THE HORSEMAN’S HANDSHAKE — BY DON JESSOP
The horseman’s handshake is quite possibly the most important act of horsemanship for any horse owner because if your horse won’t touch you when you invite him to… you have a problem.
Some people think I’ve gone too far to suggest that a horse should want to touch a human. Some people think the horse doesn’t care, or worse, why should we care if the horse cares. But most of you, those who read my articles, would dare to say I haven’t gone too far when I say that horses should want to touch you. Horses love physical touch. We see them nuzzle and groom each other often in their natural state.
I’m not saying that horses should want to mug you, or steal treats from you, or rub you so hard with their head that you fall over. What I’m saying is that when you reach out your hand, they should extend their nose and touch you. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, we are connected.”
When I reach my hand out to a horse and they ignore my hand, I know that horse is either not interested in me, distracted, or afraid to connect. Either way, it’s a problem. A very big problem in fact, and here’s why!
Imagine being married, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend. Imagine reaching your hand out to connect and you get nothing back. Not even a glance in your direction. So you speak up and ask, “Want to hold hands?” At which point your partner looks at you and puts up her, or his, nose and looks away again, disregarding your invitation. Now I ask you… Is there a problem with this relationship?
Of course, the answer is YES. Partners should want to connect. Partners should not disregard invitations to connect. A partner who disregards invitations to connect is no partner at all. A prisoner or slave might purposely disregard an invitation. A nervous or braced participant may disregard an invitation, but a true partner should want to be aware of and connected to their counterpart. A horse owner, trainer, or rider who doesn’t invite the horse to connect from time to time, is… dare I say, ignorant to the value of connection. And, by the way… placing your own hands on your horse without permission from the horse can be a violation of trust as well. Have you ever seen someone disregard the horse and just throw a saddle on his back? That’s ugly horsemanship.
When you reach out your hand and your horse ignores you or doesn’t trust you enough to connect with you, there is a big problem. It means you’re allowing your horse to disregard your invitations to be a partner. And you have to ask yourself, “Is he disregarding me because he’s afraid of me, bored with me, imprisoned by me and resentful, distracted by something else and therefore placing higher importance on something outside the relationship?” Either way, it’s a problem.
When you see the problem, that means, it’s your job, as the leader, to fix it. Prove to your horse that you are a worthy leader. A likable person to be around. A trustworthy person. If he ignores you, help him find value in NOT ignoring you. Be kind, remember it’s an invitation, not a demand. Be patient, but be determined. Don’t walk away at the end of the day without checking in with your horse with a simple horseman’s handshake.
At the end of the day, when you take the halter off, does your horse connect or just walk away? He should connect. If he or she does walk away. Don’t walk away yourself. Catch him again and ask for a handshake, just like the one you see in the picture. Reward him for touching you and connecting with you on a deeper level. He’s not just a riding vehicle for your pleasure. He’s a thinking, feeling being. If he ignores you, don’t assume he’s being obnoxious. Always assume it’s because you either don’t ask enough, or you haven’t gained his trust. In my experience, it’s worth waiting for the handshake before moving on to new subjects because when a horse touches you, it’s like he says, “I like you, I trust you, I want to be with you, I understand we’re together.” When a horse ignores you, it’s like he’s saying, “I don’t care, I don’t trust, I’m not interested, You’re not important.” All of which are signs of a deteriorating relationship.
I have my critics who say my anthropomorphism gets the better of me. They say horses are just horses. They don’t have feelings like we have feelings. But those critics would be dead wrong. Horses do feel the same emotions we feel. If you ever took the time to watch them interact, not just in a moment but throughout the course of days and weeks, you would see them express the full range of human emotion from sadness to fear, to happiness, and anger. You would see rejection, resentment, longing, hoping, anxiety, and depression. You would see excitement, anticipation, and love. You would even see greed. Their emotions are there to be seen. I can even teach you how to recognize breathing patterns and muscle tension and through observation, you would see how they mirror our own emotional patterns. It’s true that horses don’t have the well developed cognitive ability to plan for a better future, they’re much like a human child that way, but they do have the raw emotions. And raw emotion is exactly what we want to work with as horse owners, trainers, and riders.
By asking for a simple handshake, it means we’re on the same page. It means we trust and acknowledge each other.
Here’s my recommendation: Ask for a handshake before you put the halter on, after you take it off, and several times during your training sessions. Especially between big transitions or after something challenging. It’s a nice way of asking if everything is alright in the horse’s world. AND… It can help bring a horse that isn’t alright, back to the real world, to a trusting world. It’s a useful tool to build your relationships. Maybe one of the most useful tools available to us as leaders.
I want to hear from you! Comment below and please share the article with your horse loving friends. By the way. This handshake or connection principle is much the same in our human relationships. How often do you check in with your partners?