. They will also often point their ears backwards (not flat back, just away from your hand). Even very sensitive and experienced horse people can’t seem to help themselves, even to the extent of sometimes saying that you should reward your horse with “a nice forehead rub”. I’m guessing that’s nice for us, the one doing the rubbing, since the horse usually looks just as uncomfortable as we would if a new acquaintance did this to us.
Let’s think about touch between humans. How soon in a new friendship would you feel comfortable if your friend touched your back? That’s not too bad, is it? Even the first time you met, if the person seemed nice and you liked them, you’d be happy with that. The shoulder is another fairly neutral spot, and your upper arm would probably be fine too. How long before you’re happy to be touched on the leg? The answer here will, of course, depend on your culture, your sex and your personality (it’s the same in horses – mares tend to have slightly different “OK to touch here” zones than male horses). How about the front of your body? How about your face?
Touch is an interesting thing. It has a very strong effect on our emotions. Some recent research has shown that observing a friendly handshake activates part of the “reward system” in our brain. We are tuned to find friendly greetings rewarding, it’s so important to our survival as a species. Sometimes we respond more positively to a gentle touch on the shoulder than we do to a handshake. Men touched (on a neutral part of the body: shoulder or upper arm) by a woman they’ve just met are more likely to feel confident about taking a risk than men who’ve just met the same woman but not been touched by her. A friendly touch has a strong emotional impact.
But there are clear rules about how well you have to know someone before you can touch them: handholding is a great example. It’s usually only someone with whom you feel very comfortable, with whom you’ve had lots of very positive experiences, that you’ll allow to take your hand and hold on to it. We tend to feel very uncomfortable when we meet one of those people who step right into your space, take your hand and then shake it for a long time without letting it go! We experience a lot of conflict, wanting to snatch it back but bound by a strong social convention that says we need to allow it.
How well do you need to know your horse before you can expect that they will offer you a hoof for cleaning, and allow you to hold on to it? We have an expectation that our horses will allow this, and it doesn’t occur to us that sometimes, in some situations and in some horses, this probably feels just as worrying as the over-familiar handshaker.
Trust needs to be built – both between ourselves and our fellow humans as well as between us and our horses. Trust is built up of a lot of repeated, pleasant, predictable and unthreatening interactions: it rarely happens on day one. Your relationship with your horse is just like a new relationship with a person. The difference is that we can force touch on a horse by restraining them, where social conventions would be outraged if we did that to a fellow human. As an experiment, try offering the same respect to a horse you’ve just met as you would to a new human friend, and you may find that you move to a position of trust with them much faster. No matter how velvety and inviting their nose might appear, offer them your hand to sniff instead. Stay out of their space until they seem happy to have you in it, and build up touch gradually based on respect of how they feel, rather than just hoping they get used it because they don’t have the option of a “thanks, but no thanks”. If you watch their body language, they will make it quite clear when they’re not comfortable being touched, and when they’d actually appreciate some help with their itchy face! Getting to know a new horse this way means that like your new human friend, your horse will soon be pleased to meet you.